A deep dive into an NSO zero-click iMessage exploit: Remote Code Execution

Screenshots of Phishing SMSs reported to Citizen Lab in 2016

A deep dive into an NSO zero-click iMessage exploit: Remote Code Execution
Project Zero Team at Google, December 15, 2021
By Ian Beer & Samuel Groß

“Based on our research and findings, we assess this to be one of the most technically sophisticated exploits we’ve ever seen, further demonstrating that the capabilities NSO provides rival those previously thought to be accessible to only a handful of nation states.”

 

Earlier this year, Citizen Lab managed to capture an NSO iMessage-based zero-click exploit being used to target a Saudi activist. In this two-part blog post series we will describe for the first time how an in-the-wild zero-click iMessage exploit works.

 

Based on our research and findings, we assess this to be one of the most technically sophisticated exploits we’ve ever seen, further demonstrating that the capabilities NSO provides rival those previously thought to be accessible to only a handful of nation states.

 

The vulnerability discussed in this blog post was fixed on September 13, 2021 in iOS 14.8 as CVE-2021-30860.

NSO

NSO Group is one of the highest-profile providers of “access-as-a-service”, selling packaged hacking solutions which enable nation state actors without a home-grown offensive cyber capability to “pay-to-play”, vastly expanding the number of nations with such cyber capabilities.

 

For years, groups like Citizen Lab and Amnesty International have been tracking the use of NSO’s mobile spyware package “Pegasus”. Despite NSO’s claims that they “[evaluate] the potential for adverse human rights impacts arising from the misuse of NSO products” Pegasus has been linked to the hacking of the New York Times journalist Ben Hubbard by the Saudi regime, hacking of human rights defenders in Morocco and Bahrain, the targeting of Amnesty International staff and dozens of other cases.

 

Last month the United States added NSO to the “Entity List”, severely restricting the ability of US companies to do business with NSO and stating in a press release that “[NSO’s tools] enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent.”

 

Citizen Lab was able to recover these Pegasus exploits from an iPhone and therefore this analysis covers NSO’s capabilities against iPhone. We are aware that NSO sells similar zero-click capabilities which target Android devices; Project Zero does not have samples of these exploits but if you do, please reach out.

From One to Zero

In previous cases such as the Million Dollar Dissident from 2016, targets were sent links in SMS messages.

 

The target was only hacked when they clicked the link, a technique known as a one-click exploit. Recently, however, it has been documented that NSO is offering their clients zero-click exploitation technology, where even very technically savvy targets who might not click a phishing link are completely unaware they are being targeted. In the zero-click scenario no user interaction is required. Meaning, the attacker doesn’t need to send phishing messages; the exploit just works silently in the background. Short of not using a device, there is no way to prevent exploitation by a zero-click exploit; it’s a weapon against which there is no defense.

One weird trick

The initial entry point for Pegasus on iPhone is iMessage. This means that a victim can be targeted just using their phone number or AppleID username.

 

iMessage has native support for GIF images, the typically small and low quality animated images popular in meme culture. You can send and receive GIFs in iMessage chats and they show up in the chat window. Apple wanted to make those GIFs loop endlessly rather than only play once, so very early on in the iMessage parsing and processing pipeline (after a message has been received but well before the message is shown), iMessage calls the following method in the IMTranscoderAgent process (outside the “BlastDoor” sandbox), passing any image file received with the extension .gif:

 

[IMGIFUtils copyGifFromPath:toDestinationPath:error]

 

Looking at the selector name, the intention here was probably to just copy the GIF file before editing the loop count field, but the semantics of this method are different. Under the hood it uses the CoreGraphics APIs to render the source image to a new GIF file at the destination path. And just because the source filename has to end in .gif, that doesn’t mean it’s really a GIF file.

 

The ImageIO library, as detailed in a previous Project Zero blogpost, is used to guess the correct format of the source file and parse it, completely ignoring the file extension. Using this “fake gif” trick, over 20 image codecs are suddenly part of the iMessage zero-click attack surface, including some very obscure and complex formats, remotely exposing probably hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

 

Note: Apple inform us that they have restricted the available ImageIO formats reachable from IMTranscoderAgent starting in iOS 14.8.1 (26 October 2021), and completely removed the GIF code path from IMTranscoderAgent starting in iOS 15.0 (20 September 2021), with GIF decoding taking place entirely within BlastDoor.

A PDF in your GIF

NSO uses the “fake gif” trick to target a vulnerability in the CoreGraphics PDF parser.

 

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About the Author:

Formed in 2014, Project Zero is a team of security researchers at Google who study zero-day vulnerabilities in the hardware and software systems that are depended upon by users around the world. Our mission is to make the discovery and exploitation of security vulnerabilities more difficult, and to significantly improve the safety and security of the Internet for everyone. We perform vulnerability research on popular software like mobile operating systems, web browsers, and open source libraries. We use the results from this research to patch serious security vulnerabilities, to improve our understanding of how exploit-based attacks work, and to drive long-term structural improvements to security.

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