Microsoft has detected multiple 0-day exploits being used to attack on-premises versions of Microsoft Exchange Server in limited and targeted attacks. In the attacks observed, the threat actor used these vulnerabilities to access on-premises Exchange servers which enabled access to email accounts, and allowed installation of additional malware to facilitate long-term access to victim environments. Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) attributes this campaign with high confidence to HAFNIUM, an APT group assessed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China, based on observed victimology, tactics and procedures.
Who is HAFNIUM?
HAFNIUM primarily targets entities in the United States across a number of industry sectors, including infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher education institutions, defense contractors, policy think tanks, and NGOs.
HAFNIUM has previously compromised victims by exploiting vulnerabilities in internet-facing servers, and has used legitimate open-source frameworks, like Covenant, for command and control. Once they’ve gained access to a victim network, HAFNIUM typically exfiltrates data to file sharing sites like MEGA.
In campaigns unrelated to these vulnerabilities, Microsoft has observed HAFNIUM interacting with victim Office 365 tenants. While they are often unsuccessful in compromising customer accounts, this reconnaissance activity helps the adversary identify more details about their targets’ environments.
HAFNIUM APT group operates primarily from leased virtual private servers (VPS) in the United States.
Microsoft is providing the following details to help our customers understand the techniques used by HAFNIUM to exploit these vulnerabilities and enable more effective defense against any future attacks against unpatched systems.
CVE-2021-26855 is a server-side request forgery (SSRF) vulnerability in Exchange which allowed the attacker to send arbitrary HTTP requests and authenticate as the Exchange server.
CVE-2021-26857 is an insecure deserialization vulnerability in the Unified Messaging service. Insecure deserialization is where untrusted user-controllable data is deserialized by a program. Exploiting this vulnerability gave HAFNIUM the ability to run code as SYSTEM on the Exchange server. This requires administrator permission or another vulnerability to exploit.
CVE-2021-26858 is a post-authentication arbitrary file write vulnerability in Exchange. If HAFNIUM could authenticate with the Exchange server then they could use this vulnerability to write a file to any path on the server. They could authenticate by exploiting the CVE-2021-26855 SSRF vulnerability or by compromising a legitimate admin’s credentials.
CVE-2021-27065 is a post-authentication arbitrary file write vulnerability in Exchange. If HAFNIUM could authenticate with the Exchange server then they could use this vulnerability to write a file to any path on the server. They could authenticate by exploiting the CVE-2021-26855 SSRF vulnerability or by compromising a legitimate admin’s credentials.
After exploiting these vulnerabilities to gain initial access, HAFNIUM operators deployed web shells on the compromised server. Web shells potentially allow attackers to steal data and perform additional malicious actions that lead to further compromise.
Indicators of Compromise(IOC):
Web shell hashes:
Kindly note the vulnerabilities affect Microsoft Exchange Server. Exchange Online is not affected. These vulnerabilities are used as part of an attack chain. The initial attack requires the ability to make an untrusted connection to Exchange server port 443. This can be protected against by restricting untrusted connections, or by setting up a VPN to separate the Exchange server from external access. Using this mitigation will only protect against the initial portion of the attack; other portions of the chain can be triggered if an attacker already has access or can convince an administrator to run a malicious file. We recommend prioritizing installing updates on Exchange Servers that are externally facing. All affected Exchange Servers should ultimately be updated.