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Re: On classifying attacks
From: James Longstreet <jlongs2 () uic edu>
Date: Mon, 18 Jul 2005 10:49:00 -0500 (CDT)

On Sat, 16 Jul 2005, Derek Martin wrote:

It seems to me your statement can't be correct, because this is ALWAYS
the case.  A local exploit requires that a local user run an
executable.  A remote exploit requires that a local user run an
executable, even if that is accomplished merely by booting the system.
All exploits require running code, and code doesn't magically start
itself...  Running code is required, because it is the very running
code which is being exploited.

Yes, but a trojan requires a user to run a program, not open a file.
JPEGs are an image format, not an executable format.  Opening one should
display the image, not run arbitrary code.

I think this is also not the case.  To exploit essentially means to
use.  These attacks USE the users' trust of e-mail in order to USE a
bug to gain access to USE the system for his own purposes...  That
certainly seems like an exploit to me.

But it's not a bug.  A computer that runs an executable when it is
double-clicked does not have a vulnerability.


All Unix systems are "vulnerable" to loss of data through the following
exploit:  an attacker sends the string "rm -rf /" through email.  If the
system administrator gives this string to his shell running as root, all
data on the system will be lost.

We disagree here.  The vulnerability is neither truly remote nor
local, in the normal senses as we have defined them here.  It is a
different kind of vulnerability altogether.  The vulnerability is one
to automatically triggering trojan horses....  Just as in the case of
the fabled Trojan Horse, there is no vulnerability at all until the
local users make a decision to trust something (data in this case,
rather than a hollowed out horse-shaped monument) from an outside
source.  In this case, the trust is given implicitly rather than
explicitly.  This is no different than if I handed you a disk, told
you to run the program on the disk, and you did so -- resulting in the
destruction of your hard drive.  Would you call this a remote
vulnerability?  Of course not.  But the mechanism is exactly the
same... except that some of the minor details are different.

It's completely different.  If you gave me a program on a disk, I wouldn't
run it, because I know that programs that I run can do whatever they want
on my system.  That's not because of a bug, it's because that's what a
computer does -- run programs.

The only difference is the medium used to deliver the trojan horse is
a network instead of a disk, and it is slightly more automated,
because you are prone to automatically view the data out of habit.  If
I did hand you a disk and tell you to run the program on it, you would
probably be a lot more wary of doing so than you would of reading your
e-mail, wouldn't you?  Especially if you don't know me very well.  But
if you were dumb enough to do so, would you call this a remote
exploit?  What if I gave you a disk that had an Excel spreadsheet on
it, which contained data designed to take over your system using a bug
in excel...  Is this a remote exploit?  I don't think so.  Now I use
the same excel spreadsheet, but I send it to you in e-mail instead of
giving it to you on a disk.  In all cases, I have given the data to
you.  In all cases, there is no exploit at all, until you, the local
user, decides to trust the data, and run broken code against it.  The
only difference is the specific delivery mechanism, and the fact that
the average user implicitly trusts data received in e-mail.  Because
really, what choice do they have?

If you gave me an Excel spreadsheet on disk, I would expect to be able to
open it and see a spreadsheet.  I am allowing you to display a spreadsheet
on my system, not to run arbitrary code.  If there was a bug in Excel, you
would be able to exploit my legitimate trust in Excel to run arbitrary

If you gave me a program on disk and I ran it, I am giving you permission
to run arbitrary code on my system.  Therefore, there is no bug.  The
blame lies solely on me, not on my operating system, computer, or the
program itself.

But this is still not a remote vulnerability.  It is a user trust
vulnerability, as you said yourself.  And it is a vulnerability (or
susceptibility) to trojan horse data.  The fact that the data just
happens to come in via a network is largely irrelevant.  A remote user
can, IN NO WAY, effect an exploit against this kind of vulnerability
merely by his own action.  This exploit can not happen unless you, the
local user, do it for him.  This is the essential reason why it is not
a remote vulnerability.

Yes, but opening an untrusted image file, for example, is a legitimate use
case.  I would assume that almost all of us do so multiple times a day.
Trusting a program whose job is to open JPEG files to do so is not a

Absolutely they should.  But the fact that they DO trust it when it is
not worthy of their trust does not make this a remote vulnerability.

Your logic is flawed, though.  Even if we agree to disagree on whether or
not opening an untrusted data file is a trust issue or not, what makes it
a remote vulnerability is the fact that the attacker does not need
privileges on the system.  Perhaps, you say, you are giving him privileges
by opening his data file.  But you are only giving him privileges to open
that file, not to run arbitrary code.

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