Research and Development

Inter Process Communication (IPC) is an ubiquitous part of modern computing. Processes often talk to each other and many software packages contain multiple components which need to exchange data to run properly. Named pipes are one of the many forms of IPC in use today and are extensively used on the Windows platform as a means to exchange data between running processes in a semi-persistent manner.

On Windows, named pipes operate in a server-client model and can make use of the Windows Universal Naming Convention (UNC) for both local and remote connections.

Named pipes on Windows use what is known as the Named Pipe File System (NPFS). The NPFS is a hidden partition which functions just like any other; files are written, read and deleted using the same mechanisms as a standard Windows file system. So named pipes are actually just files on a hard drive which persist until there are no remaining handles to the file, at which point the file is deleted by Windows.

The named pipe directory is located at: \\<machine_address>\pipe\<pipe_name>

There are many easy ways to read the contents of the local NPFS: Powershell, Microsoft SysInternals Process Explorer and Pipelist as well as numerous third party tools.

It’s also very easy to implement in a language such as C#, with a basic read all of the named pipes directory being as simple as:


Exploitation of named pipes

Named pipes were introduced with NT and have been known to be vulnerable to a number of attacks over the years, especially once full support was adopted with Windows 2000. For example, the Service Control Manager (SCM) of Windows was discovered to be vulnerable to race conditions related to Named Pipes in 2000, more recently, a predictable named pipe used by Google Chrome could be exploited to help escape from the browser sandbox.

To date,the most common way to exploit named pipes to gain privileges on a system has been to abuse the impersonation token granted to the named pipe server to act on behalf of a connected client.

If the named pipe server is already running this is not particularly useful as we cannot create the primary server instance which clients will connect to, so it is generally required to preemptively create a named pipe server using the same name as the vulnerable service would normally create. This means that the user needs to know the name of the pipe before the vulnerable service is started and then wait for a client to connect. Ideal targets are services which run at administrator or SYSTEM level privileges, for the obvious reasons.

The problem with impersonation tokens begins when a client is running at a higher permission level than the server it is connecting to. If impersonation is allowed, the server can use the impersonation token to act on the client’s behalf.

The level of impersonation a server can perform depends on the level of consent a client provides. The client specifies a security quality of service (SQOS) when connecting to the server. The level of impersonation provided to the server by the SQOS can be one of the following four flags, which in the case of named pipes are provided as part of the connection process when calling the CreateFile function:

  • SECURITY_ANONYMOUS – no impersonation allowed at all. The server cannot even identify the client
  • SECURITY_IDENTIFICATION – tmpersonation is not allowed, but the server can identify the client
  • SECURITY_IMPERSONATION – the client can be both identified and impersonated, but only locally (default)
  • SECURITY_DELEGATION – the client can be identified and impersonated, both locally and remotely

When granted, impersonation tokens can be converted to primary security tokens with ease by calling the DuplicateTokenEx() function. From here it is just a matter of calling the CreateProcessAsUser() function to spawn a process (let’s say cmd.exe) using the new primary token which has the security context of the client.

Numerous Metasploit modules are available for exploiting named pipe vulnerabilities which have cropped up over the years. For example, the getsystem module in Metasploit makes use of named pipes to escalate to SYSTEM level privileges from Administrator.

Metasploit includes 2 different techniques which use named pipes to ‘get system’. The first one works by starting a named pipe server and then using administrator privileges to schedule a service to run as SYSTEM. This service connects as a named pipe client to the recently created server. The server impersonates the client and uses this to spawn a SYSTEM process for the meterpreter client.

The second technique is similar to the first, but instead a DLL is dropped to the hard drive which is then scheduled to run as SYSTEM, this technique is evidently not as clean as the first technique.

Thanks to Cristian Mikehazi for his prior research in to Metasploit’s getsystem module which made this section easier to write.

Security considerations for Named Pipes / How to make safe pipes

The security of named pipes is largely down to the developer and how they choose to implement the server and client sides of the application.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but below details some of the good practices which should be considered whenever named pipes are to be deployed.

Server side security

The named pipe server is responsible for creating and managing a named pipe and its connected clients. Therefore, the most important element is to ensure that the named pipe server is indeed the correct server.

In this effect, there is an important flag which should be set when attempting to start new named pipe server: FILE_FLAG_FIRST_PIPE_INSTANCE.

By setting this flag it ensures that if the instance the server is attempting to create is not the first instance of the named pipe, it does not create the instance. In other words, it can give an indication as to whether another process has already created a named pipe server with this name and can allow for corrective action. This could be in the form of creating the server with an alternate name or stopping execution entirely.It is also a good idea that any intended clients are also made aware, if possible, that the server instance is not valid or has been changed so that they do not attempt to connect.

Further to this, creation of a named pipe server with a pseudo-randomly generated name can assist in ensuring any attempt by an attacker to preemptively create the server process will be unsuccessful. This is an approach the Google Chrome browser uses to help thwart unintended processes from creating the named pipe servers it uses for communication.

Another important server element is the maximum number of client instances allowed at any one time. If the maximum number of potential clients which will connect is known, a hard figure should be set to ensure that no further clients can connect. The flag which defines the maximum number of concurrent pipe instances is set as an integer value between 1 and 255 at invocation. To allow unlimited connections, the flag is set to PIPE_UNLIMITED_INSTANCES.

Client side security

Whenever a client pipe is under development, it is extremely important to consider carefully the level of privileges the pipe needs to do its job and to run it at the minimum level required.

The primary source of exploits against named pipes is through the  impersonation of client privileges by the named pipe server. The easiest and most direct way to prevent a named pipe client from being impersonated is disallow pipe impersonation when connecting to a server. This can be achieved by setting the SECURITY_IDENTIFICATION flag or the SECURITY_ANONYMOUS flag when calling the CreateFile() function as part of the client connection process.

In cases where impersonation is necessary, there are a number of other ways to ensure that only a legitimate client connects to a server. For example, in a simple application a specific sequence of information could be exchanged between the server and the client (a handshake) before any actual data is exchanged. For more advanced protection, encryption could be used. While not natively supported, public key cryptography (PKI) could be used if implemented correctly. These mechanisms are beyond the scope of this post but are worth bearing in mind.

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