Cisco AnyConnect elevation of privileges due to insecure handling of  
path names  
Yorick Koster, December 2019  
The update functionality of the Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client  
for Windows is affected by a path traversal vulnerability that allows  
local attackers to create/overwrite files on arbitrary locations.  
Successful exploitation of this vulnerability allows the attacker to  
gain SYSTEM privileges.  
See also  
- CVE-2020-3153 [2]  
- cisco-sa-ac-win-path-traverse-qO4HWBsj [3] - Cisco AnyConnect Secure  
Mobility Client for Windows Uncontrolled Search Path Vulnerability  
- SSD Advisory [4] - Cisco AnyConnect Privilege Elevation through Path  
Tested version  
This issue was successfully verified on Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility  
Client for Windows version 4.8.01090.  
This vulnerability was fixed in Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client  
for Windows version 4.8.02042. Cisco customers with active contracts can  
obtain updates through the Software Center at  
Cisco has released bug ID CSCvs46327 [5] for registered users, which  
contains additional details and an up-to-date list of affected product  
Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client contains functionality to  
auto-update itself. Auto-update also works for low-privileged users,  
this is possible because the update is initiated from a service running  
with SYSTEM privileges (Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Agent). This  
service exposes TCP port 62522 on the loopback device to which clients  
can connect and send commands to be handled by this service. One of  
these commands it to launch the vpndownloader application and update  
A path traversal vulnerability exists in the vpndownloader application  
for Windows that allows a local user to create and run files outside of  
the temporary installer folder. Successful exploitation of this  
vulnerability allows a local attacker to gain SYSTEM privileges.  
Vulnerability details  
The AnyConnect auto-update functionality has been affected by a number  
of vulnerabilities in the past that can be abused by local users to gain  
SYSTEM privileges (eg, Kostya Kortchinsky [6], Securify [7], Project  
Zero [8], SerializingMe [9]). Cisco has made a number of changes to  
mitigate these attacks, amongst these changes are:  
- Executables need to have a valid Authenticode signature from Cisco Systems, Inc..  
- (New) versions of vpndownloader.exe are copied to %ProgramData%\Cisco\Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client\Temp\Downloader.  
- Proper NTFS permissions are (now) set on the %ProgramData%\Cisco\Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client\ folder.  
- The vpndownloader.exe executable must have vpndownloader.exe configured as the original filename in its version information.  
- When vpndownloader.exe launches additional installation files, these files also need to have a valid Authenticode signature from Cisco Systems, Inc..  
- Installation files are copied in a separate temporary folder under %ProgramData%\Cisco\Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client\Temp\Installer before they are executed.  
In a nutshell, the auto-update mechanism works by sending a message to  
the AnyConnect Agent to launch vpndownloader.exe and instruct it to  
perform a certain action (as command line argument). This action is  
either moving/copying a profile (XML) file to a profile folder or launch  
a Cisco signed installer file.  
Technically, this doesn't need to be an installer file, any Cisco signed  
executable will do. When vpndownloader.exe is instructed to run an  
installer file, the file is first copied to a temporary folder under  
%ProgramData%\Cisco\Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility  
Client\Temp\Installer. After the file has been copied, the digital  
signature is checked including the signer of the file. If all checks  
out, the file is launched from the temporary folder and the folder is  
deleted after execution has completed.  
Because the executable is copied to a new temporary folder, and the  
folder has proper NTFS permissions it is not possible to perform a  
file/DLL planting attack to run arbitrary code. In addition, the file  
must be signed by Cisco and the signature must be valid, preventing the  
execution of arbitrary executables.  
A path traversal vulnerability exists in the step where the  
(user-supplied) executable is copied into the temporary folder.  
vpndownloader.exe will extract the target file name from the source file  
name. Essentially it does this by searching for the last occurrence of  
the backslash (\) character in the source path, the right part after the  
backslash is treated as the file name and is used as the target file  
name. AnyConnect does not take into account that the Windows API also  
accepts the forward slash (/) as directory separator character. Because  
of this it is possible to cause vpndownloader.exe to create files  
outside its temporary folder.  
Since the signature verification is done after the file is copied, it is  
possible for an attacker to copy any file to any location residing on  
the same volume as %ProgramData% (generally C:\). Copying of the file is  
done with SYSTEM privileges - when vpndownloader.exe is launched through  
the AnyConnect Agent. If the target file exists and SYSTEM has write  
access to this file, it will be overwritten with the attacker-supplied  
file. This alone is enough for a local user to gain elevated privileges.  
Another attack scenario is to hijack a DLL that is loaded by a Cisco  
signed executable. Most Cisco executables are affected by DLL hijacking,  
a common DLL that is used by Cisco applications is the dbghelp.dll file.  
The attack consists of two steps:  
- Create an attacker-controlled dbghelp.dll file outside of the  
temporary folder to prevent removal, traversing one folder up is enough.  
- Launch a Cisco signed executable to is vulnerable to DLL hijacking  
form the same folder, again using the path traversal vulnerability.  
When the Cisco signed executable is launched through the AnyConnect  
Agent, it will also run with SYSTEM privileges. The code in the  
attacker-controlled DLL will also run with these privileges. The  
application itself is opened within Session 0. Windows 10 1803 has  
removed [10] the Interactive Services Detection Service, which makes it  
impossible for users to interact with any GUI displayed in Session 0.  
This of course does nothing to stop an attacker from gaining SYSTEM  
privileges, but it does require an additional step for the attacker to  
launch a GUI application with elevated privileges.  
[7] /en/advisory/SFY20150601/cisco-anyconnect-elevation-of-privileges-via-dll-side-loading.html