Cisco AnyConnect elevation of privileges due to insecure handling of path names


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

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 for registered users, which contains additional details and an up-to-date list of affected product versions.


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 AnyConnect.

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, Securify, Project Zero, SerializingMe). 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 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.

Proof of concept

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