Skype, Slack, other Electron-based apps can be easily backdoored

By 2019-08-07News

Skype, Slack, other Electron-based apps can be easily backdoored originally published on Ars Technica

No need to knock, Electron left the code unlocked.
Enlarge / No need to knock, Electron left the code unlocked.

Getty Images

LAS VEGAS—The Electron development platform is a key part of many applications, thanks to its cross-platform capabilities. Based on JavaScript and Node.js, Electron has been used to create client applications for Internet communications tools (including Skype, WhatsApp, and Slack) and even Microsoft’s Visual Studio Code development tool. But Electron can also pose a significant security risk because of how easily Electron-based applications can be modified without triggering warnings.

At the BSides LV security conference on Tuesday, Pavel Tsakalidis demonstrated a tool he created called BEEMKA, a Python-based tool that allows someone to unpack Electron ASAR archive files and inject new code into Electron’s JavaScript libraries and built-in Chrome browser extensions. The vulnerability is not part of the applications themselves but of the underlying Electron framework—and that vulnerability allows malicious activities to be hidden within processes that appear to be benign. Tsakalidis said that he had contacted Electron about the vulnerability but that he had gotten no response—and the vulnerability remains.

While making these changes required administrator access on Linux and MacOS, it only requires local access on Windows. Those modifications can create new event-based “features” that can access the file system, activate a Web cam, and exfiltrate information from systems using the functionality of trusted applications—including user credentials and sensitive data. In his demonstration, Tsakalidis showed a backdoored version of Microsoft Visual Studio Code that sent the contents of every code tab opened to a remote website.

A demonstration of a BEEMKA-backdoored version of the BItWarden application.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

The problem lies in the fact that Electron ASAR files themselves are not encrypted or signed, allowing them to be modified without changing the signature of the affected applications. A request from developers to be able to encrypt ASAR files was closed by the Electron team without action.

Code inserted into the ASAR can run either within the application’s context or within the context of the Electron framework itself. Application code is “plain old JavaScript,” Tsakalidis explained, capable of calling Electron’s operating-specific modules—including microphone and camera controls, as well as operating system interfaces. Code injected into Electron’s internal Chrome extensions can allow attackers to bypass certificate checks, so that, while code may still force communications over HTTPS, an attacker can use a self-signed certificate on a remote system for exfiltration. And Web communications can be altered or completely blocked—including applications’ updating features, which would prevent new versions from being automatically installed, displacing the backdoored application.

Tsakalidis said that in order to make modifications to Electron apps, local access is needed, so remote attacks to modify Electron apps aren’t (currently) a threat. But attackers could backdoor applications and then redistribute them, and the modified applications would be unlikely to trigger warnings—since their digital signature is not modified.