how High Sierra updater leaves behind a security vulnerability
Some time shortly after the release of High Sierra public betas last year, I started noticing a lot of user reports on Apple Support Communities that included something odd: an Apple Launch Daemon called
com.apple.installer.cleanupinstaller.plist appeared, but oddly its program argument, a binary located at
/macOS Install Data/Locked Files/cleanup_installer was missing.
Being an Apple Launch Daemon, of course, the
cleanupinstaller.plist is owned by root:
-rw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 446 Oct 10 06:52 com.apple.installer.cleanupinstaller.plist
After discussion with a few colleagues about this oddity, I decided to see if I could catch a copy of the missing program argument. After rolling back to an earlier version first, I found that the macOS Install Data folder is created when a user runs the Upgrade installer (along with the Launch Daemon plist). A clean install with the full installer does not appear to create either the properly list or the program argument.
The Locked Files folder indicated in the program argument path is hidden in the Finder, but revealed in Terminal.
Locked Files folder is the
cleanup_installer binary. The binary is 23kb, and the strings section contains the following, giving some indication of its purpose:
Upon a successful upgrade, the
/macOS Install Data/ folder is removed, but the Launch Daemon is not, and therein lies the problem.
Let’s have a look at the plist:
The ‘LaunchOnlyOnce’ and ‘RunAtLoad’ keys tell us the program argument will be run just once on every reboot. It’ll execute whatever is at the program argument path with root privileges. With the executable missing as noted in numerous ASC reports, that leaves open the possibility that a malicious process could install its own executable at the path to aid in persistence or re-infection if the original infection were to be discovered or removed.
To test this hypothesis, I threw a quick script together that included a ‘sudo’ command.
sudo launchctl list > /Users/phil/Desktop/securityhole.txt
The legacy command ‘launchctl list’ produces different results when it’s run with
sudo and when it’s not. Without
sudo, it’ll just list the
launchd jobs running in the user’s domain. With
sudo prepended, however, it’ll instead list the
launchd jobs running in the system domain. This makes it easy for us to tell from the output of our script whether the job ran with privileges or not.
Having created my script, I created the path at
/macOS Install Data/Locked Files/ and saved the script there as ‘cleanup_installer’. It’s worth pointing out that writing to this path requires admin privileges itself, so this issue doesn’t present any kind of ‘zero day’ possibility. The attacker needs to have a foothold in the system already for the danger to be real, so I’ll repeat that the vulnerability here is the possibilty of the attacker hiding a very subtle root persistence mechanism within a legitimate Apple Launch Daemon, making it all the more difficult to detect or remediate if otherwise unknown.
The final step was to
chmod my script to make it executable, and then restart the mac. Sure enough, after reboot and without any other intervention from myself, the script was executed and my Desktop contained a text file with a nice list of all the system
Of course, that’s a trivial script, but here’s the tl;dr:
Anything – including code to reinstall malware – can be executed with root privs from that path every time a High Sierra install containing the Apple
If you’re already beyond your second reboot since updating and your /LaunchDaemons folder contains this property list, the obvious thing to do is to remove it (as High Sierra should have done when it completed the reinstall). It appears to serve no purpose once the program argument has been removed, other than to offer a way for malware to seek persistence.
Secondly, you should be able to safely remove the
/macOS Install Data/ folder if you find that exists. This is usually removed after a successful update, but it can also be left behind if a user cancels out of an update half way through. If you do find this still lurking on your system, you can check that it is what it’s supposed to be by copying and pasting this into Terminal:
strings -a /macOS\ Install\ Data/Locked\ Files/cleanup_installer
and confirm you get the same or similar as listed earlier in this post. On my system here, the file also gives a checksum of
945203103c7f41fc8a1b853f80fc01fb81a8b3a8. You can produce that on the command line with:
shasum -a 1 /macOS\ Install\ Data/Locked\ Files/cleanup_installer
However, it’s entirely possible that Apple either already have or may in the future make changes to that binary since I captured it, so a varying checksum alone should be treated with caution.
Of course, even after having removed these items, there’s nothing to stop an attacker that’s already compromised a machine from recreating both of those (as indeed, there’s nothing to stop a privileged attacker creating anything else on your system!). Thus, it’s always a good idea to keep track of what changes occur on your system on a regular basis. My free/shareware tools DetectX and DetectX Swift are designed to do exactly this. In DetectX, after running a search, the log drawer will tell you if the /macOS Install Data/ exists:
1. This issue was reported to Apple Product Security in August 2017.
how to create a bootable macOS installer
If you are preparing to install macOS on multiple computers, one of the things that can make your life simpler (and the waiting shorter) is a bootable USB installer.
The idea of the installer is that you only need to download the macOS Installer.app from the App Store once. Usually, when you run the installer after downloading it, it’ll delete itself and you have to go through the whole download process again on each machine or disk that you want to install macOS onto. By making a bootable USB drive, you simply plug the drive in to your mac, launch the installer app and tell it where to install the OS. You can repeat this as many times as you like as the installer will remain safe on your USB.
There are various ways to make a bootable USB installer, but they all involve the same process:
1. Download the macOS Installer from the App Store.
2. Run the
createinstallmedia command from the Terminal, an AppleScript or a helper app.
3. Reboot your mac, choosing the newly created USB as the startup disk.
4. Run the installer.app from the USB.
Step 2 is where the fun is. The
createinstallmedia command can be tricky to get right, particularly if you’re not familiar with working on the command line. For those of you that are, follow Apple’s instructions here.
For a little more convenience, I wrapped all that inside an AppleScript which will first ask you for the location of the installer, then ask you to choose the USB target.
For maximum convenience, I also wrote a free little Swift app I’ve dubbed ‘Boot Buddy‘ (cos “Create bootable macOS Installer Drive.app” just didn’t quite have the right ring to it..!) that will present the whole thing in a neat little user interface. Three clicks, more or less, and you’re done.
Boot Buddy doesn’t require an admin password to install, but you do need to provide an admin password to actually create the bootable installer as the
createinstallmedia process has to be run as root. Boot Buddy doesn’t see or use this in any way whatsoever other than to start the
createinstallmedia process or to cancel it (if you choose to do so); authorisation is handed off to macOS to take care of.
Boot Buddy requires macOS 10.11 or higher and can create bootable USBs from Mavericks, Yosemite, El Capitan, Sierra and High Sierra installer apps.
Share and enjoy! 🙂