Secure Code Warrior

The Great Global Patch: VxWorks Flaws Set to Compromise Millions of Devices

While VxWorks isn't a household name to the average consumer, this software product benefits many people just like you and me, each and every day. And now, we are faced with the possibility that hundreds of millions of VxWorks-powered devices are now compromised.

While VxWorks isn't exactly a household name to the average consumer, this software product inevitably benefits many people just like you and me, each and every day. As the world's most popular real-time operating system (RTOS), it is the workhorse we (by proxy) rely on to power enterprise networking and firewalls, aerospace interfaces, industrial equipment, and even some medical devices, just to name a few applications of its widespread use.

And now, we are faced with the possibility that hundreds of millions, if not billions, of these devices, are now compromised with at least eleven vulnerabilities. Wind River's Chief Security Architect, Arlen Baker, has disputed the number in an article from SearchSecurity, revealing the exact scope is unconfirmed and not believed to be that high. Despite this, we already know that data breaches and attacks happen all the time, but this is next-level: the confirmed flaws are relatively easy to exploit, with many opening the door and allowing attackers to control devices remotely through the transmission of network packets.

Wind River has, of course, released a series of fixes and patches to affected customers and associates. The problem lies in the sheer number of devices requiring the patch update - much like Thanos ending the world with a click of his fingers, it is inevitable that many devices will be left unpatched, and therefore vulnerable, for a long time.

Security firm Armis was behind this mammoth discovery, dubbing their findings URGENT/11. They've identified it as serious, undoubtedly due to the ease of attack from multiple vectors and the potential for extensive infection. The creation and deployment of a worm in software powering everything from MRI scanners and VOIP products, to train networks and traffic lights, is entirely possible.

Is it time to panic?

As someone who has made security awareness a critical mission in their life, I see a lot of day-to-day potential security issues. I'd spend most of my day in hysterics if I allowed myself to panic too much (after all, I'd rather get to the business of trying to educate and help fix the bugs!). However, the scope of the URGENT/11 finding is pretty scary. Of the eleven vulnerabilities found, six are considered critical. As The Hacker News identifies, these flaws have existed in devices running VxWorks since version 6.5 (excluding versions designed for certification, including VxWorks 653 and VxWorks Cert Edition), meaning some vital technology has been under threat of device takeover attacks for over a decade now. Not every device is vulnerable to all eleven flaws (and some can only be exploited if the attacker is on the same LAB subnet), but even a mediocre hacker only needs one little window of opportunity.

It is important to note that Wind River has acted quickly and provided detailed advice on mitigating the issues, as has Armis. And, the VxWorks RTOS is so widely adopted because it is so reliable and scores highly for software safety regulations - typically, bug bounty hunters don't bother with it too much. However, security firms and Wind River can only do so much in solving the problem... it is in the hands of the end-user to download patches, heed security advice and fortify their own devices, and that's where it gets tricky.

Perhaps we don't need to panic just yet, but it could take a village to wrestle this beast into submission.

The URGENT/11 vulnerabilities explained

At this point, any device connected to the compromised VxWorks TCP/IP IPnet stack since version 6.5 could be affected by at least one of the URGENT/11. (For a full list of CVEs from Wind River, see here).

Mostly, these flaws allow for remote code execution (RCE) and Denial of Service attacks, with a couple leading to information exposure and business logic issues as well. The remote code execution is a particularly sensitive issue in this instance, as an attacker can assume control of a device with no end-user interaction. Nobody has to accidentally click on anything suspicious, download anything or input their details... it renders VxWorks devices highly "wormable" and the attack to take on an automated life of its own. Remember EternalBlue's WannaCry worm? URGENT/11 has a similar, yet more devastating potential to give us a global headache.

What can we do about it?

Well, at the time of writing, the consequences of URGENT/11 remain unknown. Media has made the industry aware, and Wind River is clearly providing support to those affected. The coming months will reveal if any attackers choose to exploit these known flaws in any meaningful way, but in the meantime, the obvious solution is to heed the plethora of advice and patch any relevant devices in your orbit.

Long-term, it remains the same mission: everyone needs to do better when it comes to software security. The URGENT/11 CVEs are generally, worryingly simple back doors to walk through, and the fact they remained undiscovered for many years is a testament to overall industry concern and awareness being quite low.

Every developer has the chance to do their part, and they need the support to learn how to secure code from the beginning of production. The influential teams around them, everyone from AppSec to the C-suite, can ensure a positive security culture thrives at every software touchpoint within the business.

Want to test your own security awareness? Our gamified platform can give you real code challenges similar to some of those discovered in URGENT/11. Check them out and see how you fare: