New code injection trick named — PROPagate code injection technique

ROPagate code injection technique

@Hexacorn discussed in late 2017 a new code injection technique, which involves hooking existing callback functions in a Window subclass structure. Exploiting this legitimate functionality of windows for malicious purposes will not likely surprise some developers already familiar with hooking existing callback functions in a process. However, it’s still a relatively new technique for many to misuse for code injection, and we’ll likely see it used more and more in future.

For all the details on research conducted by Adam, I suggest the following posts.


PROPagate — a new code injection trick


Executing code inside a different process space is typically achieved via an injected DLL /system-wide hooks, sideloading, etc./, executing remote threads, APCs, intercepting and modifying the thread context of remote threads, etc. Then there is Gapz/Powerloader code injection (a.k.a. EWMI), AtomBombing, and mapping/unmapping trick with the NtClose patch.

There is one more.

Remember Shatter attacks?

I believe that Gapz trick was created as an attempt to bypass what has been mitigated by the User Interface Privilege Isolation (UIPI). Interestingly, there is actually more than one way to do it, and the trick that I am going to describe below is a much cleaner variant of it – it doesn’t even need any ROP.

There is a class of windows always present on the system that use window subclassing. Window subclassing is just a fancy name for hooking, because during the subclassing process an old window procedure is preserved while the new one is being assigned to the window. The new one then intercepts all the window messages, does whatever it has to do, and then calls the old one.

The ‘native’ window subclassing is done using the SetWindowSubclass API.

When a window is subclassed it gains a new property stored inside its internal structures and with a name depending on a version of comctl32.dll:

  • UxSubclassInfo – version 6.x
  • CC32SubclassInfo – version 5.x

Looking at properties of Windows Explorer child windows we can see that plenty of them use this particular subclassing property:

So do other Windows applications – pretty much any program that is leveraging standard windows controls can be of interest, including say… OllyDbg:When the SetWindowSubclass is called it is using SetProp API to set one of these two properties (UxSubclassInfo, or CC32SubclassInfo) to point to an area in memory where the old function pointer will be stored. When the new message routine is called, it will then call GetProp API for the given window and once its old procedure address is retrieved – it is executed.

Coming back for a moment to the aforementioned shattering attacks. We can’t use SetWindowLong or SetClassLong (or their newer SetWindowLongPtr and SetClassLongPtr alternatives) any longer to set the address of the window procedure for windows belonging to the other processes (via GWL_WNDPROC or GCL_WNDPROC). However, the SetProp function is not affected by this limitation. When it comes to the process at the lower of equal  integrity level the Microsoft documentation says:

SetProp is subject to the restrictions of User Interface Privilege Isolation (UIPI). A process can only call this function on a window belonging to a process of lesser or equal integrity level. When UIPI blocks property changes, GetLastError will return 5.

So, if we talk about other user applications in the same session – there is plenty of them and we can modify their windows’ properties freely!

I guess you know by now where it is heading:

  • We can freely modify the property of a window belonging to another process.
  • We also know some properties point to memory region that store an old address of a procedure of the subclassed window.
  • The routine that address points to will be at some stage executed.

All we need is a structure that UxSubclassInfo/CC32SubclassInfo properties are using. This is actually pretty easy – you can check what SetProp is doing for these subclassed windows. You will quickly realize that the old procedure is stored at the offset 0x14 from the beginning of that memory region (the structure is a bit more complex as it may contain a number of callbacks, but the first one is at 0x14).

So, injecting a small buffer into a target process, ensuring the expected structure is properly filled-in and and pointing to the payload and then changing the respective window property will ensure the payload is executed next time the message is received by the window (this can be enforced by sending a message).

When I discovered it, I wrote a quick & dirty POC that enumerates all windows with the aforementioned properties (there is lots of them so pretty much every GUI application is affected). For each subclassing property found I changed it to a random value – as a result Windows Explorer, Total Commander, Process Hacker, Ollydbg, and a few more applications crashed immediately. That was a good sign. I then created a very small shellcode that shows a Message Box on a desktop window and tested it on Windows 10 (under normal account).

The moment when the shellcode is being called in a first random target (here, Total Commander):

Of course, it also works in Windows Explorer, this is how it looks like when executed:

If we check with Process Explorer, we can see the window belongs to explorer.exe:Testing it on a good ol’ Windows XP and injecting the shellcode into Windows Explorer shows a nice cascade of executed shellcodes for each window exposing the subclassing property (in terms of special effects XP always beats Windows 10 – the latter freezes after first messagebox shows up; and in case you are wondering why it freezes – it’s because my shellcode is simple and once executed it is basically damaging the running application):

For obvious reasons I won’t be attaching the source code.

If you are an EDR or sandboxing vendor you should consider monitoring SetProp/SetWindowSubclass APIs as well as their NT alternatives and system services.


This is not the end. There are many other generic properties that can be potentially leveraged in a very same way:

  • The Microsoft Foundation Class Library (MFC) uses ‘AfxOldWndProc423’ property to subclass its windows
  • ControlOfs[HEX] – properties associated with Delphi applications reference in-memory Visual Component Library (VCL) objects
  • New windows framework e.g. Microsoft.Windows.WindowFactory.* needs more research
  • A number of custom controls use ‘subclass’ and I bet they can be modified in a similar way
  • Some properties expose COM/OLE Interfaces e.g. OleDropTargetInterface

If you are curious if it works between 32- and 64- bit processes



PROPagate follow-up — Some more Shattering Attack Potentials


We now know that one can use SetProp to execute a shellcode inside 32- and 64-bit applications as long as they use windows that are subclassed.


A new trick that allows to execute code in other processes without using remote threads, APC, etc. While describing it, I focused only on 32-bit architecture. One may wonder whether there is a way for it to work on 64-bit systems and even more interestingly – whether there is a possibility to inject/run code between 32- and 64- bit processes.

To test it, I checked my 32-bit code injector on a 64-bit box. It crashed my 64-bit Explorer.exe process in no time.

So, yes, we can change properties of windows belonging to 64-bit processes from a 32-bit process! And yes, you can swap the subclass properties I described previously to point to your injected buffer and eventually make the payload execute! The reason it works is that original property addresses are stored in lower 32-bit of the 64-bit offset. Replacing that lower 32-bit part of the offset to point to a newly allocated buffer (also in lower area of the memory, thanks to VirtualAllocEx) is enough to trigger the code execution.

See below the GetProp inside explorer.exe retrieving the subclassed property:

So, there you have it… 32 process injecting into 64-bit process and executing the payload w/o heaven’s gate or using other undocumented tricks.

The below is the moment the 64-bit shellcode is executed:

p.s. the structure of the subclassed callbacks is slightly different inside 64-bit processes due to 64-bit offsets, but again, I don’t want to make it any easier to bad guys than it should be 🙂


There are more possibilities.

While SetWindowLong/SetWindowLongPtr/SetClassLong/SetClassLongPtr are all protected and can be only used on windows belonging to the same process, the very old APIs SetWindowWord and SetClassWord … are not.

As usual, I tested it enumerating windows running a 32-bit application on a 64-bit system and setting properties to unpredictable values and observing what happens.

It turns out that again, pretty much all my Window applications crashed on Window 10. These 16 bits seem to be quite powerful…

I am not a vulnerability researcher, but I bet we can still do something interesting; I will continue poking around. The easy wins I see are similar to SetProp e.g. GWL_USERDATA may point to some virtual tables/pointers; the DWL_USER – as per Microsoft – ‘sets new extra information that is private to the application, such as handles or pointers’. Assuming that we may only modify 16 bit of e.g. some offset, redirecting it to some code cave or overwriting unused part of memory within close proximity of the original offset could allow for a successful exploit.



PROPagate follow-up #2 — Some more Shattering Attack Potentials


A few months back I discovered a new code injection technique that I named PROPagate. Using a subclass of a well-known shatter attack one can modify the callback function pointers inside other processes by using Windows APIs like SetProp, and potentially others. After pointing out a few ideas I put it on a back burner for a while, but I knew I will want to explore some more possibilities in the future.

In particular, I was curious what are the chances one could force the remote process to indirectly call the ‘prohibited’ functions like SetWindowLong, SetClassLong (or their newer alternatives SetWindowLongPtr and SetClassLongPtr), but with the arguments that we control (i.e. from a remote process). These API are ‘prohibited’ because they can only be called in a context of a process that owns them, so we can’t directly call them and target windows that belong to other processes.

It turns out his may be possible!

If there is one common way of using the SetWindowLong API it is to set up pointers, and/or filling-in window-specific memory areas (allocated per window instance) with some values that are initialized immediately after the window is created. The same thing happens when the window is destroyed – during the latter these memory areas are usually freed and set to zeroes, and callbacks are discarded.

These two actions are associated with two very specific window messages:


In fact, many ‘native’ windows kick off their existence by setting some callbacks in their message handling routines during processing of these two messages.

With that in mind, I started looking at existing processes and got some interesting findings. Here is a snippet of a routine I found inside Windows Explorer that could be potentially abused by a remote process:

Or, it’s disassembly equivalent (in response to WM_NCCREATE message):

So… since we can still freely send messages between windows it would seem that there is a lot of things that can be done here. One could send a specially crafted WM_NCCREATE message to a window that owns this routine and achieve a controlled code execution inside another process (the lParam needs to pass the checks and include pointer to memory area that includes a callback that will be executed afterwards – this callback could point to malicious code). I may be of course wrong, but need to explore it further when I find more time.

The other interesting thing I noticed is that some existing windows procedures are already written in a way that makes it harder to exploit this issue. They check if the window-specific data was set, and only if it was NOT they allow to call the SetWindowLong function. That is, they avoid executing the same initialization code twice.



No Proof of Concept?

Let’s be honest with ourselves, most of the “good” code injection techniques used by malware authors today are the brainchild of some expert(s) in the field of computer security. Take for example Process HollowingAtomBombing and the more recent Doppelganging technique.

On the likelihood of code being misused, Adam didn’t publish a PoC, but there’s still sufficient information available in the blog posts for a competent person to write their own proof of concept, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s used in the wild anyway.

Update: After publishing this, I discovered it’s currently being used by SmokeLoader but using a different approach to mine by using SetPropA/SetPropW to update the subclass procedure.

I’m not providing source code here either, but given the level of detail, it should be relatively easy to implement your own.

Steps to PROPagate.

  1. Enumerate all window handles and the properties associated with them using EnumProps/EnumPropsEx
  2. Use GetProp API to retrieve information about hWnd parameter passed to WinPropProc callback function. Use “UxSubclassInfo” or “CC32SubclassInfo” as the 2nd parameter.
    The first class is for systems since XP while the latter is for Windows 2000.
  3. Open the process that owns the subclass and read the structures that contain callback functions. Use GetWindowThreadProcessId to obtain process id for window handle.
  4. Write a payload into the remote process using the usual methods.
  5. Replace the subclass procedure with pointer to payload in memory.
  6. Write the structures back to remote process.

At this point, we can wait for user to trigger payload when they activate the process window, or trigger the payload via another API.

Subclass callback and structures

Microsoft was kind enough to document the subclass procedure, but unfortunately not the internal structures used to store information about a subclass, so you won’t find them on MSDN or even in sources for WINE or ReactOS.

   HWND      hWnd,
   UINT      uMsg,
   WPARAM    wParam,
   LPARAM    lParam,
   UINT_PTR  uIdSubclass,
   DWORD_PTR dwRefData);

Some clever searching by yours truly eventually led to the Windows 2000 source code, which was leaked online in 2004. Behold, the elusive undocumented structures found in subclass.c!

typedef struct _SUBCLASS_CALL {
  SUBCLASSPROC pfnSubclass;    // subclass procedure
  WPARAM       uIdSubclass;    // unique subclass identifier
  DWORD_PTR    dwRefData;      // optional ref data
typedef struct _SUBCLASS_FRAME {
  UINT    uCallIndex;   // index of next callback to call
  UINT    uDeepestCall; // deepest uCallIndex on stack
// previous subclass frame pointer
  struct _SUBCLASS_FRAME  *pFramePrev;
// header associated with this frame 
  struct _SUBCLASS_HEADER *pHeader;     
typedef struct _SUBCLASS_HEADER {
  UINT           uRefs;        // subclass count
  UINT           uAlloc;       // allocated subclass call nodes
  UINT           uCleanup;     // index of call node to clean up
  DWORD          dwThreadId; // thread id of window we are hooking
  SUBCLASS_FRAME *pFrameCur;   // current subclass frame pointer
  SUBCLASS_CALL  CallArray[1]; // base of packed call node array

At least now there’s no need to reverse engineer how Windows stores information about subclasses. Phew!

Finding suitable targets

I wrongly assumed many processes would be vulnerable to this injection method. I can confirm ollydbg and Process Hacker to be vulnerable as Adam mentions in his post, but I did not test other applications. As it happens, only explorer.exe seemed to be a viable target on a plain Windows 7 installation. Rather than search for an arbitrary process that contained a subclass callback, I decided for the purpose of demonstrations just to stick with explorer.exe.

The code first enumerates all properties for windows created by explorer.exe. An attempt is made to request information about “UxSubclassInfo”, which if successful will return an address pointer to subclass information in the remote process.

Figure 1. shows a list of subclasses associated with process id. I’m as perplexed as you might be about the fact some of these subclass addresses appear multiple times. I didn’t investigate.

Figure 1: Address of subclass information and process id for explorer.exe

Attaching a debugger to process id 5924 or explorer.exe and dumping the first address provides the SUBCLASS_HEADER contents. Figure 2 shows the data for header, with 2 hi-lighted values representing the callback functions.

Figure 2 : Dump of SUBCLASS_HEADER for address 0x003A1BE8

Disassembly of the pointer 0x7448F439 shows in Figure 3 the code is CallOriginalWndProc located in comctl32.dll

Figure 3 : Disassembly of callback function for SUBCLASS_CALL

Okay! So now we just read at least one subclass structure from a target process, change the callback address, and wait for explorer.exe to execute the payload. On the other hand, we could write our own SUBCLASS_HEADER to remote memory and update the existing subclass window with SetProp API.

To overwrite SUBCLASS_HEADER, all that’s required is to replace the pointer pfnSubclass with address of payload, and write the structure back to memory. Triggering it may be required unless someone is already using the operating system.

One would be wise to restore the original callback pointer in subclass header after payload has executed, in order to avoid explorer.exe crashing.

Update: Smoke Loader probably initializes its own SUBCLASS_HEADER before writing to remote process. I think either way is probably fine. The method I used didn’t call SetProp API.


The original author may have additional information on how to detect this injection method, however I think the following strings and API are likely sufficient to merit closer investigation of code.


  • UxSubclassInfo
  • CC32SubclassInfo
  • explorer.exe


  • OpenProcess
  • ReadProcessMemory
  • WriteProcessMemory
  • GetPropA/GetPropW
  • SetPropA/SetPropW


This injection method is trivial to implement, and because it affects many versions of Windows, I was surprised nobody published code to show how it worked. Nevertheless, it really is just a case of hooking callback functions in a remote process, and there are many more just like subclass. More to follow!

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