MS12-027: Enhanced protections regarding ActiveX controls in Microsoft Office documents

Security Update MS12-027 addresses a code execution vulnerability in MSCOMCTL.OCX, the Windows Common Controls ActiveX control. By default, this component is included with all 32-bit versions of Microsoft Office. We’d like to cover the following topics in this blog post:

  • Limited, targeted attacks leveraging this vulnerability
  • Mitigations in recent versions of Office to reduce the risk
  • Extra protections to block all or specific ActiveX controls in Office documents
  • The new Office 2010 kill bit feature

Limited, targeted attacks leveraging this vulnerability

We list MS12-027 as our highest priority security update to deploy this month because we are aware of very limited, targeted attacks taking advantage of CVE-2012-0158 vulnerability using specially crafted Office documents as exploit vector. The specific samples that we have seen have been RTF files attempting to exploit the vulnerability when opened in either WordPad or Microsoft Word. People who install the MS012-027 patch are protected against CVE-2012-0158 so we recommend applying the update right away. Microsoft Word includes various on-by-default mitigations and optional security hardening features that you might consider enabling. Read on to find out more.

Microsoft Word 2010 Protected View as a mitigation

By default, Microsoft Office 2010 opens documents originating from the Internet and from other potentially unsafe locations in a mode called Protected View.  This mode does not allow ActiveX controls to load.  If a victim running Office 2010 were to receive an exploit for CVE-2012-0158 over the internet or via email, the victim would need to click the Protected View’s “Enable Editing” button before the malicious code would be allowed to run.  The screenshots below  show two examples of Protected View.


Disabling ActiveX controls in Microsoft Office

ActiveX-based attacks with documents are not new. In this blog we have covered the Behavior of embedded ActiveX controls in Microsoft Office documents ( three years ago, giving good advice and best practices on how to restrict (or disable) the initialization of embedded controls.

Without going into the details of the previous blog, we’ll just mention once more that Office 2007 and 2010 editions have a dedicated panel for ActiveX controls in Trust Center Settings which allows, in its safest configuration, to completely disable all controls embedded in documents or to prompt a warning dialog when a document tries to use certain type of controls as showed by the following picture.

Disabling specific embedded ActiveX controls with Office kill bit

The ActiveX kill bit feature has proven an effective measure in reducing the attack surface of Internet Explorer during the past years and so Microsoft Office has introduced this feature in a similar way. Office 2007 honors the Internet Explorer kill bit list. Office 2010 takes this a step further by blocking ActiveX controls from the Internet Explorer list and also allowing users to independently control through the registry which COM objects will not be able to run (Office 2010 COM kill bit). If the kill bit is set for the same ActiveX control in both locations, Office and Internet Explorer, and there is a conflict between the two settings, the Office COM kill bit has precedence. The location for setting the Office 2010 COM kill bit in the registry is HKLM/Software/Microsoft/Office/Common/COM Compatibility/{CLSID}, where CLSID is the class identifier of the COM object. To enable the Office COM kill bit for a specific control, first you need to add a registry key with the CLSID of the ActiveX control to block (NOTE: don’t forget the { } parenthesis!) and then add a value of 0x00000400 to the Compatibility Flags REG_DWORD.

Documents containing embedded controls will still be opened by Microsoft Office (some content of the document will be available and visible), however any blocked ActiveX control will not be loaded and will show up in the Office application as showed in the following picture:

Additional details about Office 2010 kill bit can be found at the following link: “Plan security settings for ActiveX controls for Office 2010”


The first option described in this blog (Trust Center settings) provides a general and very effective measure against attacks similar to the one observed for CVE-2012-0158, however this configuration needs to be carefully evaluated before wide adoption on corporate networks because it may block the execution of Office documents and applications with embedded ActiveX controls (e.g. an Excel spreadsheet using listbox control for selection). Organizations that have a highly restrictive security environment and concerns about ActiveX controls may consider deploying this setting via group policy or registry.

On the other hand, the second option described today (Microsoft Office 2010 COM kill bit) offers to users and organizations a more selective way to control which embedded ActiveX controls can be trusted and loaded from documents. An organization seeking to block a limited set of untrusted controls without having legacy problems with existing applications may find more useful deploying selective kill-bit configurations instead of using the general “disable all” option discussed earlier.

– Elia Florio, MSRC Engineering