More than 1.5 million email servers running Exim vulnerable to critical attacks

Exim vulnerability affecting 1.5 million servers lets attackers attach malicious files

More than 1.5 million email servers are vulnerable to attacks that can deliver executable attachments to user accounts, security researchers said.

The servers run versions of the Exim mail transfer agent that are vulnerable to a critical vulnerability that came to light 10 days ago. Tracked as CVE-2024-39929 and carrying a severity rating of 9.1 out of 10, the vulnerability makes it trivial for threat actors to bypass protections that normally prevent the sending of attachments that install apps or execute code. Such protections are a first line of defense against malicious emails designed to install malware on end-user devices.

A serious security issue

“I can confirm this bug,” Exim project team member Heiko Schlittermann wrote on a bug-tracking site. “It looks like a serious security issue to me.”

Researchers at security firm Censys said Wednesday that of the more than 6.5 million public-facing SMTP email servers appearing in Internet scans, 4.8 million of them (roughly 74 percent) run Exim. More than 1.5 million of the Exim servers, or roughly 31 percent, are running a vulnerable version of the open-source mail app.

While there are no known reports of active exploitation of the vulnerability, it wouldn’t be surprising to see active targeting, given the ease of attacks and the large number of vulnerable servers. In 2020, one of the world’s most formidable hacking groups—the Kremlin-backed Sandworm—exploited a severe Exim vulnerability tracked as CVE-2019-10149, which allowed them to send emails that executed malicious code that ran with unfettered root system rights. The attacks began in August 2019, two months after the vulnerability came to light. They continued through at least May 2020.

CVE-2024-39929 stems from an error in the way Exim parses multiline headers as specified in RFC 2231. Threat actors can exploit it to bypass extension blocking and deliver executable attachments in emails sent to end users. The vulnerability exists in all Exim versions up to and including 4.97.1. A fix is available in the Release Candidate 3 of Exim 4.98.

Given the requirement that end users must click on an attached executable for the attack to work, this Exim vulnerability isn’t as serious as the one that was exploited starting in 2019. That said, social engineering people remains among the most effective attack methods. Admins should assign a high priority to updating to the latest version.

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