Take action! Multiple Pulse Secure VPN vulnerabilities exploited in the wild

Take action! Multiple Pulse Secure VPN vulnerabilities exploited in the wild

Pulse Secure has alerted customers to the existence of an exploitable chain of attack against its Pulse Connect Secure (PCS) appliances. PCS provides Virtual Private Network (VPN) facilities to businesses, which use them to prevent unauthorized access to their networks and services.

Cybersecurity sleuths Mandiant report that they are tracking “12 malware families associated with the exploitation of Pulse Secure VPN devices” operated by groups using a set of related techniques to bypass both single and multi-factor authentication. Most of the problems discovered by Pulse Secure and Mandiant involve three vulnerabilities that were patched in 2019 and 2020. But there is also a very serious new issue that it says impacts a very limited number of customers.

The old vulnerabilities

Publicly disclosed computer security flaws are listed in the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) database. Its goal is to make it easier to share data across separate vulnerability capabilities (tools, databases, and services). The patched vulnerabilities are listed as:

  • CVE-2019-11510 an unauthenticated remote attacker can send a specially crafted URI to perform an arbitrary file reading vulnerability. We wrote about the apparent reluctance to patch for this vulnerability in 2019.
  • CVE-2020-8243 a vulnerability in the Pulse Connect Secure < 9.1R8.2 admin web interface could allow an authenticated attacker to upload a custom template to perform an arbitrary code execution.
  • CVE-2020-8260 a vulnerability in the Pulse Connect Secure < 9.1R9 admin web interface could allow an authenticated attacker to perform an arbitrary code execution using uncontrolled gzip extraction.

The obvious advice here is to review the Pulse advisories for these vulnerabilities and follow the recommended guidance, which includes changing all passwords in the environments that are impacted.

The new vulnerability

The new vulnerability (CVE-2021-22893) is a Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerability with a CVSS score of 10—the maximum—and a Critical rating. According to the Pulse advisory:

[The vulnerability] includes an authentication by-pass vulnerability that can allow an unauthenticated user to perform remote arbitrary file execution on the Pulse Connect Secure gateway. This vulnerability has a critical CVSS score and poses a significant risk to your deployment.

There is no patch for it yet (it is expected to be patched in early May), so system administrators will need to mitigate for the problem for now, rather than simply fixing it. Please don’t wait for the patch.

Mitigation requires a workaround

According to Pulse Secure, until the patch is available CVE-2021-22893 can be mitigated by importing a workaround file. More details can be found in the company’s Security Advisory 44784. Reportedly, the workaround disables Pulse Collaboration, a feature that allows users to schedule and hold online meetings between both Connect Secure users and non-Connect Secure users. The workaround also disables the Windows File Share Browser that allows users to browse network file shares.


The Pulse Connect Secure vulnerabilities including CVE-2021-22893 have been used to target government, defense and financial organizations around the world, but mainly in the US. According to some articles the threat-actors are linked to China. The identified threat actors were found to be harvesting account credentials. Very likely in order to perform lateral movement within compromised organizations’ environments. They have also observed threat actors deploying modified Pulse Connect Secure files and scripts in order to maintain persistence. These modified scripts on the Pulse Secure system are reported to have allowed the malware to survive software updates and factory resets.

Threat analysis

FireEye’s Mandiant was involved in the research into these vulnerabilities. It has posted an elaborate analysis of the related malware, which they have dubbed SlowPulse. According to Mandiant, the malware and its variants are “applied as modifications to legitimate Pulse Secure files to bypass or log credentials in the authentication flows that exist within the legitimate Pulse Secure shared object libdsplibs.so”. In their blogpost they discuss 4 variants. Interested parties can also find technical details and detections there.

Networking devices

State sponsored cyber-attacks are often more about espionage than about monetary gain with the exception of sabotage against an enemy state. A big part of the espionage is getting hold of login credentials of those that have access to interesting secret information. Breaking into network devices in a way that can be used to extract login credential is an important strategy in this secret conflict. Keep in mind that attribution is always hard and tricky. You may end up reaching the conclusion they wanted you to reach. Given the targets and the methodology however, it makes sense in this case to look first at state sponsored threat actors.

Update May 4th

The Pulse Secure team released a security update to address the issue outlined in Security Advisory SA44784 (CVE-2021-22893) impacting the Pulse Connect Secure appliance. It is recommend that customers act urgently to apply the update to ensure they are protected. On that note, Pulse Secure also recommends that customers use the Pulse Security Integrity Checker Tool, a tool for customers to identify malicious activity on their systems, and that they continue to apply and follow recommended guidance for all available security patches.


Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.