JMX, the Best Buddy of Every Red Teamer
Have you ever been (as a red teamer) set under high pressure when it comes to a successful outcome delivery from the ongoing operation? If you have been in the business for at least a couple of years already, then it has for sure happened more than once and you will also face it soon in the future. In this blog, I’ll share my professional experience in order to demonstrate how to deal with such stressful situations. It will include an extensive Open Source Intelligence (OSiNT) and compromising corporate network by exploiting very common, but not so publicly known and exploited by threat actors JMX misconfigurations.
You Are Inside Corporate Network, What Next?
Imagine you have achieved a successful foothold in the targeted internal corporate network of your client. Perhaps a careless employee opened an attachment from your phishing campaign, you got lucky connecting unauthorized, remotely controlled device or just in any other possible way. You perform a slow, cautious reconnaissance trying to find any useful information, like valid credentials over-left by IT/DevOps staff or business employees in organization repositories, any technical documentation leading to exploitable vulnerabilities or just by passively analyzing network traffic.
Time is ticking away and the list of your available options becomes shorter with every consumed day. What would you do in such situation? Would you target organization’s Active Directory services following the classical red teaming cookbook and risking detection by the client’s Security Operations Center (SOC) or rather go hunting for Remote Code Executions (RCEs) in the corporate environment and possible lateral movement opportunities? Majority of red teamers would chose the first option, I would however seriously consider hunting.
Java Management Extensions (JMX) – the Absolute Top of the Black-Box Hacking Silver Bullet List
A successful black-box hunting for RCEs requires having a list of promising targets, vulnerabilities commonly present in an average business environment, a list of “the best red teamer’s companions” who never disappoints and always offer helping hand when the latest is needed the most. I have developed my own hit list over the years of professional practice and misconfigured JMX () holds a very strong position in my personal corporate hacking top 5. Why is it so attractive for a potential adversary and what are the main benefits from the offensive viewpoint perspective? I can see a number of them, in particular:
- Java (JVM) is still the dominant technology when it comes to development of applications, APIs, Web Services and other solutions consumed by commercial, public and non-profit organizations. Even considering the fact that other technologies have expanded their overall market share in the last couple of years, Java is still the number one.
- JMX is a very popular technology for managing and monitoring applications, system objects, devices (such as printers) and service-oriented networks. In a big corporate environment with dozens of thousands of virtual machines, the number of listening network interfaces can easily exceed many thousands.
- If only a fraction of active JMX interfaces is misconfigured, a simple statistical calculation leads us to the conclusion, that number of exploitable RCEs can be even higher than a couple of hundreds in the aforementioned environments.
- Misconfigured JMX can be easily and safely exploited during Red Teaming operations. Reliability of the Java technology and JMX exploitation has been proven over the last decade and the White Team participating in the operation will not have any problems in giving green light for exploitation of the identified vulnerable instances.
- Last but not least – from my external consultancy experience I can tell that Java is present and whitelisted on majority of corporate user endpoints. Organizations cannot now nor in any near future remove this software because of many compliance requirements of legacy applications.
Exploitation of JMX enjoys a limited popularity (so far) among red teamers mostly due to the fact that its network interface does not have assigned any standard, fixed TCP port number. Later in this article I will prove that this is not only a half-truth but also demonstrate how to overcome potential difficulties in vulnerable instances discovery. On the other hand, also real active threat actors still mostly focus on the most popular CVEs and corresponding, publicly available exploits. Misconfigurations exposing RCE conditions remain less popular, but it can be a subject to change in the near future, so organizations should prepare themselves for that.
We will focus here on the most common JMX exploitation and achieving RCEs by abusing management applets (MLETs). This technique is already quite well documented in many technical articles (see ) so the main purpose of this article is rather an attempt of solving various practical challenges in JMX exploitation during red teaming operations.
or: Where the Whole Evil Gets Born (Red Teaming OSiNT)
Let’s start our JMX OSiNT research. Best practices in securing exposed JMX network interfaces have been constantly neglected over more than the last decade. Let’s consider official, recent JVM (Java Virtual Machine, or just Java) Oracle documentation in Figure 1.
We can see that the vendor indeed warns from using described insecure Java configuration (Disabling JMX Security) and informs about the risk of making Java application vulnerable to arbitrary code execution of intruders’ choice. It is worth mentioning here that the aforementioned warning Note is quite a recent documentation development. In the past JMX Disabling Security feature used to be presented as just one of the available options without any warnings or cautions signs (!!!).
But coming back to the point – on the one hand the vendor warns of the insecure setup in production environment, while from the other hand suggests that it might be acceptable for development. Oooh is it?! Really??? While separation of the development (and testing/acceptance) environments from the production ones is considered a common best security practice, various types of deviations from this policy are our everyday corporate reality. Compromised test and development environments are by most of experienced red teamers treated just as a stepping stones towards the production, nothing more.
Digging even Deeper
Or: just Give me all the TCP port numbers used by (insecure) JMX instances to listen!
Official Oracle Java SE documentation is just a humble beginning of our OSiNT journey. There is way more to explore and collect from a malicious adversary or ethical hacker’s viewpoint. Let’s take a look at Figure 2 presenting configuration of the Network Derby Server.
This documentation is as a matter of fact quite old (JDK 6 is referred), but still available on the official vendor’s web site for software users. Insecure setup and disabled security features are mentioned, but without any clear indication that such configuration is too dangerous to have any real practical use. Please also note the TCP port number (9999) and refer to my other article  from October 2022 describing technical details of the critical RCE (CVE-2022-24082) discovered by me in the PEGA Platform. Wasn’t the vulnerable application listening on exactly the same port number? A coincidence?
I honestly dare doubt it, but even if so in this particular case, the number 9999 is worth noting for later use in red teaming operations. Especially taking into account the content of another, newer comparing to the Derby Server above Oracle’s tutorial, describing how to expose resources for remote management by JConsole – see Figure 3.
Instead, a clear, distinct warning/caution note we have here a “Security consideration:” section stating that authentication and encryption mechanisms are disabled in this particular example and should be implemented in real-world (what does it mean exactly?!) environments. The message is even softer than the one from Java SE 9 documentation and again TCP port 9999 is in use (this number is really worth noting and remembering!). Now let’s examine two other examples. Figure 4 shows another piece of Java documentation, this time SE 8 (v5 is also explicitly mentioned in the content).
Although the documentation refers to “Local JMX Connections”, given setup can easily become a remote target as well. Moreover, this time no single warning or note is present about running possible security risks and no advisory at all about making the whole setup secure. From the hacking perspective, two more TCP target ports to record: 3333 but also 2222 found in the later part of the documentation article, not shown in Figure 4 above.
One more insecure setup from Oracle is presented in Figure 5 and this time it belongs to the Coherence software. Following examples given by me so far, one may can get impression that I can assure you that it is definitely not the case, you can do your own OSiNT research to quickly realize that as well. However, as the whole JVM is an Oracle product, I have way higher expectations here in setting good security standards comparing to just regular users of Java.
There are also other OSiNT possibilities, than only searching for insecure configuration examples.
Figure 6 shows a sample of rmi-dumpregistry.nse script belonging to the nmap network scanner. As we can see it includes a list of port numbers marked as belonging to java-rmi service. Port 1099 requires special attention because as presented in Figure 7, it is the default port for RMI (Remote Method Invocation, see ) registry and as such can also be considered as the default JMX TCP port. In a large enough business environment, it will pop up for sure during the active reconnaissance phase of your red teaming operation at least several times.
Show Me Your Hand
or: Confronting Corporate Reality
The above described, short OSiNT reconnaissance gives us a nice outcome with four TCP ports (9999, 3333, 2222, 1098, 1099, 1090, 8901, 8902 & 8903) for our JMX hunting in the client’s internal network. Consider it, however, only as a humble starting point. More extensive research would deliver a way longer list and I’m leaving this exercise as homework for the readers. The TCP port list can also be enriched in many different ways, depending only on the researcher’s creativity. The aforementioned list cannot be too long either, because red teaming operations are always strictly time-boxed, which forces us to make smart choices in the active reconnaissance phase for large corporate environments. I will skip the network (TCP/IP) part, because describing modern techniques exploited in red teaming operations deserves a separate article and perhaps, I will come up with one in the future.
In the meantime, let’s focus on JMX itself. Following a regular pentesting practice we would use nmap network scanner (see ) with the option -sV to identify RMI interface and the rmi-dumpregistry NSE script to receive RMI registry content. From my own external consultant’s experience, I know that use of nmap is in red teaming however very risky. SOC detection tooling has all sort of nmap-aware signatures included and reacts highly allergic to any scan attempts, even the slow ones.
To make our JMX “service scanning” as efficient as possible, we can just attempt to invoke an object which is protected when security is enabled. Such invocation can result in three possible outcomes:
- The tested port does not serve JMX RMI. In such a case our connection will be terminated at some point with (or without) an unidentified output.
- The tested port does serve JMX RMI, but it is secured with username/password authentication and/or TLS. In such a situation our connection will be terminated with a known, familiar output.
- The tested port does serve JMX RMI and is setup with disabled security (vulnerable). In such a situation our call will be successful.
Scanning described above performed on unidentified network services can in some rare circumstances give unexpected outcomes. For certain types of services (e.g., legacy devices in OT networks or SCADA) there is a low risk of damage introduction. As such, ensure that the White Team participating in the operation is well informed and ALWAYS gives officially the upfront green light for all your activities.
Following the aforementioned logic, I developed a tool called SimpleRmiDiscoverer, see . Figure 8 shows a sample output from its execution. Analyzing in detail all internals of this tool is out of scope of this article, but perhaps will be subject to a separate blog post in the near future.
Overcoming Obstacles I
or: How not to Get Deceived by Appearances?
One of the properties supported by Java for its RMI is java.rmi.server.hostname (). According to the Java SE 8 documentation () “the value of this property represents the host name string that should be associated with remote stubs for locally created remote objects, in order to allow clients to invoke methods on the remote object. The default value of this property is the IP address of the local host, in “dotted-quad” format”. In other words, the value of this property is the endpoint (IP:Port) exposed by RMI registry for connecting JMX clients. The problem is, that setting this property does not limit Java to this one single IP for remote methods invocations. All other network interfaces keep listening as well. In general, it leads to the two following very common misconfigurations involving java.rmi.server.hostname property, notoriously present in corporate environments:
- Setting its value to localhost:port/127.0.0.1:port in a failed attempt to limit JMX exposure to the local loopback interface only.
- Setting its value to an IP address just different than the one assigned to the JVM host. Such a situation can occur for instance when JMX was used earlier in a development or test environment, over left in the production but is not anymore really needed for any legitimate purpose.
Practical exploitation of the first from the above scenarios is described in  for my CVE 2022–24082 discovered in the PEGA Platform using MogwaiLabs JMX Exploitation Toolkit (see ). The second scenario is not very well publicly known but is very common in typical business environments. Imagine VM with assigned IP address 192.168.229.131 running JVM from Figure 9.
Exploitation from other remote machines (with IP 192.168.229.128 in our case) would be rather simple in situations when we have root/administrator privileges on our attacker host. We just need to assign additional IP address 10.0.0.1 to ourself (interface alias in linux case works just fine) and redirect traffic coming to the port TCP/9999 on that address using socat tool:
The next step is dumping RMI registry from 10.0.0.1:9999 to see on which dynamic TCP port we can remotely invoke methods. In our case:
Now we need to run our socat again (to redirect TCP/41799) and we will be ready for the actual exploitation. We can use exploit of our choice (as long as is not detected by the organization’s SOC -:)) and enjoy achieved RCE. An example with earlier already mentioned MOGWAI exploitation toolkit is presented in Figure 12.
What shall we do however, when we do not have root/admin privileges on our attacker host, and we cannot setup any additional IP address? Such conditions are very common, for instance when a foothold is achieved on a corporate laptop as a result of a successful phishing campaign. This problem is not really trivial to solve (but still doable) due to JVM peculiarities and I’m going to dedicate a separate blogpost for this subject in the future. Figure 8, however, shows solving a similar problem for JMX scanning. Targeted Java instance has incorrectly set up java.rmi.server.hostname with value joker. The tool SimpleRmiDiscoverer simply ignores this value, using RMI Registry IP instead.
Overcoming Obstacles II
or: How to Deliver Our Payload?
Although it was not explicitly explained in previous section, our JMX exploit downloaded its payload from specially started http server (http://192.168.229.128:6666 in Figure 12). In practice the following getMBeansFromURL is called by the targeted JMX instance to upload the payload:
What is the real problem here? Now, during red teaming operations we are not always in a position to get reverse connections from targeted JMX servers to hosts being in our control. A good example would be again corporate endpoints. In mature environments they are located in dedicated segments, where incoming connections are prohibited or strictly controlled. It is also not always easy (at least not during initial phases of performed operations) to find a suitable HTTP(S) Server spot in the corporate network, where on the one hand we could upload our payload and on the other hand, the targeted JMX server can download it. So, what can we do?
Let’s take a look at the getMBeansFromURL method specification again. It states, “The URL of the text file to be loaded …”. Wait a minute …, is URL 100% equivalent to HTTP? Not really, because we have a number of other possible protocols! I know where you’re up to at this point, but I have to disappoint you a bit. SMB protocol did not work in my tests because smb:// was not supported by the discussed Java method. FTP however, works perfectly! And this can be often a real game changer, because although the protocol is insecure by itself, it is still (unfortunately) widely used internally by most of the organizations. If we can only find an FTP server where we can write and from where our targeted JMX server can download … we are golden! But first things first – let’s specify, how our FTP URL should look like. Providing that targeted JMX server 192.168.229.131 would download the payload from FTP server 192.168.229.128, we have:
The getMBeansFromURL method specification also states that “the text file to be loaded”. Let’s take a shortcut and look into the source code of mjet.py  to determine, how this text file should look like. In our case after some minor modifications, it would be:
We can now save the text from Figure 14 in the file mlet.html in the default directory of our FTP server. The last missing piece is the file payload.jar. For testing purposes, we can use MogwaiLabsMJET-MLet.jar from the payload’s directory in , rename it to payload.jar and place it in the default directory of our FTP Server as well. Having FTP Server started and all the above arranged, we are ready to execute our exploit (Figure 15).
And voilà, full success! Although, as we can see in Figure 15, web server hosting the payload is still started on port TCP/6666, it is completely ignored during exploitation and our payload is downloaded via FTP.
Conclusions & Recommendations
or: I Will Fear no Evil
Having all the knowledge about risks and dangers coming from JMX misconfigurations it is time to ask yourself the question: “What can a modern organization do to protect themselves from threat actors abusing this type of vulnerability?”. I can define at least several points of consideration:
- First of all, you need to realize that Java is a technology which you will just not be able to avoid for many years forward. Do not try to convince yourself that this is only a temporary or tactical solution for you. And it does mean that you will live with JMX for many years as well. You have to define a secure standard of its configuration & use and ensure its organization wide enforcement. There is no other correct way and no other shortcut.
- When you already have the aforementioned defined standard, you need to find an effective way to enforce it in your environment. It means that all your IT/DevOps/CyberSecurity staff, including contractors and other externals, need to be trained and aware. They have to understand the risk and danger and have to acquire enough technical knowledge to apply necessary controls.
- How effective is your Vulnerability Management (VM) System? Can it correctly identify all vulnerable JMX conditions? Have you tested and checked it by yourself, or you’ve just taken promises of your VM provider at face value? How fast and effective is response to newly identified vulnerabilities?
- And last but not least – how effective are your detection controls when it comes to attempts of JMX abuse (e.g., by invoking “infamous” getMBeansFromURL method)? Have you tested those controls by yourself, or you again just believe your vendor? How quick and effective are your response capabilities?
A secure business environment and confidence can only come by fully addressing all above consideration points and questions.
As the final conclusion I would like to ask you: “Do you agree that JMX is the best Red Teamer’s buddy?”. Even if you still want to argue with me, you have to admit that it is a very good one. At a very, very minimum 😉
 Java Management Extensions (JMX)
 Hans-Martin Münch – Attacking RMI based JMX services
 Marcin Wolak – CVE 2022–24082, RCE in the PEGA Platform — Discovery, Remediation & Technical Details (Long Live JMX!!!)
 Oracle Coherence 22.214.171.124.0
 Java Remote Method Invocation (RMI)
 Java™ Platform, Standard Edition 7 API Specification, Class LocateRegistry