Petya: disabling remote execution of psexec

This morning in response to reports of an outbreak of yet more malware I wrote a quick blog post on one way to stop the SysInternals psexec from being allowed to execute by using the Image File Execution Options registry key mechanism – see here for that post.

My technique was, and still is sound, but @RennJohnny correctly pointed out that if the psxec.exe executable was renamed then my approach would not work. I therefore set about finding another way to stop psexec from running for those who don’t (yet) have security software in place to stop the exploit. Note that you need to be running it on a system where you are an administrator and have the same rights on the remote system to be attacked. As the disposable virtual machine that I used for my testing is not on a domain, I passed explicit credentials to psexec for my testing – I don’t believe Petya operates this way but my solution will still work.

So when psexec is used to run something on a remote system, it works by creating a new service executable called psexesvc.exe which is embedded within the original psexec.exe file. This is copied to the Windows folder on the remote machine via the admin$ default share (hence why you need to be an admin to get psexec to work remotely). It then creates the PSEXESVC service with this, now local, executable, starts it and then runs the specified command.

What I found was that even when I copied psexec.exe to another file name, the file produced and copied to the remote system was still called psexesvc.exe. This is what happens when you run the copied psexec.exe and tell it to invoke a command on a remote machine:

psexesvc allowed


On that remote system we can then see this has been created in the services registry key:

psexesvc registry

How do we stop it? I reckon that the easiest way is to use good old Image File Execution Options (IFEO) mechanism again but this time we create the key “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Image File Execution Options\PSEXESVC.exe” and in there create the REG_SZ value called “Debugger” and set it to “svchost.exe”. Now when we try and run psexec to execute on the system where we just patched the registry, this happens instead:

psexesvc blocked

What happened? Well when the Service Control Manager (SCM) on the remote machine was asked to start the PSEXESVC service, it started the psexesvc.exe process but the IFEO entry we created caused it to run svchost.exe instead but as that can’t be used as a standalone service, it failed to start so SCM reported this to psexec which is the error we see above. You will also get this in the System event log of the remote system:

psexesvc eventlog.PNG

One way to roll it out to all your computers is to put the above registry value into a Group Policy Preference that applies to those computers.

You can also create a dummy psexesvc.exe file in your Windows folder, remove all permissions and change the owner to, say, TrustedInstaller, and that will also prevent it from running.

I hope this helps some of you and stay safe (and don’t run routinely with admin privileges!).


Author: guyrleech

I wrote my first (Basic) program in 1980, was a Unix developer after graduation from Manchester University and then became a consultant, initially with Citrix WinFrame, in 1995 and later into Terminal Server/Services and more recently virtualisation, being awarded the VMware vExpert status in 2009 and 2010. I have also had various stints in Technical Pre-Sales, Support and R&D. I work as a Senior Technical Consultant for HCL, live in West Yorkshire, England; have a wife, three children and three dogs and am a keen competitive runner when not injured.

1 thought on “Petya: disabling remote execution of psexec”

  1. Your solution will work for psexec versions prior to 2.1+ after that MS included a switch -r that allows you to change the service process name.

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