The Follina Vulnerability - A Critical Threat to Microsoft Office

Author: Tholkappiar

Table of Contents


The Follina vulnerability represents a significant risk within Microsoft Office products. It enables remote code execution (RCE) attacks, demanding immediate attention as Microsoft has released security updates to address it. However, unpatched versions persist, leaving users susceptible to potential exploitation.

Key Details

  • CVE-2022-30190: Officially recognized as CVE-2022-30190 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Follina warrants tracking due to its severity.
  • Phishing Campaigns: Cybercriminals actively exploit Follina through sophisticated phishing campaigns, luring users into opening malicious Office documents or links that trigger the vulnerability.
  • MSDT Protocol: The critical issue lies in the manipulation of the “Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool” (MSDT) protocol. Attackers leverage this protocol to execute their own PowerShell commands, often without user interaction.
  • Diverse Attack Vectors: Follina can strike via email-delivered malicious Office documents, USB devices, or even during file previews (e.g., .rtf formats).
  • Discovery Timeline: Unveiled as a zero-day vulnerability on May 27, 2022, the first known malware exploiting it surfaced on April 7, 2022, suggesting prior exploitation.
  • Escalation of Phishing Campaigns: With Follina’s discovery, cybersecurity experts noted a surge in phishing campaigns employing this vulnerability.

Follina’s Reach

Follina casts a wide net, affecting a range of Microsoft products, including Office suite versions from 2013 to 2021. Surprisingly, even with Office VBA macros disabled, users remain at risk. Given Microsoft Office’s global prevalence, both personal and corporate environments face exposure.


This section dives deeper into the technical aspects of Follina:

  • Execution Mechanisms: A Follina attack involves loading an external reference pointing to a malicious URL. Even with macros disabled on a system, the “Protected View” feature can be used to execute code under the security context of the user running the MS Office document. Additionally, the HTML methods location.href and window.location.href come into play.
  • Malicious URL Invocation: When a user clicks on the document, it triggers a call to the host hxxp:// external URL resource. This resource then serves a malicious document containing a nefarious ms-msdt: command-invoking PowerShell script code.
  • Persistent Threat: With every execution of the MS Office document, the external resource is consistently loaded from the hardcoded address. This resource responds with a malicious payload containing an ms-msdt: command-invoking PowerShell Script.

This technical insight sheds light on the intricacies of Follina’s attack vectors and its methods of exploitation.

Exploitation and Impact

  • State-Sponsored Threats: Follina’s severity is amplified by its exploitation by state-sponsored advanced persistent threat (APT) actors, including APT TA570, an affiliate of the notorious Qbot malware group.
  • Accessibility: Both skilled attackers and novices can leverage Follina, facilitated by publicly available proofs-of-concept.

The Severity of Follina

Follina is a high-severity security vulnerability. While it requires user interaction, the interaction can be as simple as opening a malicious document or clicking a malevolent link, often delivered via email or social media. Once inside, Follina empowers attackers to execute code with the compromised Office application’s system permissions. The potential fallout spans manipulating applications, encrypting documents, escalating privileges, and compromising critical targets.

Protecting Against Follina

Addressing Follina necessitates a multi-pronged approach:

  • Patch and Update: Swiftly apply Microsoft’s security updates to shield against Follina.
  • Awareness is Key: Educate staff about phishing threats, fostering a vigilant user base.
  • Disabling MSDT: Initially, Microsoft recommended disabling the MSDT protocol in Windows to mitigate attack vectors.
  • Advanced Cybersecurity: Invest in advanced cybersecurity solutions for robust defense against zero-day attacks.