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Image File Execution Options Injection

Image File Execution Options (IFEO) enable a developer to attach a debugger to an application. When a process is created, a debugger present in an application’s IFEO will be prepended to the application’s name, effectively launching the new process under the debugger (e.g., "C:\dbg\ntsd.exe -g notepad.exe"). [1]

IFEOs can be set directly via the Registry or in Global Flags via the GFlags tool. [2] IFEOs are represented as Debugger values in the Registry under HKLM\SOFTWARE{\Wow6432Node}\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Image File Execution Options\ where is the binary on which the debugger is attached. [1]

IFEOs can also enable an arbitrary monitor program to be launched when a specified program silently exits (i.e. is prematurely terminated by itself or a second, non kernel-mode process). [3] [4] Similar to debuggers, silent exit monitoring can be enabled through GFlags and/or by directly modifying IEFO and silent process exit Registry values in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\SilentProcessExit\. [3] [4]

An example where the evil.exe process is started when notepad.exe exits: [4]

  • reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Image File Execution Options\notepad.exe" /v GlobalFlag /t REG_DWORD /d 512
  • reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\SilentProcessExit\notepad.exe" /v ReportingMode /t REG_DWORD /d 1
  • reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\SilentProcessExit\notepad.exe" /v MonitorProcess /d "C:\temp\evil.exe"

Similar to Process Injection, these values may be abused to obtain persistence and privilege escalation by causing a malicious executable to be loaded and run in the context of separate processes on the computer. [5] Installing IFEO mechanisms may also provide Persistence via continuous invocation.

Malware may also use IFEO for Defense Evasion by registering invalid debuggers that redirect and effectively disable various system and security applications. [6] [7]

ID: T1183

Tactic: Privilege Escalation, Persistence, Defense Evasion

Platform:  Windows

Permissions Required:  Administrator, SYSTEM

Data Sources:  Process monitoring, Windows Registry, Windows event logs

Defense Bypassed:  Autoruns Analysis

Contributors:  Oddvar Moe, @oddvarmoe

Version: 1.0


This type of attack technique cannot be easily mitigated with preventive controls since it is based on the abuse of operating system design features. For example, mitigating all IFEO will likely have unintended side effects, such as preventing legitimate software (i.e., security products) from operating properly. [8] Efforts should be focused on preventing adversary tools from running earlier in the chain of activity and on identifying subsequent malicious behavior.

Identify and block potentially malicious software that may be executed through IFEO by using whitelisting [9] tools, like AppLocker, [10] [11] that are capable of auditing and/or blocking unknown executables.


Monitor for common processes spawned under abnormal parents and/or with creation flags indicative of debugging such as DEBUG_PROCESS and DEBUG_ONLY_THIS_PROCESS. [1]

Monitor Registry values associated with IFEOs, as well as silent process exit monitoring, for modifications that do not correlate with known software, patch cycles, etc. Monitor and analyze application programming interface (API) calls that are indicative of Registry edits such as RegCreateKeyEx and RegSetValueEx. [5]