The Case of the Unknown Autostart

A few weeks ago I installed an update to a popular Internet Explorer media-player ActiveX control on one of my systems. I knew from past experience that the plugin’s updates always configure an autostart, (an executable configured to automatically launch during boot, login or with another process) that I don’t believe serves any useful purpose, so as I had in the past, I launched Sysinternals Autoruns, set both Verify Code Signatures and Hide Signed Microsoft Entries in the options menu, pressed Refresh, found the autostart and deleted it. However, as I was about to close the window another entry caught my eye and caused my heart to stop:

The entry, IECheck, has all the characteristics of malware: it has no icon, description, or company name, and it’s located in the Windows directory. Further, Autoruns’ Search Online feature, which executes a Web search, yielded no information on the suspicious executable.

I needed to investigate further to determine if the entry was a sign of a malware infection, so I turned to the Sysinternals Strings utility. Image files often contain plain-text strings that contain clues that can connect it with an application. For example, if a program reads configuration information from the registry, the registry path is embedded in the executable and usually includes the name of the vendor or application. Strings scans a file for printable strings (both Unicode and Ascii) and prints them, so my next step was to open a command prompt and dump those in IECheck.exe. Sometimes the output is so verbose that it’s easier to pipe the output to a text file and study the results with Notepad, but this time I spotted some interesting text as it scrolled past:

Sure enough, the executable had string references to other executables that are probably part of the same application, and they revealed the name of the application, IconEdit2, as well the vendor, WinAppsPlanet.  I then remembered that I had just downloaded IconEdit a few days earlier to edit hi-resolution Vista-style icons and so I was able to classify the incident as a false alarm and close the case. My heart returned to its normal rhythm.

This example highlights a few practices that software vendors should follow for reliability and to prevent the confusion I faced.  First is the use of environment variables and Shell special paths instead of hard-coded strings. IECheck (which I presume stands for Icon Editor Check) references the Program Files directory by name, which is only valid on English installations of Windows, so if installed on a foreign system, IECheck would fail to find the executables it looks for. Instead, it should locate the Program Files directory by using the %PROGRAMFILES% environment variable, or call ShGetFolderPath with CSIDL_PROGRAM_FILES for the folder parameter. 

To avoid scaring security-conscious users, all executables should have a version resource with a company name and a description that clearly identifies the executable’s purpose. Further, vendors should obtain a code signing certificate to digitally sign their code.  Windows relies more and more on signature information to help users make trust decisions, and users can leverage tools like Process Explorer, Autoruns, and Sigcheck to verify that executables are what they advertise instead of malware. I’ve contacted the author of IconEdit2 and he’ll be updating his application to follow this guidance. All vendors need to do their part to avoid this kind of needless scare.

Comments (25)

  1. Adrian says:

    But why does an icon editor need an autostart?  It may not be malware, but it certainly doesn’t seem like goodware.

  2. Chip says:

    I must waste maybe an hour or two each week tracking down unknowns like this. I should be happy, in the end, I suppose, that the conclusion is a legitimate app or process, but usually I’m just pissed that the vendor didn’t make their app’s presence/purpose more readily discernible on the system

  3. ac says:

    And why put it in %windir% in the first place, whats wrong with program files (Maybe they can’t handle a space in the path 🙂

    I hate programs that "know" that their little app is the best thing in the world and therefor you will never use anything else so they help you out by stealing back file exstensions and recreate shortcuts and all that crap

  4. Clint says:

    "I hate programs that "know" that their little app is the best thing in the world and therefor you will never use anything else so they help you out by stealing back file exstensions and recreate shortcuts and all that crap"  — quote from ac

    Is that confirmed what this program is doing?  Is it reseting file extensions and icons?  If so, then the programmer needs to consider more then just including some versioning but the proper way to request from the user if they want these changes applied and only request at the launch of their program with a way to disable the feature.  

    I can think of a few other commercial software that misuse the autorun for everything from checking for updates, to the dubious quick launch.

    As always Mr. Russinovich a good read.

  5. Grew-Dan Boll says:

    Amazing. The year is 2007, and people still let random applications silently write to %windir% and silently add things to their autostart lists!

  6. Grant says:

    "Amazing. The year is 2007, and OPERATING SYSTEMS still let random applications silently write to %windir% and silently add things to their autostart lists!"

    Windows lacks a strong application installation model.

    Windows uses an aggregation rather than a synthesis model. It favors scripting instead of declaration. This is the primary source of configuration decay.

    Effectively the system configuration is the sum of all modifications applied by all install programs. The alternative is a system where registered applications declare their interactions with the system and the system builds the system state. This can even be done per user where appropriate.

    Imagine that Word declared that it only needs to be able to modify .docx files (an oversimplification). The system could then trap modifications to other file types (allowing for the lack of strong file typing).

    Imagine that applications are presented a synthetic view of the file system with only those areas that are appropriate (its own application files, user config, user data areas). The app wouldn’t even see operating system file areas it has no business interacting with.

    Now, things like SoftGrid are interesting. In particular, the way they provide a bridge for many older applications by capturing the modifications and virtualizing system interactions. It would be nice if VS produced a SoftGrid package automatically. Perhaps this is the direction we need to move in.

  7. Norman Diamond says:

    > Strings scans a file for printable strings

    > (both Unicode and Ascii)

    Push that on the stack for a moment.

    > references the Program Files directory by

    > name, which is only valid on English

    > installations of Windows, so if installed on

    > a foreign system, IECheck would fail to find

    > the executables

    Now pop the stack.  In principle, if IECheck were installed on either a Japanese system or a foreign system other than US, then Strings would fail to find the strings naming the executables (except if IECheck is compiled in Unicode).

    Strings is freeware and I have no complaint about its limitations.  But if you think about whether you might want to check for strings in a non-US environment, you might want yourself in the future to take the code page into consideration.

    Monday, May 21, 2007 4:38 PM by Grew-Dan Boll

    > people still let random applications silently

    > write to %windir% and silently add things to

    > their autostart lists!

    That’s why you have to be administrator in order to install a program.  That’s why Vista doesn’t even ask the administrator whether or not to elevate the installer; Vista *knows*.

  8. Daniel says:

    Quicktime is another example of this type of app.  it is an immensley overbloated program that dumps files everywhere, adds a key to the RUN key in the registry, sticks icons in the systray that i never asked for, takes over files associations and who knows what else.

    All that to be able to view a fairly minor file type.  When will Apple get it into their head that the .MOV format is not the only format in existence?  They have this same mentality with iTunes, but I don’t want to rant about that!

  9. JC says:

    I can understand what you were scared… the IE in IECheck definitely looks suspicious, among all the other things (no version resource, etc…)

    I’m still surprised that people hardcode strings like this.

    Actually, %ProgramFiles% is called "Program Files" on all the languages versions I’ve been given an occasion to work with (that said, I’m far to pretend I’ve touched all the localized versions of Windows yet).

    In French, it is called "Program Files" as well, and I think it is the same on dutch systems. So goes for the "Documents and Settings" and "Application Data" folder.

    I guess that Microsoft made this as a countermesure against bad practices of some people.

    Some translated folders include Favorites and mysteriously %CommonFiles% (which is a bit odd  as it is usually a subfolder of %ProgramFiles%…)

    Contrarily, I’ve seen one or two software who assumed that Program Files was translated in a different language (say, french) and translated "Program Files" to "Fichiers Programmes", which didn’t exist because on french systems %ProgramFiles% is "Program Files" too… as a result, things worked, but a needless folder (the localized one) was created only for this program.

    So many difficulties these programmers created for themselves by not properly reading the documentation…

    That said, internationalized paths or not, it would have failed on an english system as well if my system drive was D: and not C: (which happens sometimes when the Windows installer affects a different letter to a partition you thought it would give, but in this case, I restart the whole process as I know so many programs are so poorly designed in that aspect).

    Glad to see you’re back in more frequent blogging again, Mark, (it’s a bit less advanced than before, but it can’t always be call stack-level troubleshooting and is always a good read nevertheless).



  10. JKB says:

    Well, in German Windows the "Program files" is called "Programme" – which enabled some bad-developed Windows programs to work on German Windows because "Programme" has no blanks.

    The most other shell directories also have different names in German.

    In Windows Vista the Shell folders have English names and there are symbolic links placed to those folders in both English an localized versions – it looks a bit messed up compared to older Windows versions. In addition applications writing to their exe path under Vista get their files redirected to the users Application data, so it is difficult to find out the real storage location for newly created files (even Applications where writing to the own directory is denied can do that under Vista).

    It would be a nice thing to enable the old (Windows 2000) style access mechanism for Vista, so when the Application directory is read-only, the Application fails to write there – ist not nice, but it is safe.

  11. James says:

    Please protest HR 1525 this bill supposedly to prevent spyware looks like it was written by a spyware company. Why do I say this? It prevents people from sueing companies like sony who’s infamous rootkit scandal got them sued, by many of the victims. This bill would allow the Government to set a fine (less than the cost of a lawsuit) . Now think about this.. If the government fines sony lets say $10,000.00 or even $100,000.00 thats far less than the law suits that sony had to settle for, this becomes a bill that makes it a cost of doing business for sony, not a risk for spying on customers. This Bill is insidious as it takes the Constitutional rights to seek compensation by the victims of such a crime.  This bill will make it afordable for Sony to violate your privacy and rights. And who benefits? only the Government as it becomes nothing more than a Spyware tax and licence to continue the behavior. This Bill is a scam in itself. It’s no surprise it was written by a congresswoman in Silicon Valley, I wonder how much she was paid to write this bill. Let’s see who she gets a consulting job from after she leaves Congress.

  12. Sean Barrett says:

    "Actually, %ProgramFiles% is called "Program Files" on all the languages versions I’ve been given an occasion to work with"

    On my XP system it is "c:programs", because spaces in paths are _still_ a headache (dunno if this is fixed in Vista). Open a command window and type "start c:windows" (or winnt or whatever the path is), and you will open an explorer window looking at that directory. In at least XP and earlier, open a command window and type ‘start "c:program files"’, and you will open up… another command window. (The problem here is the quotation mark, not the spaces, but that makes the spaces unfixable.)

    As to Mark’s original scenario, I run StartupMonitor to catch most cases of programs running needless startup things when it happens, rather than after the fact. Recommended, at least until there’s a sysinternals equivalent.

  13. molotov says:

    ‘start "" "C:program files"’ gets you the Explorer window.

    start /? indicates the first quoted param is the "Title to display in  window title bar".

  14. James E. Clemens II says:

    The Sysinternals AutoRuns tool is all that is needed to track down this type of questionable program.

    As a Network Administrator, I can run this very small application and uncheck all those programs stealing my resources in less than two minutes.

    If I can suggest anything here, it is to inform users to stop installing software and updates under the "typical" setup. Simply check the "custom" setup and save yourself a lot of time. Adobe, Java and several others will add all sorts of extra programs when using the "typical" setup.

    I think this should be considered hiddenware at the very least! If I wanted the toolbar or other program they are pushing, I would install it!!

    Good thing I have Sysinternals AutoRuns to level the playing field. This app is awesome!!!

  15. Tim Maletic says:

    Mark’s recommendations to the author of IconEdit2 can just as easily be adopted by every malware author, so I don’t see the point.  But I must be missing something or someone would have pointed this out already…

  16. Alice Chang says:

    I think I agree with Mr. Maletic about the proposed solution, up to a point. In my job as a network analyst, I often have to analyze concurrent HIDS events as well; seeing suspicious traits like "no icon, description, or company name, and [..] in the Windows directory" definitely raise red flags with me. But then I think about all the stuff that *don’t* raise red flags — and sometimes I wonder if there aren’t malware that are being blissfully ignored because they simply appear to be an unusual, but legitimate application with all the right markings. (The markings in this case being some sort of author, some sort of company, some sort of icon…)

    The solution of using certificates could effectively mitigate the risk, I suppose, except I’m not sure how easily malware-writers or suspect ware-writers could obtain one…

  17. .jon says:

    > Actually, %ProgramFiles% is called "Program

    > Files" on all the languages versions I’ve been

    > given an occasion to work with (that said, I’m

    > far to pretend I’ve touched all the localized

    > versions of Windows yet).

    With a german system I have of problems with about 10% of all installed applications.

    On a German XP it is not "Program Files" but "Programme". And not "Documents and Settings" but "Dokumente und Einstellungen" and not "ApplicationData" but "Anwendungsdaten". Just to name a few. They are (luckily) totally localized.

    One thing as important as this is people (including me) who absolutley hate the MS way to throw all into a single root and install Program Files, Documents and Settings, $TEMP% and maybe even others on seperate partitions, which makes backing up the system, re-installing it etc. much more easy.

  18. James says:

    "IEcheck" does sound like the typical malware trick of masquerading as a part of Windows, and putting itself in %WINDIR% rather than its own application directory doesn’t help; then again, at least it didn’t have a valid MS signature: if seeing "iecheck.exe" made Mark’s heart stop, imagine my reaction when I saw a *signed* ‘services.exe’ sitting there, merrily probing port 25 on remote machines! (Needless to say, that was indeed malware; I’m actually quite impressed by the lengths it went to to escape detection, hiding most of its antics within services.exe *without* compromising the MS signature!)

  19. Ruben says:

    In Spanish %ProgramFiles" is "Archivos de programa" and so on. Most system folders are localized, but surprisingly, "Documents and settings is not.

    That aside, I fully second Mark’s suggestions.

    "Mark’s recommendations to the author of IconEdit2 can just as easily be adopted by every malware author"

    That’s where digital signatures come in.

    "The solution of using certificates could effectively mitigate the risk, I suppose, except I’m not sure how easily malware-writers or suspect ware-writers could obtain one."

    Not easily. The problem with that is not that malware writers can obtain or forge a Microsoft certificate. The problem is they don’t need to. All they need is a certificate that "looks" like the real thing and most end users will accept it as real without bothering to check.

  20. Calum Grant says:

    It’s definitely good for applications to have proper resource information – since I would expect good quality software to follow those guidelines.  Anything that fails to follow simple guidelines is suspect.

    Another crime is services with no apparent purpose, and no description of what suite they are part of.  Even respectable software in the install/remove programs sometimes has cryptic names from 3rd party publishers.  Sony installed a lot of such rubbish on my Vaio laptop.  I have no idea what I can disable without suddenly breaking functionality.

    However, malware/spyware should fake something plausable, and a casual user would have no chance of distinguishing malware from legitimate software.

  21. Igor says:

    IMO, you should have asked the author for the justification of autostart component for an Icon Editor. I don’t see any possible reason why that crap could be needed to slow down each computer startup.

    There is an increasing number of applications which use autostart or even worse system notification area for purposes which are dubious to say the least.

    Those practices should be loudly discouraged by Microsoft in MSDN and in Designed for Windows logo program. I would even vote for hampering their ability to do it because 90% of software vendors just abuse it.

    /rant on

    I just hate it when they work against the system. Prime example would be well known disk defragmenter utility which in its latest version has no less than 4 processes running all the time. One of them is scheduler which could have been replaced by system’s own Task Scheduler use. There is also some "agent" and then the engine. Why they need to be running all the time when defragmentation is something you perform once in a few weeks is really unexplainable.

    Even worse the same utility has the self-repair system — if you terminate any of those processes they come to life again in no time. If you delete the executable, it will invoke setup to repair the installation without asking you a single thing. If you remove installation cache then it will make your system unusable in an suicidal attempt to find it. That is the same mechanism malware uses to stay on your computer against your will.

    In other words, every program should do what I tell him to, without asking me "do you want fries with that?" or even worse stuffing my face with fries without asking.

    /rant off

  22. Mihai says:

    Let’s say the company does not care about foreign markets, so localized folders don’t matter (ok, I don’t say is right, but bear with me 🙂

    But an application designed "to edit hi-resolution Vista-style icons" will not work on Vista! (because "Program Files" is "Programs" in Vista)

  23. Alex Railean says:

    Hi, I have been facing the same [original] problem – find a good icon editor which can make nice icons for Vista. I found a free program that matches the flexibility of various shareware tools I tried; look for "IcoFX".

    I also have some things to say about the other problem discussed here – folder paths. Mark, you mentioned two methods of accessing the Program Files directory, one is "%programfiles%" and the other is to use ShGetFolderPath.

    Is there any set of circumstances in which the two methods will return a different result? I know that it sounds stupid, but I have been facing a problem on a person’s computer: using %programfiles% to access a third party program in Program Files, but I always get a file not found error. The guy swears the file is there.

  24. Pam Maynard says:

    I know this is an old blog but I just had to comment on what you said about your heart stopping when you suspected something bad in your system. You were lucky that it was not bad. But for me and others like me, certainly know that feeling that you get when you are suddenly no longer in control of your machine. In fact it was only 2 days ago when clicking on a google search result suddenly my screen flickered and 5 pop ups were atop my screen asking permission to run an unknown setup application which each one had a mix of numbers before the word "setup" and even though I ALWAYS keep task manager open to close items that appear bad I was unable to close them or the process which was a consent.exe process. I was not about to shut my PC down as that may have given it a chance to download somehow. The first thing I did was go to MSE and did a quick scan which turned up nothing then did a deep scan while running that I went to start/search  put %temp% then opened temp file.I selected all then deleted all that would let me some said the program was in use . meanwhile MSE detected a Java virus, cleaned all except 2 were not found maybe I had deleted them in the %temp% folder. but meanwhile I went back to clicking no after no on those pop ups asking permission to change till they finally were gone from my task manager. I searched Google regarding my situation with no luck. No one seems to have encountered what I went through. The Google search I clicked on was a website from so anyone reading this DO NOT go there or maybe you will be next. The point to my post is that when you search online using Google or whatever search engine you like, you are doing so at your own risk and it could be fatal or detrimental to your health! I really do not understand with today's technology how these people who create this viruses, worms and Trojans are able to get away with it. Certainly they can be caught and prosecuted unless they are being paid to do it by either software companies that sell antivirus programs Not just the fake  ones but ones like Norton /McAfee or maybe the government. Am I crazy for thinking this? Lets, just take a look … If you have a virus what do you do? You try to get the best software to get rid of it. And yes there are free ones but they just don't seem to work as well and besides they are useless for large companies. And then you have those Trojans and worms that are there to track what you do. That would be useful to the government and companies looking to sell you products that you just happened to be searching for. I find it very hard to believe that these complicated nasties are spread by people just for kicks.Personally I am sick of it. I spend about 1/3 of my computer time trying to fix problems that others have created. A personal computer should be enjoyed ,not a hassle. It is about time someone did something to stop this. Like Microsoft , Google, Sun Java, Yahoo & Bing ( that's Microsoft too) and anyone else in the "cookie" jar.I think everyone who has a home PC iPhone or anything like those  should go on a strike, even just for one day. See how many stocks fall that on that day! C'mon ,we can do it! Mankind has survived in the past without those things so there should be no excuses.