Security Vulnerabilities in AppsAnywhere

If you’re affiliated with one of “over 250” universities, you’re probably familiar with AppsAnywhere, a system these universities use to deliver software to users (on both university-owned and personal computers) on a self-service basis.

On the surface, it’s a pretty nifty system: after a one-time installation process, a user can go to their university’s AppsAnywhere webpage (e.g., select an app, and it launches on the user’s machine. Magic!

I spent some time digging into how this all works, and found a few bugs in the process.

This report focuses on the macOS version of AppsAnywhere, but some of it applies to Windows too; I call this out where appropriate.

Architecture overview

AppsAnywhere consists of two pieces (relevant here):

To launch an app, a user navigates to their university’s AppsAnywhere server in a browser. The web page communicates with the client to determine some information about the system (a process called “validation”), then shows the user a list of apps they can launch.

There are a number of ways AppsAnywhere can “launch” an app, some of which take place solely within the browser. But the one we’re interested in is the ability to launch a native app - which the user may or may not already have installed - on the user’s device.

How does the website tell the local client to install something? (CVE-2023-41137)

The AppsAnywhere website communicates with the AppsAnywhere client by instructing the browser to navigate to URLs like the following:


The AppsAnywhere client registers itself as a handler for the software2hub://1 URL scheme, causing it to open and handle the message when a browser navigates to it.

The message is a base64-encoded, AES-encrypted(!), JSON string. Because the AppsAnywhere client must be able to decrypt the message, it contains a copy of the key; some mild obfuscation is present, but ultimately any key embedded in the client will be extractable with reverse engineering tools. Extracting the key and using it to decode the message, we get this (pretty printed, download URL for proprietary software redacted):

    "client-action-request": {
        "institution-id": "dueE8bZ10F",
        "message-format": "1.0",
        "action": "application-launch",
        "application-type": "mac-deployment",
        "request-data": {
            "download-url": "[redacted].pkg",
            "download-type": 20,
            "executable-name": "/Applications/IBM SPSS Statistics/SPSS"

The AppsAnywhere client checks if something exists at the path indicated by executable-name; if not, it downloads the pkg file from download-url and installs it (with root privileges!) through Apple’s installer tool. Apple’s pkg format supports running arbitrary scripts during the installation process, so installing an attacker-controlled pkg file is as good as arbitrary code execution.

Nothing (beyond the symmetric AES encryption) serves to verify that the installation request was legitimate; an attacker could convince a user to navigate to a software2hub:// link (e.g. though a link on a web page or email) and install an arbitrary pkg file on their machine. This attack could be used as an RCE with a social engineering component; in most browsers, an attacker would need to convince the user to click through a confirmation prompt such as “allow this website to open AppsAnywhere?” that an attacker would need to convince a user to click through. It could also be used as a local privilege escalation attack for an attacker with non-root access to the machine (e.g. a student on a university-owned computer).

On Windows, a similar attack (with a different application-type) is possible, but only gains code execution as the victim’s user, not administrator privileges.

Wait, it runs as root? (CVE-2023-41138)

Yes! Despite the AppsAnywhere client being invoked as the user, the pkg file may need to be installed as root. How does that work?

On macOS, AppsAnywhere uses a service called to allow the client to install software as root. Unfortunately, this service does no security checking; it simply accepts command strings over Apple’s XPC mechanism, and runs them as root.

Thus, an attacker with the ability to run a program as any user on a macOS machine with AppsAnywhere installed is able to trivially gain root privileges. This is especially likely to be an issue on computers universities provide in libraries and the like, though I’m not sure how common macOS is there.

This vulnerability does not exist on Windows. There, the AppsAnywhere client is fully unprivileged, and privileged installation - where necessary - is handled via a third-party program called Cloudpaging installed alongside the AppsAnywhere client. I’m told Cloudpaging does its own signature checking before it does anything, though I haven’t verified this.

The fix, round one

In July 2020, I reported CVE-2023-41137 to my university, who passed it on to AppsAnywhere; I then largely forgot about the whole affair. In August 2023, I checked back to discover a partial fix.

Presumably in response to this report, the macOS AppsAnywhere client was updated; judging by changelogs, I believe this was client 1.4.0 released in November 2020. It now refuses to accept application-launch requests passed directly to the URL handler; instead, app launches on macOS use the following protocol:

  1. It sends a request to the AppsAnywhere client via a software2hub:// URL like before, but the URL decodes to something like the following:
        "client-action-request": {
            "institution-id": "dueE8bZ10F",
            "message-format": "1.0",
            "action": "retrieve-message",
            "request-data": {
                "message-id": "0123456789abcdef0123456789abcdef",
                "request-url": ""
  2. The client sends an HTTP POST request to the request-url, passing the message-id. (The body of this post request is encoded as form data, with a message field containing encrypted base64 data using the same key; it’s not immediately clear what purpose this serves.)
  3. The server responds with JSON something like this:
        "message-response": {
            "response-data": {
                "client-message": "software2hub://RpLE22+gvQBSQC0oHGDNQSGnjf++3j8optf1Gt3vBt8+dV32jhakCBqOK5Re1VJNodK/F2damHJNx/qYH4iEc6WwuWTXXsSWhZJT7FNIYVdPMFZfI2xf+uBRsPD3Z0AoeDs7E5hnJ4N/I6vtfQQsaJ2WA74O1YPrNnm3FBYk6CDX/dKYe/4N/+HE6dtXYDY7qc2Pn8e8ZE6gs0jhBS7zmm0akf1aiHxqq7BEsGpDN9QgvPB0tXdi78lnTFJoUN7SAFPtd5ZbXqls5PW2vqGJ06kvLCroxvd+7/zyOPRRvBEnmOnodO0NNX/oK7V9xWOj0sgYlHtr8o/2Yo54LuLJwbgSF7wbMzkuh+NSXdqvjCmcd8j+fG7PeWurggSttGwhB+MZ7cvbkDNNDegWIkRaxdBQGAm0Pe/C3oKwL2yWwF8v6CStN9W+vBsey4J9/KYv"
            "result": "success"

The client then decodes the client-message (which contains an application-launch request) and proceeds as before.

Presumably the intent is that, by fetching the launch request directly from the server, the client can be sure it’s not malicious. Unfortunately, the client doesn’t check that the request-url is in fact any server in particular, so the attacker can simply set up their own server that responds to POST requests with the appropriate JSON, create a software2hub:// URL with request-url pointing there, and convince a user to click that URL as before.

The “retrieve-message” mechanism doesn’t seem to be used for app launches on Windows2, so this change did not affect the Windows client.

The fix, round 2

In August 2023, I reported to my university that CVE-2023-41137 was still exploitable, and reported CVE-2023-41138 for the first time. This time, I was kept in the loop as a fix was coordinated. My contact at AppsAnywhere was lovely to work with, and very open about their process and proposed fixes.

AppsAnywhere has now released client versions 1.6.1 and 2.0.1 (both versions for both macOS and Windows; 1.6.1 is available for universities that haven’t moved to client 2.0.0 yet), with the following fixes:

Some details on their crypto scheme (as best I can tell from static analysis; my university isn’t running the updated server yet):

AppsAnywhere has described these changes as short-term fixes while they work towards better solutions. Specifically, they’ve stated that they intend to:

Both the simple immediate fix, and these longer-term changes, seem very reasonable.

What do you need to do about this?

If you’re on the IT team of a university using AppsAnywhere, the AppsAnywhere team should have contacted you about an upgrade. Do this as soon as possible.

If you’re an end user, check what version of AppsAnywhere you’re running:

If you’re running a version before 1.6.1 or 2.0.1, try reinstalling AppsAnywhere from your university’s website; if you still don’t have a new enough version, I would recommend uninstalling AppsAnywhere until your university releases an updated version.


Many thanks to the University of St Andrews Computer Security Incident Response Team and AppCheck for assistance in coordinating this response.

  1. This comes from Software2, a former name for the company now called AppsAnywhere. 

  2. The Windows client does, however, support handling retrieve-message requests; I’m told it’s used in “very specific and relatively rare operations”. In any case, the Windows client still accepted launch requests sent directly, so the presence of the mechanism isn’t relevant to us here.