Image File Execution Options just inserts the debugger in front of the command line

Raymond Chen


If you use the Image File Execution Options registry key to force a program to run under the debugger, all the kernel does is insert the debugger in front of the command line. In other words, the CreateProcess function figure out what program is about to be run and checks the Image File Execution Options. If it finds a debugger, then the debugger is prepended to the command line and then CreateProcess resumes as if that were the command line you had passed originally.

In particular, it doesn’t do anything with the other parameters to the CreateProcess function. If you passed special parameters via the STARTUPINFO structure, those parameters get passed to the debugger. And the PROCESS_INFO that is returned by the CreateProcess function describes the debugger, not the process being debugged.

Specifically, if you specified the STARTF_USESHOWWINDOW flag and passed, say, SW_HIDE, as the wShowWindow, then the debugger will be hidden. This bites me every so often when I am called upon to debug a program that happens to be launched as hidden. I’ll slap the debugger underneath it with Image File Execution Options, run through the scenario, and then… nothing.

And then eventually I realize, “Oh, right, the debugger is hidden.”

To unstick myself, I fire up a program like Spy to get the window handle of the hidden debugger and fire up a scratch copy of Notepad so I can make it do my bidding and show the window.

ntsd -Ggx notepad
Break instruction exception - code 80000003 (first chance)
eax=7ffdf000 ebx=00000001 ecx=00000002 edx=00000003 esi=00000004 edi=00000005
eip=7c901230 esp=00a1ffcc ebp=00a1fff4 iopl=0         nv up ei pl zr na po nc
cs=001b  ss=0023  ds=0023  es=0023  fs=0038  gs=0000             efl=00000246
7c901230 cc               int     3
0:001> r esp=esp-4
0:001> ed esp 1
0:001> r esp=esp-4
0:001> ed esp 0x00010164
0:001> r esp=esp-4
0:001> ed esp eip
0:001> r eip=user32!showwindow
0:001> g
0:001> q

The first two commands push the value SW_SHOWNORMAL (numerical value 1) onto the stack. Then goes the window handle. And then the return address. Move the instruction pointer to user32!ShowWindow and we’ve simulated the function call ShowWindow(0x00010164, SW_SHOWNORMAL);. Once I let execution resume, *boom* the debugger window appears and I can continue my work.


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