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Detecting DNS implants: Old kitten, new tricks – A Saitama Case Study 

11 August 2022 at 16:05

Max Groot & Ruud van Luijk


A recently uncovered malware sample dubbed ‘Saitama’ was uncovered by security firm Malwarebytes in a weaponized document, possibly targeted towards the Jordan government. This Saitama implant uses DNS as its sole Command and Control channel and utilizes long sleep times and (sub)domain randomization to evade detection. As no server-side implementation was available for this implant, our detection engineers had very little to go on to verify whether their detection would trigger on such a communication channel. This blog documents the development of a Saitama server-side implementation, as well as several approaches taken by Fox-IT / NCC Group’s Research and Intelligence Fusion Team (RIFT) to be able to detect DNS-tunnelling implants such as Saitama. The developed implementation as well as recordings of the implant are shared on the Fox-IT GitHub.


For its Managed Detection and Response (MDR) offering, Fox-IT is continuously building and testing detection coverage for the latest threats. Such detection efforts vary across all tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP’s) of adversaries, an important one being Command and Control (C2). Detection of Command and Control involves catching attackers based on the communication between the implants on victim machines and the adversary infrastructure.  

In May 2022, security firm Malwarebytes published a two1-part2 blog about a malware sample that utilizes DNS as its sole channel for C2 communication. This sample, dubbed ‘Saitama’, sets up a C2 channel that tries to be stealthy using randomization and long sleep times. These features make the traffic difficult to detect even though the implant does not use DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) to encrypt its DNS queries.  

Although DNS tunnelling remains a relatively rare technique for C2 communication, it should not be ignored completely. While focusing on Indicators of Compromise (IOC’s) can be useful for retroactive hunting, robust detection in real-time is preferable. To assess and tune existing coverage, a more detailed understanding of the inner workings of the implant is required. This blog will use the Saitama implant to illustrate how malicious DNS tunnels can be set-up in a variety of ways, and how this variety affects the detection engineering process.  

To assist defensive researchers, this blogpost comes with the publication of a server-side implementation of Saitama on the Fox-IT GitHub. This can be used to control the implant in a lab environment. Moreover, ‘on the wire’ recordings of the implant that were generated using said implementation are also shared as PCAP and Zeek logs. This blog also details multiple approaches towards detecting the implant’s traffic, using a Suricata signature and behavioural detection. 

Reconstructing the Saitama traffic 

The behaviour of the Saitama implant from the perspective of the victim machine has already been documented elsewhere3. However, to generate a full recording of the implant’s behaviour, a C2 server is necessary that properly controls and instructs the implant. Of course, the source code of the C2 server used by the actual developer of the implant is not available. 

If you aim to detect the malware in real-time, detection efforts should focus on the way traffic is generated by the implant, rather than the specific domains that the traffic is sent to. We strongly believe in the “PCAP or it didn’t happen” philosophy. Thus, instead of relying on assumptions while building detection, we built the server-side component of Saitama to be able to generate a PCAP. 

The server-side implementation of Saitama can be found on the Fox-IT GitHub page. Be aware that this implementation is a Proof-of-Concept. We do not intend on fully weaponizing the implant “for the greater good”, and have thus provided resources to the point where we believe detection engineers and blue teamers have everything they need to assess their defences against the techniques used by Saitama.

Let’s do the twist

The usage of DNS as the channel for C2 communication has a few upsides and quite some major downsides from an attacker’s perspective. While it is true that in many environments DNS is relatively unrestricted, the protocol itself is not designed to transfer large volumes of data. Moreover, the caching of DNS queries forces the implant to make sure that every DNS query sent is unique, to guarantee the DNS query reaches the C2 server.  

For this, the Saitama implant relies on continuously shuffling the character set used to construct DNS queries. While this shuffle makes it near-impossible for two consecutive DNS queries to be the same, it does require the server and client to be perfectly in sync for them to both shuffle their character sets in the same way.  

On startup, the Saitama implant generates a random number between 0 and 46655 and assigns this to a counter variable. Using a shared secret key (“haruto” for the variant discussed here) and a shared initial character set (“razupgnv2w01eos4t38h7yqidxmkljc6b9f5”), the client encodes this counter and sends it over DNS to the C2 server. This counter is then used as the seed for a Pseudo-Random Number Generator (PRNG). Saitama uses the Mersenne Twister to generate a pseudo-random number upon every ‘twist’. 

To encode this counter, the implant relies on a function named ‘_IntToString’. This function receives an integer and a ‘base string’, which for the first DNS query is the same initial, shared character set as identified in the previous paragraph. Until the input number is equal or lower than zero, the function uses the input number to choose a character from the base string and prepends that to the variable ‘str’ which will be returned as the function output. At the end of each loop iteration, the input number is divided by the length of the baseString parameter, thus bringing the value down. 

Function used by Saitama client to convert an integer into an encoded string

To determine the initial seed, the server has to ‘invert’ this function to convert the encoded string back into its original number. However, information gets lost during the client-side conversion because this conversion rounds down without any decimals. The server tries to invert this conversion by using simple multiplication. Therefore, the server might calculate a number that does not equal the seed sent by the client and thus must verify whether the inversion function calculated the correct seed. If this is not the case, the server literately tries higher numbers until the correct seed is found.   

Once this hurdle is taken, the rest of the server-side implementation is trivial. The client appends its current counter value to every DNS query sent to the server. This counter is used as the seed for the PRNG. This PRNG is used to shuffle the initial character set into a new one, which is then used to encode the data that the client sends to the server. Thus, when both server and client use the same seed (the counter variable) to generate random numbers for the shuffling of the character set, they both arrive at the exact same character set. This allows the server and implant to communicate in the same ‘language’. The server then simply substitutes the characters from the shuffled alphabet back into the ‘base’ alphabet to derive what data was sent by the client.  

Server-side implementation to arrive at the same shuffled alphabet as the client

Twist, Sleep, Send, Repeat

Many C2 frameworks allow attackers to manually set the minimum and maximum sleep times for their implants. While low sleep times allow attackers to more quickly execute commands and receive outputs, higher sleep times generate less noise in the victim network. Detection often relies on thresholds, where suspicious behaviour will only trigger an alert when it happens multiple times in a certain period.  

The Saitama implant uses hardcoded sleep values. During active communication (such as when it returns command output back to the server), the minimum sleep time is 40 seconds while the maximum sleep time is 80 seconds. On every DNS query sent, the client will pick a random value between 40 and 80 seconds. Moreover, the DNS query is not sent to the same domain every time but is distributed across three domains. On every request, one of these domains is randomly chosen. The implant has no functionality to alter these sleep times at runtime, nor does it possess an option to ‘skip’ the sleeping step altogether.  

Sleep configuration of the implant. The integers represent sleep times in milliseconds.

These sleep times and distribution of communication hinder detection efforts, as they allow the implant to further ‘blend in’ with legitimate network traffic. While the traffic itself appears anything but benign to the trained eye, the sleep times and distribution bury the ‘needle’ that is this implant’s traffic very deep in the haystack of the overall network traffic.  

For attackers, choosing values for the sleep time is a balancing act between keeping the implant stealthy while keeping it usable. Considering Saitama’s sleep times and keeping in mind that every individual DNS query only transmits 15 bytes of output data, the usability of the implant is quite low. Although the implant can compress its output using zlib deflation, communication between server and client still takes a lot of time. For example, the standard output of the ‘whoami /priv’ command, which once zlib deflated is 663 bytes, takes more than an hour to transmit from victim machine to a C2 server.  

Transmission between server implementation and the implant

Transmission between server implementation and the implant 

The implant does contain a set of hardcoded commands that can be triggered using only one command code, rather than sending the command in its entirety from the server to the client. However, there is no way of knowing whether these hardcoded commands are even used by attackers or are left in the implant as a means of misdirection to hinder attribution. Moreover, the output from these hardcoded commands still has to be sent back to the C2 server, with the same delays as any other sent command. 


Detecting DNS tunnelling has been the subject of research for a long time, as this technique can be implemented in a multitude of different ways. In addition, the complications of the communication channel force attackers to make more noise, as they must send a lot of data over a channel that is not designed for that purpose. While ‘idle’ implants can be hard to detect due to little communication occurring over the wire, any DNS implant will have to make more noise once it starts receiving commands and sending command outputs. These communication ‘bursts’ is where DNS tunnelling can most reliably be detected. In this section we give examples of how to detect Saitama and a few well-known tools used by actual adversaries.  


Where possible we aim to write signature-based detection, as this provides a solid base and quick tool attribution. The randomization used by the Saitama implant as outlined previously makes signature-based detection challenging in this case, but not impossible. When actively communicating command output, the Saitama implant generates a high number of randomized DNS queries. This randomization does follow a specific pattern that we believe can be generalized in the following Suricata rule: 

alert dns $HOME_NET any -> any 53 (msg:"FOX-SRT - Trojan - Possible Saitama Exfil Pattern Observed"; flow:stateless; content:"|00 01 00 00 00 00 00 00|"; byte_test:1,>=,0x1c,0,relative; fast_pattern; byte_test:1,<=,0x1f,0,relative; dns_query; content:"."; content:"."; distance:1; content:!"."; distance:1; pcre:"/^(?=[0-9]+[a-z]\|[a-z]+[0-9])[a-z0-9]{28,31}\.[^.]+\.[a-z]+$/"; threshold:type both, track by_src, count 50, seconds 3600; classtype:trojan-activity; priority:2; reference:url,; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21004170; rev:1;)

This signature may seem a bit complex, but if we dissect this into separate parts it is intuitive given the previous parts. 

Content Match Explanation 
00 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 DNS query header. This match is mostly used to place the pointer at the correct position for the byte_test content matches. 
byte_test:1,>=,0x1c,0,relative; Next byte should be at least decimal 25. This byte signifies the length of the coming subdomain 
byte_test:1,<=,0x1f,0,relative; The same byte as the previous one should be at most 31. 
dns_query; content:”.”; content:”.”; distance:1; content:!”.”; DNS query should contain precisely two ‘.’ characters 
pcre:”/^(?=[0-9][a-z]|[a-z][0-9])[a-z0-9] {28,31} 
Subdomain in DNS query should contain at least one number and one letter, and no other types of characters.
threshold:type both, track by_src, count 50, seconds 3600 Only trigger if there are more than 50 queries in the last 3600 seconds. And only trigger once per 3600 seconds. 
Table one: Content matches for Suricata IDS rule

The choice for 28-31 characters is based on the structure of DNS queries containing output. First, one byte is dedicated to the ‘send and receive’ command code. Then follows the encoded ID of the implant, which can take between 1 and 3 bytes. Then, 2 bytes are dedicated to the byte index of the output data. Followed by 20 bytes of base-32 encoded output. Lastly the current value for the ‘counter’ variable will be sent. As this number can range between 0 and 46656, this takes between 1 and 5 bytes. 


The randomization that makes it difficult to create signatures is also to the defender’s advantage: most benign DNS queries are far from random. As seen in the table below, each hack tool outlined has at least one subdomain that has an encrypted or encoded part. While initially one might opt for measuring entropy to approximate randomness, said technique is less reliable when the input string is short. The usage of N-grams, an approach we have previously written about4, is better suited.  

Hacktool Example 
DNScat2 35bc006955018b0021636f6d6d616e642073657373696f6e00.domain.tld5 
Weasel pj7gatv3j2iz-dvyverpewpnnu–ykuct3gtbqoop2smr3mkxqt4.ab.abdc.domain.tld 
Anchor ueajx6snh6xick6iagmhvmbndj.domain.tld6 
Cobalt Strike or   post. 
Sliver 3eHUMj4LUA4HacKK2yuXew6ko1n45LnxZoeZDeJacUMT8ybuFciQ63AxVtjbmHD.fAh5MYs44zH8pWTugjdEQfrKNPeiN9SSXm7pFT5qvY43eJ9T4NyxFFPyuyMRDpx.GhAwhzJCgVsTn6w5C4aH8BeRjTrrvhq.domain.tld 
Saitama 6wcrrrry9i8t5b8fyfjrrlz9iw9arpcl.domain.tld 
Table two: Example DNS queries for various toolings that support DNS tunnelling

Unfortunately, the detection of randomness in DNS queries is by itself not a solid enough indicator to detect DNS tunnels without yielding large numbers of false positives. However, a second limitation of DNS tunnelling is that a DNS query can only carry a limited number of bytes. To be an effective C2 channel an attacker needs to be able to send multiple commands and receive corresponding output, resulting in (slow) bursts of multiple queries.  

This is where the second step for behaviour-based detection comes in: plainly counting the number of unique queries that have been classified as ‘randomized’. The specifics of these bursts differ slightly between tools, but in general, there is no or little idle time between two queries. Saitama is an exception in this case. It uses a uniformly distributed sleep between 40 and 80 seconds between two queries, meaning that on average there is a one-minute delay. This expected sleep of 60 seconds is an intuitive start to determine the threshold. If we aggregate over an hour, we expect 60 queries distributed over 3 domains. However, this is the mean value and in 50% of the cases there are less than 60 queries in an hour.  

To be sure we detect this, regardless of random sleeps, we can use the fact that the sum of uniform random observations approximates a normal distribution. With this distribution we can calculate the number of queries that result in an acceptable probability. Looking at the distribution, that would be 53. We use 50 in our signature and other rules to incorporate possible packet loss and other unexpected factors. Note that this number varies between tools and is therefore not a set-in-stone threshold. Different thresholds for different tools may be used to balance False Positives and False Negatives. 

In summary, combining detection for random-appearing DNS queries with a minimum threshold of random-like DNS queries per hour, can be a useful approach for the detection of DNS tunnelling. We found in our testing that there can still be some false positives, for example caused by antivirus solutions. Therefore, a last step is creating a small allow list for domains that have been verified to be benign. 

While more sophisticated detection methods may be available, we believe this method is still powerful (at least powerful enough to catch this malware) and more importantly, easy to use on different platforms such as Network Sensors or SIEMs and on diverse types of logs. 


When new malware arises, it is paramount to verify existing detection efforts to ensure they properly trigger on the newly encountered threat. While Indicators of Compromise can be used to retroactively hunt for possible infections, we prefer the detection of threats in (near-)real-time. This blog has outlined how we developed a server-side implementation of the implant to create a proper recording of the implant’s behaviour. This can subsequently be used for detection engineering purposes. 

Strong randomization, such as observed in the Saitama implant, significantly hinders signature-based detection. We detect the threat by detecting its evasive method, in this case randomization. Legitimate DNS traffic rarely consists of random-appearing subdomains, and to see this occurring in large bursts to previously unseen domains is even more unlikely to be benign.  


With the sharing of the server-side implementation and recordings of Saitama traffic, we hope that others can test their defensive solutions.  

The server-side implementation of Saitama can be found on the Fox-IT GitHub.  

This repository also contains an example PCAP & Zeek logs of traffic generated by the Saitama implant. The repository also features a replay script that can be used to parse executed commands & command output out of a PCAP. 



SharkBot: a “new” generation Android banking Trojan being distributed on Google Play Store

3 March 2022 at 19:23


  • Alberto Segura, Malware analyst
  • Rolf Govers, Malware analyst & Forensic IT Expert

NCC Group, as well as many other researchers noticed a rise in Android malware last year, especillay Android banking malware. Within the Treat Intelligence team of NCC Group we’re looking closely to several of these malware families to provide valuable information to our customers about these threats. Next to the more popular Android banking malware NCC Group’s Threat Intelligence team also watches new trends and new families that arise and could be potential threats to our customers.

One of these ‘newer’ families is an Android banking malware called SharkBot. During our research NCC Group noticed that this malware was disturbed via the official Google play store. After discovery NCC Group immediately notified Google and decided to share our knowledge via this blog post.


SharkBot is an Android banking malware found at the end of October 2021 by the Cleafy Threat Intelligence Team. At the moment of writing the SharkBot malware doesn’t seem to have any relations with other Android banking malware like Flubot, Cerberus/Alien, Anatsa/Teabot, Oscorp, etc.

The Cleafy blogpost stated that the main goal of SharkBot is to initiate money transfers (from compromised devices) via Automatic Transfer Systems (ATS). As far as we observed, this technique is an advanced attack technique which isn’t used regularly within Android malware. It enables adversaries to auto-fill fields in legitimate mobile banking apps and initate money transfers, where other Android banking malware, like Anatsa/Teabot or Oscorp, require a live operator to insert and authorize money transfers. This technique also allows adversaries to scale up their operations with minimum effort.

The ATS features allow the malware to receive a list of events to be simulated, and them will be simulated in order to do the money transfers. Since this features can be used to simulate touches/clicks and button presses, it can be used to not only automatically transfer money but also install other malicious applications or components. This is the case of the SharkBot version that we found in the Google Play Store, which seems to be a reduced version of SharkBot with the minimum required features, such as ATS, to install a full version of the malware some time after the initial install.

Because of the fact of being distributed via the Google Play Store as a fake Antivirus, we found that they have to include the usage of infected devices in order to spread the malicious app. SharkBot achieves this by abusing the ‘Direct Reply‘ Android feature. This feature is used to automatically send reply notification with a message to download the fake Antivirus app. This spread strategy abusing the Direct Reply feature has been seen recently in another banking malware called Flubot, discovered by ThreatFabric.

What is interesting and different from the other families is that SharkBot likely uses ATS to also bypass multi-factor authentication mechanisms, including behavioral detection like bio-metrics, while at the same time it also includes more classic features to steal user’s credentials.

Money and Credential Stealing features

SharkBot implements the four main strategies to steal banking credentials in Android:

  • Injections (overlay attack): SharkBot can steal credentials by showing a WebView with a fake log in website (phishing) as soon as it detects the official banking app has been opened.
  • Keylogging: Sharkbot can steal credentials by logging accessibility events (related to text fields changes and buttons clicked) and sending these logs to the command and control server (C2).
  • SMS intercept: Sharkbot has the ability to intercept/hide SMS messages.
  • Remote control/ATS: Sharkbot has the ability to obtain full remote control of an Android device (via Accessibility Services).

For most of these features, SharkBot needs the victim to enable the Accessibility Permissions & Services. These permissions allows Android banking malware to intercept all the accessibility events produced by the interaction of the user with the User Interface, including button presses, touches, TextField changes (useful for the keylogging features), etc. The intercepted accessibility events also allow to detect the foreground application, so banking malware also use these permissions to detect when a targeted app is open, in order to show the web injections to steal user’s credentials.


Sharkbot is distributed via the Google Play Store, but also using something relatively new in the Android malware: ‘Direct reply‘ feature for notifications. With this feature, the C2 can provide as message to the malware which will be used to automatically reply the incoming notifications received in the infected device. This has been recently introduced by Flubot to distribute the malware using the infected devices, but it seems SharkBot threat actors have also included this feature in recent versions.

In the following image we can see the code of SharkBot used to intercept new notifications and automatically reply them with the received message from the C2.

In the following picture we can see the ‘autoReply’ command received by our infected test device, which contains a shortten link which redirects to the Google Play Store sample.

We detected the SharkBot reduced version published in the Google Play on 28th February, but the last update was on 10th February, so the app has been published for some time now. This reduced version uses a very similar protocol to communicate with the C2 (RC4 to encrypt the payload and Public RSA key used to encrypt the RC4 key, so the C2 server can decrypt the request and encrypt the response using the same key). This SharkBot version, which we can call SharkBotDropper is mainly used to download a fully featured SharkBot from the C2 server, which will be installed by using the Automatic Transfer System (ATS) (simulating click and touches with the Accessibility permissions).

This malicious dropper is published in the Google Play Store as a fake Antivirus, which really has two main goals (and commands to receive from C2):

  • Spread the malware using ‘Auto reply’ feature: It can receive an ‘autoReply’ command with the message that should be used to automatically reply any notification received in the infected device. During our research, it has been spreading the same Google Play dropper via a shorten URL.
  • Dropper+ATS: The ATS features are used to install the downloaded SharkBot sample obtained from the C2. In the following image we can see the decrypted response received from the C2, in which the dropper receives the command ‘b‘ to download the full SharkBot sample from the provided URL and the ATS events to simulate in order to get the malware installed.

With this command, the app installed from the Google Play Store is able to install and enable Accessibility Permissions for the fully featured SharkBot sample it downloaded. It will be used to finally perform the ATS fraud to steal money and credentials from the victims.

The fake Antivirus app, the SharkBotDropper, published in the Google Play Store has more than 1,000 downloads, and some fake comments like ‘It works good’, but also other comments from victims that realized that this app does some weird things.

Technical analysis

Protocol & C2

The protocol used to communicate with the C2 servers is an HTTP based protocol. The HTTP requests are made in plain, since it doesn’t use HTTPs. Even so, the actual payload with the information sent and received is encrypted using RC4. The RC4 key used to encrypt the information is randomly generated for each request, and encrypted using the RSA Public Key hardcoded in each sample. That way, the C2 can decrypt the encrypted key (rkey field in the HTTP POST request) and finally decrypt the sent payload (rdata field in the HTTP POST request).

If we take a look at the decrypted payload, we can see how SharkBot is simply using JSON to send different information about the infected device and receive the commands to be executed from the C2. In the following image we can see the decrypted RC4 payload which has been sent from an infected device.

Two important fields sent in the requests are:

  • ownerID
  • botnetID

Those parameters are hardcoded and have the same value in the analyzed samples. We think those values can be used in the future to identify different buyers of this malware, which based on our investigation is not being sold in underground forums yet.

Domain Generation Algorithm

SharkBot includes one or two domains/URLs which should be registered and working, but in case the hardcoded C2 servers were taken down, it also includes a Domain Generation Algorithm (DGA) to be able to communicate with a new C2 server in the future.

The DGA uses the current date and a specific suffix string (‘pojBI9LHGFdfgegjjsJ99hvVGHVOjhksdf’) to finally encode that in base64 and get the first 19 characters. Then, it append different TLDs to generate the final candidate domain.

The date elements used are:

  • Week of the year (v1.get(3) in the code)
  • Year (v1.get(1) in the code)

It uses the ‘+’ operator, but since the week of the year and the year are Integers, they are added instead of appended, so for example: for the second week of 2022, the generated string to be base64 encoded is: 2 + 2022 + “pojBI9LHGFdfgegjjsJ99hvVGHVOjhksdf” = 2024 + “pojBI9LHGFdfgegjjsJ99hvVGHVOjhksdf” = “2024pojBI9LHGFdfgegjjsJ99hvVGHVOjhksdf”.

In previous versions of SharkBot (from November-December of 2021), it only used the current week of the year to generate the domain. Including the year to the generation algorithm seems to be an update for a better support of the new year 2022.


SharkBot can receive different commands from the C2 server in order to execute different actions in the infected device such as sending text messages, download files, show injections, etc. The list of commands it can receive and execute is as follows:

  • smsSend: used to send a text message to the specified phone number by the TAs
  • updateLib: used to request the malware downloads a new JAR file from the specified URL, which should contain an updated version of the malware
  • updateSQL: used to send the SQL query to be executed in the SQLite database which Sharkbot uses to save the configuration of the malware (injections, etc.)
  • stopAll: used to reset/stop the ATS feature, stopping the in progress automation.
  • updateConfig: used to send an updated config to the malware.
  • uninstallApp: used to uninstall the specified app from the infected device
  • changeSmsAdmin: used to change the SMS manager app
  • getDoze: used to check if the permissions to ignore battery optimization are enabled, and show the Android settings to disable them if they aren’t
  • sendInject: used to show an overlay to steal user’s credentials
  • getNotify: used to show the Notification Listener settings if they are not enabled for the malware. With this permissions enabled, Sharkbot will be able to intercept notifications and send them to the C2
  • APP_STOP_VIEW: used to close the specified app, so every time the user tries to open that app, the Accessibility Service with close it
  • downloadFile: used to download one file from the specified URL
  • updateTimeKnock: used to update the last request timestamp for the bot
  • localATS: used to enable ATS attacks. It includes a JSON array with the different events/actions it should simulate to perform ATS (button clicks, etc.)

Automatic Transfer System

One of the distinctive parts of SharkBot is that it uses a technique known as Automatic Transfer System (ATS). ATS is a relatively new technique used by banking malware for Android.

To summarize ATS can be compared with webinject, only serving a different purpose. Rather then gathering credentials for use/scale it uses the credentials for automatically initiating wire transfers on the endpoint itself (so without needing to log in and bypassing 2FA or other anti-fraud measures). However, it is very individually tailored and request quite some maintenance for each bank, amount, money mules etc. This is probably one of the reasons ATS isn’t that popular amongst (Android) banking malware.

How does it work?

Once a target logs into their banking app the malware would receive an array of events (clicks/touches, button presses, gestures, etc.) to be simulated in an specific order. Those events are used to simulate the interaction of the victim with the banking app to make money transfers, as if the user were doing the money transfer by himself.

This way, the money transfer is made from the device of the victim by simulating different events, which make much more difficult to detect the fraud by fraud detection systems.


Sample Hashes:

  • a56dacc093823dc1d266d68ddfba04b2265e613dcc4b69f350873b485b9e1f1c (Google Play SharkBotDropper)
  • 9701bef2231ecd20d52f8fd2defa4374bffc35a721e4be4519bda8f5f353e27a (Dropped SharkBot v1.64.1)

SharkBotDropper C2:

  • hxxp://statscodicefiscale[.]xyz/stats/

‘Auto/Direct Reply’ URL used to distribute the malware:

  • hxxps://bit[.]ly/34ArUxI

Google Play Store URL:

C2 servers/Domains for SharkBot:

  • n3bvakjjouxir0zkzmd[.]xyz (
  • mjayoxbvakjjouxir0z[.]xyz (

RSA Public Key used to encrypt RC4 key in SharkBot:


RSA Public Key used to encrypt RC4 Key in the Google Play SharkBotDropper:


log4j-jndi-be-gone: A simple mitigation for CVE-2021-44228

14 December 2021 at 07:11

tl;dr Run our new tool by adding -javaagent:log4j-jndi-be-gone-1.0.0-standalone.jar to all of your JVM Java stuff to stop log4j from loading classes remotely over LDAP. This will prevent malicious inputs from triggering the “Log4Shell” vulnerability and gaining remote code execution on your systems.

In this post, we first offer some context on the vulnerability, the released fixes (and their shortcomings), and finally our mitigation (or you can skip directly to our mitigation tool here).

Context: log4shell

Hello internet, it’s been a rough week. As you have probably learned, basically every Java app in the world uses a library called “log4j” to handle logging, and that any string passed into those logging calls will evaluate magic ${jndi:ldap://...} sequences to remotely load (malicious) Java class files over the internet (CVE-2021-44228, “Log4Shell”). Right now, while the SREs are trying to apply the not-quite-a-fix official fix and/or implement egress filtering without knocking their employers off the internet, most people are either blaming log4j for even having this JNDI stuff in the first place and/or blaming the issue on a lack of support for the project that would have helped to prevent such a dangerous behavior from being so accessible. In reality, the JNDI stuff is regrettably more of an “enterprise” feature than one that developers would just randomly put in if left to their own devices. Enterprise Java is all about antipatterns that invoke code in roundabout ways to the point of obfuscation, and supporting ever more dynamic ways to integrate weird protocols like RMI to load and invoke remote code dynamically in weird ways. Even the log4j format “Interpolator” wraps a bunch of handlers, including the JNDI handler, in reflection wrappers. So, if anything, more “(financial) support” for the project would probably just lead to more of these kinds of things happening as demand for one-off formatters for new systems grows among larger users. Welcome to Enterprise Java Land, where they’ve already added log4j variable expansion for Docker and Kubernetes. Alas, the real problem is that log4j 2.x (the version basically everyone uses) is designed in such a way that all string arguments after the main format string for the logging call are also treated as format strings. Basically all log4j calls are equivalent to if the following C:

printf("%s\n", "clobbering some bytes %n");

were implemented as the very unsafe code below:

char *buf;
asprintf(&buf, "%s\n", "clobbering some bytes %n");

Basically, log4j never got the memo about format string vulnerabilities and now it’s (probably) too late. It was only a matter of time until someone realized they exposed a magic format string directive that led to code execution (and even without the classloading part, it is still a means of leaking expanded variables out through other JNDI-compatible services, like DNS), and I think it may only be a matter of time until another dangerous format string handler gets introduced into log4j. Meanwhile, even without JNDI, if someone has access to your log4j output (wherever you send it), and can cause their input to end up in a log4j call (pretty much a given based on the current havoc playing out) they can systematically dump all sorts of process and system state into it including sensitive application secrets and credentials. Had log4j not implemented their formatting this way, then the JNDI issue would only impact applications that concatenated user input into the format string (a non-zero amount, but much less than 100%).

The “Fixes”

The main fix is to update to the just released log4j 2.16.0. Prior to that, the official mitigation from the log4j maintainers was:

“In releases >=2.10, this behavior can be mitigated by setting either the system property log4j2.formatMsgNoLookups or the environment variable LOG4J_FORMAT_MSG_NO_LOOKUPS to true. For releases from 2.0-beta9 to 2.10.0, the mitigation is to remove the JndiLookup class from the classpath: zip -q -d log4j-core-*.jar org/apache/logging/log4j/core/lookup/JndiLookup.class.”

Apache Log4j

So to be clear, the fix given for older versions of log4j (2.0-beta9 until 2.10.0) is to find and purge the JNDI handling class from all of your JARs, which are probably all-in-one fat JARs because no one uses classpaths anymore, all to prevent it from being loaded.

A tool to mitigate Log4Shell by disabling log4j JNDI

To try to make the situation a little bit more manageable in the meantime, we are releasing log4j-jndi-be-gone, a dead simple Java agent that disables the log4j JNDI handler outright. log4j-jndi-be-gone uses the Byte Buddy bytecode manipulation library to modify the at-issue log4j class’s method code and short circuit the JNDI interpolation handler. It works by effectively hooking the at-issue JndiLookup class’ lookup() method that Log4Shell exploits to load remote code, and forces it to stop early without actually loading the Log4Shell payload URL. It also supports Java 6 through 17, covering older versions of log4j that support Java 6 (2.0-2.3) and 7 (2.4-2.12.1), and works on read-only filesystems (once installed or mounted) such as in read-only containers.

The benefit of this Java agent is that a single command line flag can negate the vulnerability regardless of which version of log4j is in use, so long as it isn’t obfuscated (e.g. with proguard), in which case you may not be in a good position to update it anyway. log4j-jndi-be-gone is not a replacement for the -Dlog4j2.formatMsgNoLookups=true system property in supported versions, but helps to deal with those older versions that don’t support it.

Using it is pretty simple, just add -javaagent:path/to/log4j-jndi-be-gone-1.0.0-standalone.jar to your Java commands. In addition to disabling the JNDI handling, it also prints a message indicating that a log4j JNDI attempt was made with a simple sanitization applied to the URL string to prevent it from becoming a propagation vector. It also “resolves” any JNDI format strings to "(log4j jndi disabled)" making the attempts a bit more grep-able.

$ java -javaagent:log4j-jndi-be-gone-1.0.0.jar -jar myapp.jar

log4j-jndi-be-gone is available from our GitHub repo, You can grab a pre-compiled log4j-jndi-be-gone agent JAR from the releases page, or build one yourself with ./gradlew, assuming you have a recent version of Java installed.

Log4Shell: Reconnaissance and post exploitation network detection

12 December 2021 at 19:16

Note: This blogpost will be live-updated with new information. NCC Group’s RIFT is intending to publish PCAPs of different exploitation methods in the near future – last updated December 14th at 13:00 UTC

About the Research and Intelligence Fusion Team (RIFT): RIFT leverages our strategic analysis, data science, and threat hunting capabilities to create actionable threat intelligence, ranging from IOCs and detection capabilities to strategic reports on tomorrow’s threat landscape. Cyber security is an arms race where both attackers and defenders continually update and improve their tools and ways of working. To ensure that our managed services remain effective against the latest threats, NCC Group operates a Global Fusion Center with Fox-IT at its core. This multidisciplinary team converts our leading cyber threat intelligence into powerful detection strategies.

In the wake of the CVE-2021-44228 (a.k.a. Log4Shell) vulnerability publication, NCC Group’s RIFT immediately started investigating the vulnerability in order to improve detection and response capabilities mitigating the threat. This blog post is focused on detection and threat hunting, although attack surface scanning and identification are also quintessential parts of a holistic response. Multiple references for prevention and mitigation can be found included at the end of this post.

This blogpost provides Suricata network detection rules that can be used not only to detect exploitation attempts, but also indications of successful exploitation. In addition, a list of indicators of compromise (IOC’s) are provided. These IOC’s have been observed listening for incoming connections and are thus a useful for threat hunting.

Update Wednesday December 15th, 17:30 UTC

We have seen 5 instances in our client base of active exploitation of Mobile Iron during the course of yesterday and today.

Our working hypothesis is that this is a derivative of the details shared yesterday –

The scale of the exposure globally appears significant.

We recommend all Mobile Iron users updated immediately.

Ivanti informed us that communication was sent over the weekend to MobileIron Core customers. Ivanti has provided mitigation steps of the exploit listed below on their Knowledge Base. Both NCC Group and Ivanti recommend all customers immediately apply the mitigation within to ensure their environment is protected.

Update Tuesday December 14th, 13:00 UTC

Log4j-finder: finding vulnerable versions of Log4j on your systems

RIFT has published a Python 3 script that can be run on endpoints to check for the presence of vulnerable versions of Log4j. The script requires no dependencies and supports recursively checking the filesystem and inside JAR files to see if they contain a vulnerable version of Log4j. This script can be of great value in determining which systems are vulnerable, and where this vulnerability stems from. The script will be kept up to date with ongoing developments.

It is strongly recommended to run host based scans for vulnerable Log4j versions. Whereas network-based scans attempt to identify vulnerable Log4j versions by attacking common entry points, a host-based scan can find Log4j in unexpected or previously unknown places.

The script can be found on GitHub:

JNDI ExploitKit exposes larger attack surface

As shown by the release of an update JNDI ExploitKIT  it is possible to reach remote code execution through serialized payloads instead of referencing a Java .class object in LDAP and subsequently serving that to the vulnerable system. While TrustURLCodebase defaults to false in newer Java versions (6u211, 7u201, 8u191, and 11.0.1) and therefore prevents the LDAP reference vector,depending on the loaded libraries in the vulnerable application it is possible to execute code through Java serialization via both rmi and ldap.

Beware: Centralized logging can result in indirect compromise

This is also highly relevant for organisations using a form of centralised logging. Centralised logging can be used to collect and parse the received logs from the different services and applications running in the environment. We have identified cases where a Kibana server was not exposed to the Internet but because it received logs from several appliances it still got hit by the Log4Shell RCE and started to retrieve Java objects via LDAP.

We were unable to determine if this was due to Logstash being used in the background for parsing the received logs, but this stipulates the importance of checking systems configured with centralised logging solutions for vulnerable versions of Log4j, and not rely on the protection of newer JDK versions that has com.sun.jndi.ldap.object.trustURLCodebase
com.sun.jndi.rmi.object.trustURLCodebase set to false by default.

A warning concerning possible post-exploitation

Although largely eclipsed by Log4Shell, last weekend also saw the emergence of details concerning two vulnerabilities (CVE-2021-42287 and CVE-2021-42278) that reside in the Active Directory component of Microsoft Windows Server editions. Due to the nature of these vulnerabilities, an attackers could escalate their privileges in a relatively easy manner as these vulnerabilities have already been weaponised.

It is therefore advised to apply the patches provided by Microsoft in the November 2021 security updates to every domain controller that is residing in the network as it is a possible form of post-exploitation after Log4Shell were to be successfully exploited.


Since Log4J is used by many solutions there are significant challenges in finding vulnerable systems and any potential compromise resulting from exploitation of the vulnerability. JNDI (Java Naming and Directory Interface™) was designed to allow distributed applications to look up services in a resource-independent manner, and this is exactly where the bug resulting in exploitation resides. The nature of JNDI allows for defense-evading exploitation attempts that are harder to detect through signatures. An additional problem is the tremendous amount of scanning activity that is currently ongoing. Because of this, investigating every single exploitation attempt is in most situations unfeasible. This means that distinguishing scanning attempts from actual successful exploitation is crucial.

In order to provide detection coverage for CVE-2021-44228, NCC Group’s RIFT first created a ruleset that covers as many as possible ways of attempted exploitation of the vulnerability. This initial coverage allowed the collection of Threat Intelligence for further investigation. Most adversaries appear to use a different IP to scan for the vulnerability than they do for listening for incoming victim machines. IOC’s for listening IP’s / domains are more valuable than those of scanning IP’s. After all a connection from an environment to a known listening IP might indicate a successful compromise, whereas a connection to a scanning IP might merely mean that it has been scanned.

After establishing this initial coverage, our focus shifted to detecting successful exploitation in real time. This can be done by monitoring for rogue JRMI or LDAP requests to external servers. Preferably, this sort of behavior is detected in a port-agnostic way as attackers may choose arbitrary ports to listen on. Moreover, currently a full RCE chain requires the victim machine to retrieve a Java class file from a remote server (caveat: unless exfiltrating sensitive environment variables). For hunting purposes we are able to hunt for inbound Java classes. However, if coverage exists for incoming attacks we are also able to alert on an inbound Java class in a short period of time after an exploitation attempt. The combination of inbound exploitation attempt and inbound Java class is a high confidence IOC that a successful connection has occurred.

This blogpost will continue twofold: we will first provide a set of suricata rules that can be used for:

  1. Detecting incoming exploitation attempts;
  2. Alerting on higher confidence indicators that successful exploitation has occurred;
  3. Generating alerts that can be used for hunting

After providing these detection rules, a list of IOC’s is provided.

Detection Rules

Some of these rules are redundant, as they’ve been written in rapid succession.

# Detects Log4j exploitation attempts
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4J RCE Request Observed (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"${jndi:ldap://"; fast_pattern:only; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-10; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003726; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4J RCE Request Observed (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"${jndi:"; fast_pattern; pcre:"/\$\{jndi\:(rmi|ldaps|dns)\:/"; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-10; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003728; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Defense-Evasive Apache Log4J RCE Request Observed (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"${jndi:"; fast_pattern; content:!"ldap://"; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-10; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003730; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Defense-Evasive Apache Log4J RCE Request Observed (URL encoded bracket) (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"%7bjndi:"; nocase; fast_pattern; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003731; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4j Exploit Attempt in HTTP Header"; flow:established, to_server; content:"${"; http_header; fast_pattern; content:"}"; http_header; distance:0; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce.loose; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003732; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4j Exploit Attempt in URI"; flow:established,to_server; content:"${"; http_uri; fast_pattern; content:"}"; http_uri; distance:0; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce.loose; classtype:web-application-attack; priority:3; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003733; rev:1;)
# Better and stricter rules, also detects evasion techniques
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4j Exploit Attempt in HTTP Header (strict)"; flow:established,to_server; content:"${"; http_header; fast_pattern; content:"}"; http_header; distance:0; pcre:/(\$\{\w+:.*\}|jndi)/Hi; xbits:set, fox.log4shell.attempt, track ip_dst, expire 1; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:web-application-attack; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; metadata:ids suricata; priority:3; sid:21003734; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4j Exploit Attempt in URI (strict)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"${"; http_uri; fast_pattern; content:"}"; http_uri; distance:0; pcre:/(\$\{\w+:.*\}|jndi)/Ui; xbits:set, fox.log4shell.attempt, track ip_dst, expire 1; classtype:web-application-attack; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; metadata:ids suricata; priority:3; sid:21003735; rev:1;)
alert http any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Apache Log4j Exploit Attempt in Client Body (strict)"; flow:to_server; content:"${"; http_client_body; fast_pattern; content:"}"; http_client_body; distance:0; pcre:/(\$\{\w+:.*\}|jndi)/Pi; flowbits:set, fox.apachelog4j.rce.strict; xbits:set,fox.log4shell.attempt,track ip_dst,expire 1; classtype:web-application-attack; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; reference:url,; reference:url,; metadata:CVE 2021-44228; metadata:created_at 2021-12-12; metadata:ids suricata; priority:3; sid:21003744; rev:1;)

Detecting outbound connections to probing services

Connections to outbound probing services could indicate a system in your network has been scanned and subsequently connected back to a listening service. This could indicate that a system in your network is/was vulnerable and has been scanned.

# Possible successful interactsh probe
alert http $EXTERNAL_NET any -> $HOME_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Webattack – Possible successful InteractSh probe observed"; flow:established, to_client; content:"200"; http_stat_code; content:"<html><head></head><body>"; http_server_body; fast_pattern; pcre:"/[a-z0-9]{30,36}<\/body><\/html>/QR"; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:misc-attack; reference:url,; metadata:created_at 2021-12-05; metadata:ids suricata; priority:2; sid:21003712; rev:1;)
alert dns $HOME_NET any -> any 53 (msg:"FOX-SRT – Suspicious – DNS query for server observed"; flow:stateless; dns_query; content:""; fast_pattern; pcre:"/[a-z0-9]{30,36}\.interactsh\.com/"; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; reference:url,; classtype:bad-unknown; metadata:created_at 2021-12-05; metadata:ids suricata; priority:2; sid:21003713; rev:1;)
# Detecting DNS queries for dnslog[.]cn
alert dns any any -> any 53 (msg:"FOX-SRT – Suspicious – DNS Query Observed"; flow:stateless; dns_query; content:""; fast_pattern:only; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; metadata:created_at 2021-12-10; metadata:ids suricata; priority:2; sid:21003729; rev:1;)
# Connections to
alert dns $HOME_NET any -> any 53 (msg:"FOX-SRT – Suspicious – DNS Query Observed"; flow:stateless; dns_query; content:""; fast_pattern:only; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; metadata:created_at 2021-11-23; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003685; rev:1;)
alert tls $HOME_NET any -> $EXTERNAL_NET 443 (msg:"FOX-SRT – Suspicious – in SNI Observed"; flow:established, to_server; tls_sni; content:""; fast_pattern:only; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; metadata:created_at 2021-11-23; metadata:ids suricata; sid:21003686; rev:1;)

Detecting possible successful exploitation

Outbound LDAP(S) / RMI connections are highly uncommon but can be caused by successful exploitation. Inbound Java can be suspicious, especially if it is shortly after an exploitation attempt.

# Detects possible successful exploitation of Log4j
# JNDI LDAP/RMI Request to External
alert tcp $HOME_NET any -> $EXTERNAL_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Rogue JNDI LDAP Bind to External Observed (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; dsize:14; content:"|02 01 03 04 00 80 00|"; offset:7; isdataat:!1, relative; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; priority:1; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; sid:21003738; rev:2;)
alert tcp $HOME_NET any -> $EXTERNAL_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Exploit – Possible Rogue JRMI Request to External Observed (CVE-2021-44228)"; flow:established, to_server; content:"JRMI"; depth:4; threshold:type limit, track by_src, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; priority:1; reference:url,; metadata:created_at 2021-12-11; sid:21003739; rev:1;)
# Detecting inbound java shortly after exploitation attempt
alert tcp any any -> $HOME_NET any (msg: "FOX-SRT – Exploit – Java class inbound after CVE-2021-44228 exploit attempt (xbit)"; flow:established, to_client; content: "|CA FE BA BE 00 00 00|"; depth:40; fast_pattern; xbits:isset, fox.log4shell.attempt, track ip_dst; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:successful-user; priority:1; metadata:ids suricata; metadata:created_at 2021-12-12; sid:21003741; rev:1;)

Hunting rules (can yield false positives)

Wget and cURL to external hosts was observed to be used by an actor for post-exploitation. As cURL and Wget are also used legitimately, these rules should be used for hunting purposes. Also note that attackers can easily change the User-Agent but we have not seen that in the wild yet. Outgoing connections after Log4j exploitation attempts can be tracked to be later hunted on although this rule can generate false positives if victim machine makes outgoing connections regularly. Lastly, detecting inbound compiled Java classes can also be used for hunting.

# Outgoing connection after Log4j Exploit Attempt (uses xbit from sid: 21003734) – requires `stream.inline=yes` setting in suricata.yaml for this to work
alert tcp $HOME_NET any -> $EXTERNAL_NET any (msg:"FOX-SRT – Suspicious – Possible outgoing connection after Log4j Exploit Attempt"; flow:established, to_server; xbits:isset, fox.log4shell.attempt, track ip_src; stream_size:client, =, 1; stream_size:server, =, 1; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 3600; classtype:bad-unknown; metadata:ids suricata; metadata:created_at 2021-12-12; priority:3; sid:21003740; rev:1;)
# Detects inbound Java class
alert tcp $EXTERNAL_NET any -> $HOME_NET any (msg: "FOX-SRT – Suspicious – Java class inbound"; flow:established, to_client; content: "|CA FE BA BE 00 00 00|"; depth:20; fast_pattern; threshold:type limit, track by_dst, count 1, seconds 43200; metadata:ids suricata; metadata:created_at 2021-12-12; classtype:bad-unknown; priority:3; sid:21003742; rev:2;)

Indicators of Compromise

This list contains Domains and IP’s that have been observed to listen for incoming connections. Unfortunately, some adversaries scan and listen from the same IP, generating a lot of noise that can make threat hunting more difficult. Moreover, as security researchers are scanning the internet for the vulnerability as well, it could be possible that an IP or domain is listed here even though it is only listening for benign purposes.

# IP addresses and domains that have been observed in Log4j exploit attempts

# (Ab)use of listener-as-a-service domains.
# These domains can be false positive heavy, especially if these services are used legitimately within your network.

# This IP is both a listener and a scanner at the same time. Threat hunting for this IOC thus requires additional steps.


General references


Attack surface:

Known vulnerable services / products which use log4j:

Hashes of vulnerable products (beware, 2.15 of Log4J is included):

Encryption Does Not Equal Invisibility – Detecting Anomalous TLS Certificates with the Half-Space-Trees Algorithm

7 December 2021 at 15:18

Author: Margit Hazenbroek


An approach to detecting suspicious TLS certificates using an incremental anomaly detection model is discussed. This model utilizes the Half-Space-Trees algorithm and provides our security operations teams (SOC) with the opportunity to detect suspicious behavior, in real-time, even when network traffic is encrypted. 

The prevalence of encrypted traffic

As a company that provides Managed Network Detection & Response services an increase in the use of encrypted traffic has been observed. This trend is broadly welcome. The use of encrypted network protocols yields improved mitigation against eavesdropping. However, in an attempt to bypass security detection that relies on deep packet inspection, it is now a standard tactic for malicious actors to abuse the privacy that encryption enables. For example, when conducting malicious activity, such as command and control of an infected device, connections to the attacker controlled external domain now commonly occur using HTTPS.

The application of a range of data science techniques is now integral to identifying malicious activity that is conducted using encrypted network protocols. This blogpost expands on one such technique, how anomalous characteristics of TLS certificates can be identified using the Half Space Trees algorithm. In combination with other modelling, like the identification of an unusual JA3 hash [i], beaconing patterns [ii] or randomly generated domains [iii], effective detection logic can be created. The research described here has subsequently been further developed and added to our commercial offering. It is actively facilitating real time detection of malicious activity.

Malicious actors abuse the trust of TLS certificates

TLS certificates are a type of digital certificate, issued by a Certificate Authority (CA) certifying that they have verified the owners of the domain name which is the subject of the certificate. TLS certificates usually contain the following information:

  • The subject domain name
  • The subject organization
  • The name of the issuing CA
  • Additional or alternative subject domain names
  • Issue date
  • Expiry date
  • The public key 
  • The digital signature by the CA [iv]. 

If malicious actors want to use TLS to ensure that they appear as legitimate traffic they have to obtain a TLS certificate (Mitre, T1608.003) [v]. Malicious actors can obtain certificates in different ways, most commonly by: 

  • Obtaining free certificates from a CA. CA’s like Let’s Encrypt issue free certificates. Malicious actors are known to widely abuse this trust relationship (vi, vii). 
  • Creating self-signed certificates. Self-signed certificates are not signed by a CA. Certain attack frameworks such as Cobalt Strike offer the option to generate self-signed certificates.
  • Buying or stealing certificates from a CA. Malicious actors can deceive a CA to issue a certificate for a fake organization.

The following example shows the subject name and issue name of a TLS certificate in a recent Ryuk ransomware campaign.

Subject Name: 
C=US, ST=TX, L=Texas, O=lol, OU=, CN=idrivedownload[.]com

Issuer Name: 
C=US, ST=TX, L=Texas, O=lol, OU=, CN=idrivedownload[.]com 

Example 1. Subject and issuer fields in a TLS certificate used in Ryuk ransomware

The meaning of the attributes that can be found in the issuer name and subject name fields of TLS certificates are defined in RFC 5280 and are explained in the table below.

C Country of the entity
S State of province
L Locality
O Organizational name
OU Organizational Unit
CN Common Name
Table 1.  The subject usually includes the information of the owner, and the issuer field includes the entity that has signed and issued the certificate (RFC, 5280) (viii).

Note the following characteristics that can be observed in this malicious certificate:

  • It is a self-signed certificate as no CA present in the Issuer Name. 
  • The Organization names attribute contains the string “lol” 
  • The Organizational Units attribute is empty 
  • A domain name is present in the Common Name (ix, x)

Compare these characteristics to the legitimate certificate used by the domain. 

Subject Name:
C=GB, L=Manchester, O=NCC Group PLC,

Issuer Name:
C=US, O=Entrust, Inc., OU=See, OU=(c) 2012 Entrust, Inc. - for authorized use only, CN=Entrust Certification Authority - L1K

Example 2. Subject and issuer fields in a TLS certificate used by

Observe the attributes in the Subject and Issuer Name. In the Subject Name is information about the owner of the certificate. In the Issuer Name is information of the CA. 

Using machine learning to identify anomalous certificates

When comparing the legitimate and malicious certificate the certificate used in Ryuk ransomware “looks weird”. If humans could identify that the malicious certificate is peculiar, could machines also learn to classify such a certificate as anomalous? To explore this question a dataset of “known good” and “known bad” TLS certificates was curated. Using white-box algorithms, such as Random Forest, several features were identified that helped classify malicious certificates. For example, the number of empty attributes had a statistical relationship with how likely it was used for malicious activities.However, it was soon recognized that such an approach was problematic, there was a risk of “over-fitting” the algorithm to the training data, a situation whereby the algorithm would perform well on the training dataset but perform poorly when applied to real life data. Especially in a stream of data that evolves over time, such as network data, it is challenging to maintain high detection precision. To be effective this model needed the ability to become aware of new patterns that may present themselves outside of the small sample of training data provide; an unsupervised machine learning model which could detect anomalies in real-time was required.  

An isolation-based anomaly detection approach

The Isolation Forest was the first isolation-based anomaly detection model, created by Liu et al. in 2008 (xi). The referenced paper presented an intuitive but powerful idea. Anomalous data points are rare. And a property of rarity is that the anomalous data point must be easier to isolate from the rest of the data. 

From this insight the algorithm proposed computes the ease of isolating an anomaly. It achieves this by making a tree to split the data (visualization 1 includes an example of a tree structure). The more anomalous an observation is the faster an anomaly gets isolated in the tree, and the less splits in the tree are needed. Note, the Isolation Forest is an ensemble method, meaning it builds multiple trees (forest) and calculates the average amounts of splits made by the trees to isolate an anomaly (xi). 

An advantage of this approach is that, in contrast to density and distance-based approaches, less computational cost is required to identify anomalies (xi, xii) whilst maintaining comparable levels of performance metrics (viii, ix).

Half-Space-Trees: Isolation-based approach for streaming data 

In 2011, building on their earlier work, Tan and Liu created an isolation-based algorithm called Half-Space-Trees (HST) that utilized incremental learning techniques. HST enables an isolation-based anomaly detection approach to be applied to a stream of continuous data (xiii). The animation below demonstrates how a simple half-space-tree isolates anomalies in the window space with a tree-based structure: 

Visualization 1:  An example of 2-dimensional data in a window divided by two simple half-space-trees, the visualization is inspired by the original paper.

The HST is also an ensemble method, meaning it builds multiple half-space-trees. A single half-space-tree bisects the window (space) in half-spaces based on the features in the data. Every single half-space-tree does this randomly and goes on as long as the set height of the tree. The half-space-tree calculates the amount of data points per subspace and gives a mass score to that subspace (which is represented by the colors). 

The subspaces where most datapoints fall in are considered high-mass subspaces, and the subspaces with low or no data points are considered low-mass subspaces. Most data points are expected to fall in high-mass subspaces because they need many more splits (i.e., a higher tree) to be isolated. The sum of the mass of all half-space-trees becomes the final anomaly score of the HST (xiii). Calculating mass is a different approach than looking at the number of splits (as conducted in the Isolation Forest). Even so, using recursive methods calculating the mass profile is maintained as a simple and fast way of computing data points in streaming data (xiii). 

Moreover, the HST works with two consecutive windows; the reference window and the latest window. The HST learns the mass profile in the reference window and uses it as a reference for new incoming data in the latest window. Without going too deep into the workings of the windows, it is worth mentioning that the reference window is updated every time the latest window is full. Namely, when the latest window is full, it will override the mass profile to the reference window and the latest window is cleared so new data can come in. By updating its windows in this way, the HST is robust for evolving streaming data (xiii). 

The anomaly scores output issued by HSTs falls between 0 and 1. The closer the anomaly score is to 1 the easier it was to isolate the certificate and the more likely that the certificate is anomalous. Testing HSTs on our initial collated data it was satisfied that this was a robust approach to the problem, with the Ryuk ransomware certificate repeatedly identified with an anomaly score of 0.84.

The importance of feedback loops – going from research to production

As a provider of managed cyber security services, we are fortunate to have a number of close customers who were willing to deploy the model in a controlled setting on live network traffic. In conjunction with quick feedback from human analysts on the anomaly scores that were being outputted it was possible to optimize the model to ensure that it produced sensible scoring across a wide range of environments. Having achieved credibility, the model could be more widely deployed. In an example of the economic concept of “network effects” the more environments on which the model was deployed, the more model performance has improved and proved itself adaptable to the unique environment in which it is operating. 

Whilst high anomaly scores do not necessarily indicate malicious behavior, they are a measure of weirdness or novelty. Combining the anomaly scoring obtained from HSTs with other metrics or rules, derived in real-time, it has become possible to classify malicious activity with greater certainty.

Machines can learn to detect suspicious TLS certificates 

An unsupervised, incremental anomaly detection model is applied in our security operations centers and now part of our commercial offerings. We would like to encourage other cyber security defenders to look at the characteristics of TLS certificates to detect malicious activities even when traffic is encrypted. Encryption does not equal invisibility and there is often (meta)data to consider. Accordingly so, it requires different approaches to search for malicious activity. Particularly as a Data Science team we found that the Half-Space-Trees is an effective and quick anomaly detector in streaming network data. 


[i] NCC Group & Fox-IT. (2021). “Incremental Machine Learning by Example: Detecting Suspicious Activity with Zeek Data Streams, River, and JA3 Hashes.”

[ii] Van Luijk, R. (2020) “Hunting for beacons.” Fox-IT.

[iii] Van Luijk, R., Postma, A. (2019). “Using Anomaly Detecting to Find Malicious Domains” Fox-It < >



[vi] Mokbel, M. (2021). “The State of SSL/TLS Certificate Usage in Malware C&C Communications.” Trend Micro.


[viii] Cooper, D., Santesson, S., Farrell, S., Boeyen, S., Housley, R., and W. Polk. (2008). “Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Certificate and Certificate Revocation List (CRL) Profile”, RFC 5280, DOI 10.17487/RFC5280.


[x] Goody, K., Kennelly, J., Shilko, J. Elovitz, S., Bienstock, D. (2020). “Kegtap and SingleMalt with Ransomware Chaser.” FireEye.

[xi] Liu, F. T. , Ting, K. M. & Zhou, Z. (2008). “Isolation Forest”. Eighth IEEE International Conference on Data Mining, pp. 413-422, doi: 10.1109/ICDM.2008.17.

[xii] Togbe, M.U., Chabchoub, Y., Boly, A., Barry, M., Chiky, R., & Bahri, M. (2021). “Anomalies Detection Using Isolation in Concept-Drifting Data Streams.” Comput., 10, 13.

[xiii] Tan, S. Ting, K. & Liu, F. (2011). “Fast Anomaly Detection for Streaming Data.” 1511-1516. 10.5591/978-1-57735-516-8/IJCAI11-254.

Tracking a P2P network related to TA505

2 December 2021 at 09:34

This post is by Nikolaos Pantazopoulos and Michael Sandee

tl;dr – Executive Summary

For the past few months NCC Group has been closely tracking the operations of TA505 and the development of their various projects (e.g. Clop). During this research we encountered a number of binary files that we have attributed to the developer(s) of ‘Grace’ (i.e. FlawedGrace). These included a remote administration tool (RAT) used exclusively by TA505. The identified binary files are capable of communicating with each other through a peer-to-peer (P2P) network via UDP. While there does not appear to be a direct interaction between the identified samples and a host infected by ‘Grace’, we believe with medium to high confidence that there is a connection to the developer(s) of ‘Grace’ and the identified binaries.

In summary, we found the following:

  • P2P binary files, which are downloaded along with other Necurs components (signed drivers, block lists)
  • P2P binary files, which transfer certain information (records) between nodes
  • Based on the network IDs of the identified samples, there seem to be at least three different networks running
  • The programming style and dropped file formats match the development standards of ‘Grace’

History of TA505’s Shift to Ransomware Operations

2014: Emergence as a group

The threat actor, often referred to as TA505 publicly, has been distinguished as an independent threat actor by NCC Group since 2014. Internally we used the name “Dridex RAT group”. Initially it was a group that integrated quite closely with EvilCorp, utilising their Dridex banking malware platform to execute relatively advanced attacks, using often custom made tools for a single purpose and repurposing commonly available tools such as ‘Ammyy Admin’ and ‘RMS’/’RUT’ to complement their arsenal. The attacks performed mostly consisted of compromising organisations and social engineering victims to execute high value bank transfers to corporate mule accounts. These operations included social engineering correctly implemented two-factor authentication with dual authorization by both the creator of a transaction and the authorizee.

2017: Evolution

Late 2017, EvilCorp and TA505 (Dridex RAT Group) split as a partnership. Our hypothesis is that EvilCorp had started to use the Bitpaymer ransomware to extort organisations rather than doing banking fraud. This built on the fact they had already been using the Locky ransomware previously and was attracting unwanted attention. EvilCorp’s ability to execute enterprise ransomware across large-scale businesses was first demonstrated in May 2017. Their capability and success at pulling off such attacks stemmed from the numerous years of experience in compromising corporate networks for banking fraud activity, specifically moving laterally to separate hosts controlled by employees who had the required access and control of corporate bank accounts. The same techniques in relation to lateral movement and tools (such as Empire, Armitage, Cobalt Strike and Metasploit) enabled EvilCorp to become highly effective in targeted ransomware attacks.

However in 2017 TA505 went on their own path and specifically in 2018 executed a large number of attacks using the tool called ‘Grace’, also known publicly as ‘FlawedGrace’ and ‘GraceWire’. The victims were mostly financial institutions and a large number of the victims were located in Africa, South Asia, and South East Asia with confirmed fraudulent wire transactions and card data theft originating from victims of TA505. The tool ‘Grace’ had some interesting features, and showed some indications that it was originally designed as banking malware which had latterly been repurposed. However, the tool was developed and was used in hundreds of victims worldwide, while remaining relatively unknown to the wider public in its first years of use.

2019: Clop and wider tooling

In early 2019, TA505 started to utilise the Clop ransomware, alongside other tools such as ‘SDBBot’ and ‘ServHelper’, while continuing to use ‘Grace’ up to and including 2021. Today it appears that the group has realised the potential of ransomware operations as a viable business model and the relative ease with which they can extort large sums of money from victims.

The remainder of this post dives deeper into a tool discovered by NCC Group that we believe is related to TA505 and the developer of ‘Grace’. We assess that the identified tool is part of a bigger network, possibly related with Grace infections.

Technical Analysis

The technical analysis we provide below focuses on three components of the execution chain:

  1. A downloader – Runs as a service (each identified variant has a different name) and downloads the rest of the components along with a target processes/services list that the driver uses while filtering information. Necurs have used similar downloaders in the past.
  2. A signed driver (both x86 and x64 available) – Filters processes/services in order to avoid detection and/or prevent removal. In addition, it injects the payload into a new process.
  3. Node tool – Communicates with other nodes in order to transfer victim’s data.

It should be noted that for all above components, different variations were identified. However, the core functionality and purposes remain the same.

Upon execution, the downloader generates a GUID (used as a bot ID) and stores it in the ProgramData folder under the filename Any downloaded file is stored temporarily in this directory. In addition, the downloader reads the version of crypt32.dll in order to determine the version of the operating system.

Next, it contacts the command and control server and downloads the following files:

  • t.dat – Expected to contain the string ‘kwREgu73245Nwg7842h’
  • p3.dat – P2P Binary. Saved as ‘payload.dll’
  • d1c.dat – x86 (signed) Driver
  • d2c.dat – x64 (signed) Driver
  • bn.dat – List of processes for the driver to filter. Stored as ‘blacknames.txt’
  • bs.dat – List of services’ name for the driver to filter. Stored as ‘blacksigns.txt’
  • bv.dat – List of files’ version names for the driver to filter. Stored as ‘blackvers.txt’.
  • r.dat – List of registry keys for the driver to filter. Stored as ‘registry.txt’

The network communication of the downloader is simple. Firstly, it sends a GET request to the command and control server, downloads and saves on disk the appropriate component. Then, it reads the component from disk and decrypts it (using the RC4 algorithm) with the hardcoded key ‘ABCDF343fderfds21’. After decrypting it, the downloader deletes the file.

Depending on the component type, the downloader stores each of them differently. Any configurations (e.g. list of processes to filter) are stored in registry under the key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\CLSID with the value name being the thread ID of the downloader. The data are stored in plaintext with a unique ID value at the start (e.g. 0x20 for the processes list), which is used later by the driver as a communication method.

In addition, in one variant, we detected a reporting mechanism to the command and control server for each step taken. This involves sending a GET request, which includes the generated bot ID along with a status code. The below table summarises each identified request (Table 1).

Request Description
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&in=%s First parameter is the bot ID and the second is the formatted string (“Version_is_%d.%d_(%d)_%d__ARCH_%d”), which contains operating system info
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&sz=DS_%d First parameter is the bot ID and the second is the downloaded driver’s size
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&er=ERR_%d First parameter is the bot ID and the second is the error code
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&c1=1 The first parameter is the bot ID. Notifies the server that the driver was installed successfully
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&c1=1&er=REB_ERR_%d First parameter is the bot ID and the second is the error code obtained while attempting to shut down the host after finding Windows Defender running
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&sz=ErrList_%d_% First parameter is the bot ID, second parameter is the resulted error code while retrieving the blocklist processes. The third parameter is set to 1. The same command is also issued after downloading the blacklisted services’ names and versions. The only difference is on the third parameter, which is increased to ‘2’ for blacklisted services, ‘3’ for versions and ‘4’ for blacklisted registry keys
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&er=PING_ERR_%d First parameter is the bot ID and the second parameter is the error code obtained during the driver download process
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&c1=1&c2=1 First parameter is the bot ID. Informs the server that the bot is about to start the downloading process.
/c/p1/dnsc.php?n=%s&c1=1&c2=1&c3=1 First parameter is the bot ID. Notified the server that the payload (node tool) was downloaded and stored successfully
Table 1 – Reporting to C2 requests

Driver Analysis

The downloaded driver is the same one that Necurs uses. It has been analysed publically already [1] but in summary, it does the following.

In the first stage, the driver decrypts shellcode, copies it to a new allocated pool and then executes the payload. Next, the shellcode decrypts and runs (in memory) another driver (stored encrypted in the original file). The decryption algorithm remains the same in both cases:

xor_key =  extracted_xor_key
bits = 15
result = b''
for i in range(0,payload_size,4):
	data = encrypted[i:i+4]
	value = int.from_bytes (data, 'little' )^ xor_key
	result += ( _rol(value, bits, 32)  ^ xor_key).to_bytes(4,'little')

Eventually, the decrypted driver injects the payload (the P2P binary) into a new process (‘wmiprvse.exe’) and proceeds with the filtering of data.

A notable piece of code of the driver is the strings’ decryption routine, which is also present in recent GraceRAT samples, including the same XOR key (1220A51676E779BD877CBECAC4B9B8696D1A93F32B743A3E6790E40D745693DE58B1DD17F65988BEFE1D6C62D5416B25BB78EF0622B5F8214C6B34E807BAF9AA).

Payload Attribution and Analysis

The identified sample is written in C++ and interacts with other nodes in the network using UDP. We believe that the downloaded binary file is related with TA505 for (at least) the following reasons:

  1. Same serialisation library
  2. Same programming style with ‘Grace’ samples
  3. Similar naming convention in the configuration’s keys with ‘Grace’ samples
  4. Same output files (dsx), which we have seen in previous TA505 compromises. DSX files have been used by ‘Grace’ operators to store information related with compromised machines.

Initialisation Phase

In the initialisation phase, the sample ensures that the configurations have been loaded and the appropriate folders are created.

All identified samples store their configurations in a resource with name XC.

ANALYST NOTE: Due to limit visibility of other nodes, we were not able to identify the purpose of each key of the configurations.

The first configuration stores the following settings:

  • cx – Parent name
  • nid – Node ID. This is used as a network identification method during network communication. If the incoming network packet does not have the same ID then the packet is treated as a packet from a different network and is ignored.
  • dgx – Unknown
  • exe – Binary mode flag (DLL/EXE)
  • key – RSA key to use for verifying a record
  • port – UDP port to listen
  • va – Parent name. It includes the node IPs to contact.

The second configuration contains the following settings (or metadata as the developer names them):

  • meta – Parent name
  • app – Unknown. Probably specifies the variant type of the server. The following seem to be supported:
    • target (this is the current set value)
    • gate
    • drop
    • control
  • mod – Specifies if current binary is the core module.
  • bld – Unknown
  • api – Unknown
  • llr – Unknown
  • llt- Unknown

Next, the sample creates a set of folders and files in a directory named ‘target’. These folders are:

  • node (folder) – Stores records of other nodes
  • trash (folder) – Move files for deletion
  • units (folder) – Unknown. Appears to contain PE files, which the core module loads.
  • sessions (folder) – Active nodes’ sessions
  • units.dsx (file) – List of ‘units’ to load
  • probes.dsx (file) – Stores the connected nodes IPs along with other metadata (e.g. connection timestamp, port number)
  • net.dsx (file) – Node peer name
  • reports.dsx (file) – Used in recent versions only. Unknown purpose.

Network communication

After the initialisation phase has been completed, the sample starts sending UDP requests to a list of IPs in order to register itself into the network and then exchange information.

Every network packet has a header, which has the below structure:

struct Node_Network_Packet_Header
 BYTE Version; // set to 0x37 ('7')
 BYTE Encrypted_node_ID[16]; // XORed with XOR_Key above
 BYTE Peer_Name[16]; // Xored with XOR_Key above. Connected peer name
 BYTE Command_ID; //Internally called frame type
 DWORD Watermark; //XORed with XOR_Key above
 DWORD Crc32_Data; //CRC32 of above data

When the sample requires adding additional information in a network packet, it uses the below structure:

struct Node_Network_Packet_Payload
 DWORD Size;
 DWORD CRC32_Data;
 BYTE Data[Size]; // Xored with same key used in the header packet (XOR_Key)

As expected, each network command (Table 2) adds a different set of information in the ‘Data’ field of the above structure but most of the commands follow a similar format. For example, an ‘invitation’ request (Command ID 1) has the structure:

struct Node_Network_Invitation_Packet 
 DWORD Session_Label;
 BYTE Invitation_ID[16];
 BYTE Node_Peer_Name[16];
 WORD Node_Binded_Port;

The sample supports a limited set of commands, which have as a primary role to exchange ‘records’ between each other.

Command ID Description
1 Requests to register in the other nodes (‘invitation’ request)
2 Adds node IP to the probes list
3 Sends a ping request. It includes number of active connections and records
4 Sends number of active connections and records in the node
5 Adds a new node IP:Port that the remote node will check
6 Sends a record ID along with the number of data blocks
7 Requests metadata of a record
8 Sends metadata of a record
9 Requests the data of a record
10 Receives data of a record and store them on disk
Table 2 – Set of command IDs

ANALYST NOTE: When information, such as record IDs or number of active connections/records, is sent, the binary adds the length of the data followed by the actual data. For example, in case of sending number of active connections and records:

01 05 01 02 01 02

The above is translated as:

2 active connections from a total of 5 with 2 records.

Moreover, when a node receives a request, it sends an echo reply (includes the same packet header) to acknowledge that the request was read. In general, the following types are supported:

  • Request type of 0x10 for echo request.
  • Request type of 0x07 when sending data, which fit in one packet.
  • Request type of 0xD when sending data in multiple packets (size of payload over 1419 bytes).
  • Request type 0x21. It exists in the binary but not supported during the network communications.

Record files

As mentioned already, a record has its own sub-folder under the ‘node’ folder with each sub-folder containing the below files:

  • m – Metadata of record file
  • l – Unknown purpose
  • p – Payload data

The metadata file contains a set of information for the record such as the node peer name and the node network ID. Among this information, the keys ‘tag’ and ‘pwd’ appear to be very important too. The ‘tag’ key represents a command (different from table 2 set) that the node will execute once it receives the record. Currently, the binary only supports the command ‘updates’. The payload file (p) keeps the updated content encrypted with the value of key ‘pwd’ being the AES key.

Even though we have not been able yet to capture any network traffic for the above command, we believe that it is used to update the current running core module.


Nodes’ IPs







SHA-1 Description
A21D19EB9A90C6B579BCE8017769F6F58F9DADB1   P2P Binary
2F60DE5091AB3A0CE5C8F1A27526EFBA2AD9A5A7 P2P Binary
2D694840C0159387482DC9D7E59217CF1E365027 P2P Binary
02FFD81484BB92B5689A39ABD2A34D833D655266 x86 Driver
B4A9ABCAAADD80F0584C79939E79F07CBDD49657 x64 Driver
00B5EBE5E747A842DEC9B3F14F4751452628F1FE X64 Driver
22F8704B74CE493C01E61EF31A9E177185852437 Downloader
D1B36C9631BCB391BC97A507A92BCE90F687440A Downloader
Table 3 – Binary hashes

Machine learning from idea to reality: a PowerShell case study

2 September 2020 at 07:55

Detecting both ‘offensive’ and obfuscated PowerShell scripts in Splunk using Windows Event Log 4104

Author: Joost Jansen

This blog provides a ‘look behind the scenes’ at the RIFT Data Science team and describes the process of moving from the need or an idea for research towards models that can be used in practice. More specifically, how known and unknown PowerShell threats can be detected using Windows event log 4104. In this case study it is shown how research into detecting offensive (with the term ‘offensive’ used in the context of ‘offensive security’) and obfuscated PowerShell scripts led to models that can be used in a real-time environment.

About the Research and Intelligence Fusion Team (RIFT):
RIFT leverages our strategic analysis, data science, and threat hunting capabilities to create actionable threat intelligence, ranging from IOCs and detection capabilities to strategic reports on tomorrow’s threat landscape. Cyber security is an arms race where both attackers and defenders continually update and improve their tools and ways of working. To ensure that our managed services remain effective against the latest threats, NCC Group operates a Global Fusion Center with Fox-IT at its core. This multidisciplinary team converts our leading cyber threat intelligence into powerful detection strategies.

Introduction to PowerShell

PowerShell plays a huge role in a lot of incidents that are analyzed by Fox-IT. During the compromise of a Windows environment almost all actors use PowerShell in at least one part of their attack, as illustrated by the vast list of actors linked to this MITRE technique [1]. PowerShell code is most frequently used for reconnaissance, lateral movement and/or C2 traffic. It lends itself to these purposes, as the PowerShell cmdlets are well-integrated with the Windows operating system and it is installed along with Windows in most recent versions.

The strength of PowerShell can be illustrated with the following example. Consider the privilege-escalation enumeration script PowerUp.ps1 [2]. Although the script itself consists of 4010 lines, it can simply be downloaded and invoked using:

In this case, the script won’t even touch the disk as it’s executed in memory. Since threat actors are aware that there might be detection capabilities in place, they often encode or obfuscate their code. For example, the command executed above can also be run base64-encoded:

which has the exact same result.

Using tools like Invoke-Obfuscation [3], the command and the script itself can be obfuscated even further. For example, the following code snippet from PowerUp.ps1

can also be obfuscated as:

These well-known offensive PowerShell scripts can already be detected by using static signatures, but small modifications on the right place will circumvent the detection. Moreover, these signatures might not detect new versions of the known offensive scripts, let alone detect new techniques. Therefore, there was an urge to create models to detect offensive PowerShell scripts regardless of their obfuscation level, as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1: Detection of different malicious PowerShell scripts

Don’t reinvent the wheel

As we don’t want to re-invent the wheel, a literature study revealed fellow security companies had already performed research on this subject [4, 5], which was a great starting point for this research. As we prefer easily explainable classification models over complex ones (e.g. the neural networks used in the previous research) and obviously faster models over slower ones, not all parts of the research were applicable. However, large parts of the data gathering & pre-processing phase were reused while the actual features and classification method were changed.

Since detecting offensive & obfuscated PowerShell scripts are separate problems, they require separate training data. For the offensive training data, PowerShell scripts embedded in “known bad” GitHub repositories were scraped. For the obfuscated training data, parts of the Revoke-Obfuscation training data set were used [6]. An equal amount of legitimate (‘known not-obfuscated’ and “known not-offensive”) scripts were added to the training sets (retrieved from the PowerShell Gallery [7]) resulting in the training sets listed in Table 2.

Table 2: Training set sizes

To keep things simple and explainable the decision was made to base the initial model on token (offensive) and character (obfuscated) percentages. This did require some preprocessing of the scripts (e.g. removing the comments), calculating the features and in the case of the offensive scripts, tokenization of the PowerShell scripts. Figures 1 & 2 illustrate how some characters and tokens are unevenly distributed among the training sets.

Figure 1: Average occurrence of several ASCII characters in obfuscated and not-obfuscated scripts
Figure 2: Average occurrence of several tokens in offensive and not-offensive scripts

The percentages were then used as features for a supervised classification model to train, along with some additional features based on known bad tokens (e.g. base64, iex and convert) and several regular expression patterns. Afterwards all features and labels were fed to our SupervisedClassification helper class, which is used in many of our projects to standardize the process of (synthetic) sampling of training data, DataFrame transformations, model selection and several other tasks. For both models, the SupervisedClassification class selected the Random Forest algorithm for the classifying task. Figure 3 summarizes the workflow for the obfuscated PowerShell model.

Figure 3: High-level overview of the training process for the obfuscation model

Usage in practice

Since these models were exported, they can be used for multiple purposes by loading the models in Python, feeding PowerShell scripts to it and observe the predicted outcomes. In this example, Splunk was chosen as the platform to use this model because it is part of our Managed Detection & Response service and because of Splunk’s ability to easily run custom Python commands.

Windows is able to log blocks of PowerShell code as it is executed, called ‘PowerShell Script Block Logging’ which can be enabled via GPO or manual registry changes. The logs (identified by Windows Event ID 4101) can then be piped to a Splunk custom command Reconstruct4101Logging, which will process the script blocks back into the format the model was trained on. Afterwards, the reconstructed script is piped into e.g. the ObfuscatedPowershell custom command, which will load the pre-trained model, predict the probabilities for the scripts being obfuscated and returns these predictions back to Splunk. This is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Usage of the pre-trained model in Splunk along with the corresponding query


Back in Splunk some additional tuning can be performed (such as setting the threshold for predicting the positive class to 0.7) to reduce the amount of false positives. Using cross-validation, a precision score of 0.94 was achieved with an F1 score of 0.9 for the obfuscated PowerShell model. The performance of the offensive model is not yet as good as the obfuscated model, but since there are many parameters to tune for this model we expect this to improve in the foreseeable future. The confusion matrix for the obfuscated model is shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Confusion matrix

Despite the fact that other studies achieve even higher scores, we believe that this relatively simple and easy to understand model is a great first step, for which we can iteratively improve the scores over time. To finish off, these models are included in our Splunk Managed Detection Engine to check for offensive & obfuscated PowerShell scripts on a regular interval.

Conclusion and recommendation

PowerShell, despite being a legitimate and very useful tool, is frequently misused by threat actors for various malicious purposes. Using static signatures, well-known bad scripts can be detected, but small modifications may cause these signatures to be circumvented. To detect modified and/or new PowerShell scripts and techniques, more and better generic models should be researched and eventually be deployed in real-time log monitoring environments. PowerShell logging (including but not limited to the Windows Event Logs with ID 4104) can be used as input for these models. The recommendation is therefore to enable the PowerShell logging in your organization, at least at the most important endpoints or servers. This recommendation, among others, was already present in our whitepaper on ‘Managing PowerShell in a modern corporate environment‘ [8] back in 2017 and remains very relevant to this day. Additional information on other defensive measures that can be put into place can also be found in the whitepaper.