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A worthy upgrade: Next-gen security on Windows 10 proves resilient against ransomware outbreaks in 2017

January 10th, 2018 No comments

Adopting reliable attack methods and techniques borrowed from more evolved threat types, ransomware attained new levels of reach and damage in 2017. The following trends characterize the ransomware narrative in the past year:

  • Three global outbreaks showed the force of ransomware in making real-world impact, affecting corporate networks and bringing down critical services like hospitals, transportation, and traffic systems
  • Three million unique computers encountered ransomware; millions more saw downloader trojans, exploits, emails, websites and other components of the ransomware kill chain
  • New attack vectors, including compromised supply chain, exploits, phishing emails, and documents taking advantage of the DDE feature in Office were used to deliver ransomware
  • More than 120 new ransomware families, plus countless variants of established families and less prevalent ransomware caught by heuristic and generic detections, emerged from a thriving cybercriminal enterprise powered by ransomware-as-a-service

The trend towards increasingly sophisticated malware behavior, highlighted by the use of exploits and other attack vectors, makes older platforms so much more susceptible to ransomware attacks. From June to November, Windows 7 devices were 3.4 times more likely to encounter ransomware compared to Windows 10 devices. Considering that Windows 10 has a much larger install base than Windows 7, this difference in ransomware encounter rate is significant.

Figure 1. Ransomware encounter rates on Windows 7 and Windows 10 devices. Encounter rate refers to the percentage of computers running the OS version with Microsoft real-time security that blocked or detected ransomware.

The data shows that attackers are targeting Windows 7. Given todays modern threats, older platforms can be infiltrated more easily because these platforms dont have the advanced built-in end-to-end defense stack available on Windows 10. Continuous enhancements further make Windows 10 more resilient to ransomware and other types of attack.

Windows 10: Multi-layer defense against ransomware attacks

The year 2017 saw three global ransomware outbreaks driven by multiple propagation and infection techniques that are not necessarily new but not typically observed in ransomware. While there are technologies available on Windows 7 to mitigate attacks, Windows 10s comprehensive set of platform mitigations and next-generation technologies cover these attack methods. Additionally, Windows 10 S, which is a configuration of Windows 10 thats streamlined for security and performance, locks down devices against ransomware outbreaks and other threats.

In May, WannaCry (Ransom:Win32/WannaCrypt) caused the first global ransomware outbreak. It used EternalBlue, an exploit for a previously fixed SMBv1 vulnerability, to infect computers and spread across networks at speeds never before observed in ransomware.

On Windows 7, Windows AppLocker and antimalware solutions like Microsoft Security Essentials and System Center Endpoint Protection (SCEP) can block the infection process. However, because WannaCry used an exploit to spread and infect devices, networks with vulnerable Windows 7 devices fell victim. The WannaCry outbreak highlighted the importance of keeping platforms and software up-to-date, especially with critical security patches.

Windows 10 was not at risk from the WannaCry attack. Windows 10 has security technologies that can block the WannaCry ransomware and its spreading mechanism. Built-in exploit mitigations on Windows 10 (KASLR, NX HAL, and PAGE POOL), as well as kCFG (control-flow guard for kernel) and HVCI (kernel code-integrity), make Windows 10 much more difficult to exploit.

Figure 2. Windows 7 and Windows 10 platform defenses against WannaCry

In June, Petya (Ransom:Win32/Petya.B) used the same exploit that gave WannaCry its spreading capabilities, and added more propagation and infection methods to give birth to arguably the most complex ransomware in 2017. Petyas initial infection vector was a compromised software supply chain, but the ransomware quickly spread using the EternalBlue and EternalRomance exploits, as well as a module for lateral movement using stolen credentials.

On Windows 7, Windows AppLocker can stop Petya from infecting the device. If a Windows 7 device is fully patched, Petyas exploitation behavior did not work. However, Petya also stole credentials, which it then used to spread across networks. Once running on a Windows 7 device, only an up-to-date antivirus that had protection in place at zero hour could stop Petya from encrypting files or tampering with the master boot record (MBR).

On the other hand, on Windows 10, Petya had more layers of defenses to overcome. Apart from Windows AppLocker, Windows Defender Application Control can block Petyas entry vector (i.e., compromised software updater running an untrusted binary), as well as the propagation techniques that used untrusted DLLs. Windows 10s built-in exploit mitigations can further protect Windows 10 devices from the Petya exploit. Credential Guard can prevent Petya from stealing credentials from local security authority subsystem service (LSASS), helping curb the ransomwares propagation technique. Meanwhile, Windows Defender System Guard (Secure Boot) can stop the MBR modified by Petya from being loaded at boot time, preventing the ransomware from causing damage to the master file table (MFT).

Figure 3. Windows 7 and Windows 10 platform defenses against Petya

In October, another sophisticated ransomware reared its ugly head: Bad Rabbit ransomware (Ransom:Win32/Tibbar.A) infected devices by posing as an Adobe Flash installer available for download on compromised websites. Similar to WannaCry and Petya, Bad Rabbit had spreading capabilities, albeit more traditional: it used a hardcoded list of user names and passwords. Like Petya, it can also render infected devices unbootable, because, in addition to encrypting files, it also encrypted entire disks.

On Windows 7 devices, several security solutions technologies can block the download and installation of the ransomware, but protecting the device from the damaging payload and from infecting other computers in the network can be tricky.

With Windows 10, however, in addition to stronger defense at the infection vector, corporate networks were safer from this damaging threat because several technologies are available to stop or detect Bad Rabbits attempt to spread across networks using exploits or hardcoded user names and passwords.

More importantly, during the Bad Rabbit outbreak, detonation-based machine learning models in Windows Defender AV cloud protection service, with no human intervention, correctly classified the malware 14 minutes after the very first encounter. The said detonation-based ML models are a part of several layers of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies that evaluate files in order to reach a verdict on suspected malware. Using this layered approach, Windows Defender AV protected Windows 10 devices with cloud protection enabled from Bad Rabbit within minutes of the outbreak.

Figure 4. Windows 7 and Windows 10 platform defenses against Bad Rabbit

As these outbreaks demonstrated, ransomware has indeed become a highly complex threat that can be expected to continue evolving in 2018 and beyond. The multiple layers of next-generation security technologies on Windows 10 are designed to disrupt the attack methods that we have previously seen in highly specialized malware but now also see in ransomware.

Ransomware protection on Windows 10

For end users, the dreaded ransom note announces that ransomware has already taken their files hostage: documents, precious photos and videos, and other important files encrypted. On Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, a new feature helps stop ransomware from accessing important files in real-time, even if it manages to infect the computer. When enabled, Controlled folder access locks down folders, allowing only authorized apps to access files.

Controlled folder access, however, is but one layer of defense. Ransomware and other threats from the web can be blocked by Microsoft Edge, whose exploit mitigation and sandbox features make it a very secure browser. Microsoft Edge significantly improves web security by using Windows Defender SmartScreens reputation-based blocking of malicious downloads and by opening pages within low-privilege app containers.

Windows Defender Antivirus also continues to enhance defense against threats like ransomware. Its advanced generic and heuristic techniques and layered machine learning models help catch both common and rare ransomware families. Windows Defender AV can detect and block most malware, including never-before-seen ransomware, using generics and heuristics, local ML models, and metadata-based ML models in the cloud. In rare cases that a threat slips past these layers of protection, Windows Defender AV can protect patient zero in real-time using analysis-based ML models, as demonstrated in a real-life case scenario where a customer was protected from a very new Spora ransomware in a matter of seconds. In even rarer cases of inconclusive initial classification, additional automated analysis and ML models can still protect customers within minutes, as what happened during the Bad Rabbit outbreak.

Windows 10 S locks down devices from unauthorized content by working exclusively with apps from the Windows Store and by using Microsoft Edge as the default browser. This streamlined, Microsoft-verified platform seals common entry points for ransomware and other threats.

Reducing the attack surface for ransomware and other threats in corporate networks

For enterprises and small businesses, the impact of ransomware is graver. Losing access to files can mean disrupted operations. Big enterprise networks, including critical infrastructures, fell victim to ransomware outbreaks. The modern enterprise network is under constant assault by attackers and needs to be defended on all fronts.

Windows Defender Exploit Guard locks down devices against a wide variety of attack vectors. Its host intrusion prevention capabilities include the following components, which block behaviors commonly used in malware attacks:

  • Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) is a set of controls that blocks common ransomware entry points: Office-, script-, and email-based threats that download and install ransomware; ASR can also protect from emerging exploits like DDEDownloader, which has been used to distribute ransomware
  • Network protection uses Windows Defender SmartScreen to block outbound connections to untrusted hosts, such as when trojan downloaders connect to a malicious server to obtain ransomware payloads
  • Controlled folder access blocks ransomware and other untrusted processes from accessing protected folders and encrypting files in those folders
  • Exploit protection (replacing EMET) provides mitigation against a broad set of exploit techniques that are now being used by ransomware authors

Additionally, the industry-best browser security in Microsoft Edge is enhanced by Windows Defender Application Guard, which brings Azure cloud grade isolation and security segmentation to Windows applications. This hardware isolation-level capability provides one of the highest levels of protection against zero-day exploits, unpatched vulnerabilities, and web-based malware.

For emails, Microsoft Exchange Online Protection (EOP) uses built-in anti-spam filtering capabilities that help protect Office 365 customers against ransomware attacks that begin with email. Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection helps secure mailboxes against email attacks by blocking emails with unsafe attachments, malicious links, and linked-to files leveraging time-of-click protection.

Integrated security for enterprises

Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection allows SecOps personnel to stop the spread of ransomware through timely detection of ransomware activity in the network. Windows Defender ATPs enhanced behavioral and machine learning detection libraries flag malicious behavior across the ransomware attack kill-chain, enabling SecOps to promptly investigate and respond to ransomware attacks.

With Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, Windows Defender ATP was expanded to include seamless integration across the entire Windows protection stack, including Windows Defender Exploit Guard, Windows Defender Application Guard, and Windows Defender AV. This integration is designed to provide a single pane of glass for a seamless security management experience.

With all of these security technologies, Microsoft has built the most secure Windows version ever with Windows 10. While the threat landscape will continue to evolve in 2018 and beyond, we dont stop innovating and investing in security solutions that continue to harden Windows 10 against attacks. The twice-per-year feature update release cycle reflects our commitment to innovate and to make it easier to disrupt successful attack techniques with new protection features. Upgrading to Windows 10 not only means decreased risk; it also means access to advanced, multi-layered defense against ransomware and other types of modern attacks.

 

Tanmay Ganacharya (@tanmayg)
Principal Group Manager, Windows Defender Research

 

 


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Microsoft teams up with law enforcement and other partners to disrupt Gamarue (Andromeda)

December 4th, 2017 No comments

Today, with help from Microsoft security researchers, law enforcement agencies around the globe, in cooperation with Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (DCU), announced the disruption of Gamarue, a widely distributed malware that has been used in networks of infected computers collectively called the Andromeda botnet.

The disruption is the culmination of a journey that started in December 2015, when the Microsoft Windows Defender research team and DCU activated a Coordinated Malware Eradication (CME) campaign for Gamarue. In partnership with internet security firm ESET, we performed in-depth research into the Gamarue malware and its infrastructure.

Our analysis of more than 44,000 malware samples uncovered Gamarues sprawling infrastructure. We provided detailed information about that infrastructure to law enforcement agencies around the world, including:

  • 1,214 domains and IP addresses of the botnets command and control servers
  • 464 distinct botnets
  • More than 80 associated malware families

The coordinated global operation resulted in the takedown of the botnets servers, disrupting one of the largest malware operations in the world. Since 2011, Gamarue has been distributing a plethora of other threats, including:

A global malware operation

For the past six years, Gamarue has been a very active malware operation that, until the takedown, showed no signs of slowing down. Windows Defender telemetry in the last six months shows Gamarues global prevalence.

Figure 1. Gamarues global prevalence from May to November 2017

While the threat is global, the list of top 10 countries with Gamarue encounters is dominated by Asian countries.

Figure 2. Top 10 countries with the most Gamarue encounters from May to November 2017

In the last six months, Gamarue was detected or blocked on approximately 1,095,457 machines every month on average.

Figure 3. Machines, IPs, and unique file encounters for Gamarue from May to November 2017; data does not include LNK detections

The Gamarue bot

Gamarue is known in the underground cybercrime market as Andromeda bot. A bot is a program that allows an attacker to take control of an infected machine. Like many other bots, Gamarue is advertised as a crime kit that hackers can purchase.

The Gamarue crime kit includes the following components:

  • Bot-builder, which builds the malware binary that infects computers
  • Command-and-control application, which is a PHP-based dashboard application that allows hackers to manage and control the bots
  • Documentation on how to create a Gamarue botnet

A botnet is a network of infected machines that communicate with command-and-control (C&C) servers, which are computer servers used by the hacker to control infected machines.

The evolution of the Gamarue bot has been the subject of many thorough analyses by security researchers. At the time of takedown, there were five known active Gamarue versions: 2.06, 2.07, 2.08, 2.09, and 2.10. The latest and the most active is version 2.10.

Gamarue is modular, which means that its functionality can be extended by plugins that are either included in the crime kit or available for separate purchase. The Gamarue plugins include:

  • Keylogger ($150) Used for logging keystrokes and mouse activity in order to steal user names and passwords, financial information, etc
  • Rootkit (included in crime kit) Injects rootkit codes into all processes running on a victim computer to give Gamarue persistence
  • Socks4/5 (included in crime kit) Turns victim computer into a proxy server for serving malware or malicious instructions to other computers on the internet
  • Formgrabber ($250) Captures any data submitted through web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer)
  • Teamviewer ($250) Enables attacker to remotely control the victim machine, spy on the desktop, perform file transfer, among other functions
  • Spreader Adds capability to spread Gamarue malware itself via removable drives (for example, portable hard drives or flash drives connected via a USB port); it also uses Domain Name Generation (DGA) for the servers where it downloads updates

Gamarue attack kill-chain

Over the years, various attack vectors have been used to distribute Gamarue. These include:

  • Removable drives
  • Social media (such as Facebook) messages with malicious links to websites that host Gamarue
  • Drive-by downloads/exploit kits
  • Spam emails with malicious links
  • Trojan downloaders

Once Gamarue has infected a machine, it contacts the C&C server, making the machine part of the botnet. Through the C&C server, the hacker can control Gamarue-infected machines, steal information, or issue commands to download additional malware modules.

Figure 4. Gamarues attack kill-chain

Gamarues main goal is to distribute other prevalent malware families. During the CME campaign, we saw at least 80 different malware families distributed by Gamarue. Some of these malware families include:

The installation of other malware broadens the scale of what hackers can do with the network of infected machines.

Command-and-control communication

When the Gamarue malware triggers the infected machine to contact the C&C server, it provides information like the hard disks volume serial number (used as the bot ID for the computer), the Gamarue build ID, the operating system of the infected machine, the local IP address, an indication whether the signed in user has administrative rights, and keyboard language setting for the infected machine. This information is sent to the C&C server via HTTP using the JSON format:

Figure 5. Information sent by Gamarue to C&C server

The information about keyboard language setting is very interesting, because the machine will not be further infected if the keyboard language corresponds to the following countries:

  • Belarus
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • Kazahkstan

Before sending to the C&C server, this information is encrypted with RC4 algorithm using a key hardcoded in the Gamarue malware body.

Figure 6. Encrypted C&C communication

Once the C&C server receives the message, it sends a command that is pre-assigned by the hacker in the control dashboard.

Figure 7. Sample control dashboard used by attackers to communicate to Gamarue bots

The command can be any of the following:

  • Download EXE (i.e., additional executable malware files)
  • Download DLL (i.e., additional malware; removed in version 2.09 and later)
  • Install plugin
  • Update bot (i.e., update the bot malware)
  • Delete DLLs (removed in version 2.09 and later)
  • Delete plugins
  • Kill bot

The last three commands can be used to remove evidence of Gamarue presence in machines.

The reply from the C&C server is also encrypted with RC4 algorithm using the same key used to encrypt the message from the infected machine.

Figure 8. Encrypted reply from C&C server

When decrypted, the reply contains the following information:

  • Time interval in minutes time to wait for when to ask the C2 server for the next command
  • Task ID – used by the hacker to track if there was an error performing the task
  • Command one of the command mentioned above
  • Download URL – from which a plugin/updated binary/other malware can be downloaded depending on the command.

Figure 9. Decrypted reply from C&C server

Anti-sandbox techniques

Gamarue employs anti-AV techniques to make analysis and detection difficult. Prior to infecting a machine, Gamarue checks a list hashes of the processes running on a potential victims machine. If it finds a process that may be associated with malware analysis tools, such as virtual machines or sandbox tools, Gamarue does not infect the machine. In older versions, a fake payload is manifested when running in a virtual machine.

Figure 10. Gamarue checks if any of the running processes are associated with malware analysis tools

Stealth mechanisms

Gamarue uses cross-process injection techniques to stay under the radar. It injects its code into the following legitimate processes:

  • msiexec.exe (Gamarue versions 2.07 to 2.10)
  • wuauclt.exe, wupgrade.exe, svchost.exe (version 2.06)

It can also use a rootkit plugin to hide the Gamarue file and its autostart registry entry.

Gamarue employs a stealthy technique to store and load its plugins as well. The plugins are stored fileless, either saved in the registry or in an alternate data stream of the Gamarue file.

OS tampering

Gamarue attempts to tamper with the operating systems of infected computers by disabling Firewall, Windows Update, and User Account Control functions. These functionalities cannot be re-enabled until the Gamarue infection has been removed from the infected machine. This OS tampering behavior does not work on Windows 10

Figure 11. Disabled Firewall and Windows Update

Monetization

There are several ways hackers earn using Gamarue. Since Gamarues main purpose is to distribute other malware, hackers earn using pay-per-install scheme. Using its plugins, Gamarue can also steal user information; stolen information can be sold to other hackers in cybercriminal underground markets. Access to Gamarue-infected machines can also be sold, rented, leased, or swapped by one criminal group to another.

Remediation

To help prevent a Gamarue infection, as well as other malware and unwanted software, take these precautions:

  • Be cautious when opening emails or social media messages from unknown users.
  • Be wary about downloading software from websites other than the program developers.

More importantly, ensure you have the right security solutions that can protect your machine from Gamarue and other threats. Windows Defender Antivirus detects and removes the Gamarue malware. With advanced machine learning models, as well as generic and heuristic techniques, Windows Defender AV detects new as well as never-before-seen malware in real-time via the cloud protection service. Alternatively, standalone tools, such as Microsoft Safety Scanner and the Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRT), can also detect and remove Gamarue.

Microsoft Edge can block Gamarue infections from the web, such as those from malicious links in social media messages and drive-by downloads or exploit kits. Microsoft Edge is a secure browser that opens pages within low privilege app containers and uses reputation-based blocking of malicious downloads.

In enterprise environments, additional layers of protection are available. Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection can help security operations personnel to detect Gamarue activities, including cross-process injection techniques, in the network so they can investigate and respond to attacks. Windows Defender ATPs enhanced behavioral and machine learning detection libraries flag malicious behavior across the malware infection process, from delivery and installation, to persistence mechanisms, and command-and-control communication.

Microsoft Exchange Online Protection (EOP) can block Gamarue infections from email uses built-in anti-spam filtering capabilities that help protect Office 365 customers. Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection helps secure mailboxes against email attacks by blocking emails with unsafe attachments, malicious links, and linked-to files leveraging time-of-click protection.

Windows Defender Exploit Guard can block malicious documents (such as those that distribute Gamarue) and scripts. The Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) feature in Windows Defender Exploit Guard uses a set of built-in intelligence that can block malicious behaviors observed in malicious documents. ASR rules can also be turned on to block malicious attachments from being run or launched from Microsoft Outlook or webmail (such as Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo).

Microsoft is also continuing the collaborative effort to help clean Gamarue-infected computers by providing a one-time package with samples (through the Virus Information Alliance) to help organizations protect their customers.

 

 

Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit and Windows Defender Research team

 

 

Get more info on the Gamarue (Andromeda) takedown from the following sources:

 

 


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Windows Defender ATP machine learning and AMSI: Unearthing script-based attacks that ‘live off the land’

December 4th, 2017 No comments

Data center

Scripts are becoming the weapon of choice of sophisticated activity groups responsible for targeted attacks as well as malware authors who indiscriminately deploy commodity threats.

Scripting engines such as JavaScript, VBScript, and PowerShell offer tremendous benefits to attackers. They run through legitimate processes and are perfect tools for living off the landstaying away from the disk and using common tools to run code directly in memory. Often part of the operating system, scripting engines can evaluate and execute content from the internet on-the-fly. Furthermore, integration with popular apps make them effective vehicles for delivering malicious implants through social engineering as evidenced by the increasing use of scripts in spam campaigns.

Malicious scripts are not only used as delivery mechanisms. We see them in various stages of the kill chain, including during lateral movement and while establishing persistence. During these latter stages, the scripting engine of choice is clearly PowerShellthe de facto scripting standard for administrative tasks on Windowswith the ability to invoke system APIs and access a variety of system classes and objects.

While the availability of powerful scripting engines makes scripts convenient tools, the dynamic nature of scripts allows attackers to easily evade analysis and detection by antimalware and similar endpoint protection products. Scripts are easily obfuscated and can be loaded on-demand from a remote site or a key in the registry, posing detection challenges that are far from trivial.

Windows 10 provides optics into script behavior through Antimalware Scan Interface (AMSI), a generic, open interface that enables Windows Defender Antivirus to look at script contents the same way script interpreters doin a form that is both unencrypted and unobfuscated. In Windows 10 Fall Creators Update, with knowledge from years analyzing script-based malware, weve added deep behavioral instrumentation to the Windows script interpreter itself, enabling it to capture system interactions originating from scripts. AMSI makes this detailed interaction information available to registered AMSI providers, such as Windows Defender Antivirus, enabling these providers to perform further inspection and vetting of runtime script execution content.

This unparalleled visibility into script behavior is capitalized further through other Windows 10 Fall Creators Update enhancements in both Windows Defender Antivirus and Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (Windows Defender ATP). Both solutions make use of powerful machine learning algorithms that process the improved optics, with Windows Defender Antivirus delivering enhanced blocking of malicious scripts pre-breach and Windows Defender ATP providing effective behavior-based alerting for malicious post-breach script activity.

In this blog, we explore how Windows Defender ATP, in particular, makes use of AMSI inspection data to surface complex and evasive script-based attacks. We look at advanced attacks perpetrated by the highly skilled KRYPTON activity group and explore how commodity malware like Kovter abuses PowerShell to leave little to no trace of malicious activity on disk. From there, we look at how Windows Defender ATP machine learning systems make use of enhanced insight about script characteristics and behaviors to deliver vastly improved detection capabilities.

KRYPTON: Highlighting the resilience of script-based attacks

Traditional approaches for detecting potential breaches are quite file-centric. Incident responders often triage autostart entries, sorting out suspicious files by prevalence or unusual name-folder combinations. With modern attacks moving closer towards being completely fileless, it is crucial to have additional sensors at relevant choke points.

Apart from not having files on disk, modern script-based attacks often store encrypted malicious content separately from the decryption key. In addition, the final key often undergoes multiple processes before it is used to decode the actual payload, making it is impossible to make a determination based on a single file without tracking the actual invocation of the script. Even a perfect script emulator would fail this task.

For example, the activity group KRYPTON has been observed hijacking or creating scheduled tasksthey often target system tasks found in exclusion lists of popular forensic tools like Autoruns for Windows. KRYPTON stores the unique decryption key within the parameters of the scheduled task, leaving the actual payload content encrypted.

To illustrate KRYPTON attacks, we look at a tainted Microsoft Word document identified by John Lambert and the Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection team.

KRYPTON lure document

Figure 1. KRYPTON lure document

To live off the land, KRYPTON doesnt drop or carry over any traditional malicious binaries that typically trigger antimalware alerts. Instead, the lure document contains macros and uses the Windows Scripting Host (wscript.exe) to execute a JavaScript payload. This script payload executes only with the right RC4 decryption key, which is, as expected, stored as an argument in a scheduled task. Because it can only be triggered with the correct key introduced in the right order, the script payload is resilient against automated sandbox detonations and even manual inspection.

KRYPTON script execution chain through wscript.exe

Figure 2. KRYPTON script execution chain through wscript.exe

Exposing actual script behavior with AMSI

AMSI overcomes KRYPTONs evasion mechanisms by capturing JavaScript API calls after they have been decrypted and ready to be executed by the script interpreter. The screenshot below shows part of the exposed content from the KRYPTON attack as captured by AMSI.

Part of the KRYPTON script payload captured by AMSI and sent to the cloud for analysis

Figure 3. Part of the KRYPTON script payload captured by AMSI and sent to the cloud for analysis

By checking the captured script behavior against indicators of attack (IoAs) built up by human experts as well as machine learning algorithms, Windows Defender ATP effortlessly flags the KRYPTON scripts as malicious. At the same time, Windows Defender ATP provides meaningful contextual information, including how the script is triggered by a malicious Word document.

Windows Defender ATP machine learning detection of KRYPTON script captured by AMSI

Figure 4. Windows Defender ATP machine learning detection of KRYPTON script captured by AMSI

PowerShell use by Kovter and other commodity malware

Not only advanced activity groups like KRYPTON are shifting from binary executables to evasive scripts. In the commodity space, Kovter malware uses several processes to eventually execute its malicious payload. This payload resides in a PowerShell script decoded by a JavaScript (executed by wscript.exe) and passed to powershell.exe as an environment variable.

Windows Defender ATP machine learning alert for the execution of the Kovter script-based payload

Figure 5. Windows Defender ATP machine learning alert for the execution of the Kovter script-based payload

By looking at the PowerShell payload content captured by AMSI, experienced analysts can easily spot similarities to PowerSploit, a publicly available set of penetration testing modules. While such attack techniques involve file-based components, they remain extremely hard to detect using traditional methods because malicious activities occur only in memory. Such behavior, however, is effortlessly detected by Windows Defender ATP using machine learning that combines detailed AMSI signals with signals generated by PowerShell activity in general.

Part of the Kovter script payload captured by AMSI and sent to the cloud for analysis

Figure 6. Part of the Kovter script payload captured by AMSI and sent to the cloud for analysis

Fresh machine learning insight with AMSI

While AMSI provides rich information from captured script content, the highly variant nature of malicious scripts continues to make them challenging targets for detection. To efficiently extract and identify new traits differentiating malicious scripts from benign ones, Windows Defender ATP employs advanced machine learning methods.

As outlined in our previous blog, we employ a supervised machine learning classifier to identify breach activity. We build training sets based on malicious behaviors observed in the wild and normal activities on typical machines, augmenting that with data from controlled detonations of malicious artifacts. The diagram below conceptually shows how we capture malicious behaviors in the form of process trees.

Process tree augmented by instrumentation for AMSI data

Figure 7. Process tree augmented by instrumentation for AMSI data

As shown in the process tree, the kill chain begins with a malicious document that causes Microsoft Word (winword.exe) to launch PowerShell (powershell.exe). In turn, PowerShell executes a heavily obfuscated script that drops and executes the malware fhjUQ72.tmp, which then obtains persistence by adding a run key to the registry. From the process tree, our machine learning systems can extract a variety of features to build expert classifiers for areas like registry modification and file creation, which are then converted into numeric scores that are used to decide whether to raise alerts.

With the instrumentation of AMSI signals added as part of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (version 1709), Windows Defender ATP machine learning algorithms can now make use of insight into the unobfuscated script content while continually referencing machine state changes associated with process activity. Weve also built a variety of script-based models that inspect the nature of executed scripts, such as the count of obfuscation layers, entropy, obfuscation features, ngrams, and specific API invocations, to name a few.

As AMSI peels off the obfuscation layers, Windows Defender ATP benefits from growing visibility and insight into API calls, variable names, and patterns in the general structure of malicious scripts. And while AMSI data helps improve human expert knowledge and their ability to train learning systems, our deep neural networks automatically learn features that are often hidden from human analysts.

Machine-learning detections of JavaScript and PowerShell scripts

Figure 8. Machine learning detections of JavaScript and PowerShell scripts

While these new script-based machine learning models augment our expert classifiers, we also correlate new results with other behavioral information. For example, Windows Defender ATP correlates the detection of suspicious script contents from AMSI with other proximate behaviors, such as network connections. This contextual information is provided to SecOps personnel, helping them respond to incidents efficiently.

Machine learning combines VBScript content from AMSI and tracked network activity

Figure 9. Machine learning combines VBScript content from AMSI and tracked network activity

Detection of AMSI bypass attempts

With AMSI providing powerful insight into malicious script activity, attacks are more likely to incorporate AMSI bypass mechanisms that we group into three categories:

  • Bypasses that are part of the script content and can be inspected and alerted on
  • Tampering with the AMSI sensor infrastructure, which might involve the replacement of system files or manipulation of the load order of relevant DLLs
  • Patching of AMSI instrumentation in memory

The Windows Defender ATP research team proactively develops anti-tampering mechanisms for all our sensors. We have devised heuristic alerts for possible manipulation of our optics, designing these alerts so that they are triggered in the cloud before the bypass can suppress them.

During actual attacks involving CVE-2017-8759, Windows Defender ATP not only detected malicious post-exploitation scripting activity but also detected attempts to bypass AMSI using code similar to one identified by Matt Graeber.

Windows Defender ATP alert based on AMSI bypass pattern

Figure 10. Windows Defender ATP alert based on AMSI bypass pattern

AMSI itself captured the following bypass code for analysis in the Windows Defender ATP cloud.

AMSI bypass code sent to the cloud for analysis

Figure 11. AMSI bypass code sent to the cloud for analysis

Conclusion: Windows Defender ATP machine learning and AMSI provide revolutionary defense against highly evasive script-based attacks

Provided as an open interface on Windows 10, Antimalware Scan Interface delivers powerful optics into malicious activity hidden in encrypted and obfuscated scripts that are oftentimes never written to disk. Such evasive use of scripts is becoming commonplace and is being employed by both highly skilled activity groups and authors of commodity malware.

AMSI captures malicious script behavior by looking at script content as it is interpreted, without having to check physical files or being hindered by obfuscation, encryption, or polymorphism. At the endpoint, AMSI benefits local scanners, providing the necessary optics so that even obfuscated and encrypted scripts can be inspected for malicious content. Windows Defender Antivirus, specifically, utilizes AMSI to dynamically inspect and block scripts responsible for dropping all kinds of malicious payloads, including ransomware and banking trojans.

With Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (1709), newly added script runtime instrumentation provides unparalleled visibility into script behaviors despite obfuscation. Windows Defender Antivirus uses this treasure trove of behavioral information about malicious scripts to deliver pre-breach protection at runtime. To deliver post-breach defense, Windows Defender ATP uses advanced machine learning systems to draw deeper insight from this data.

Apart from looking at specific activities and patterns of activities, new machine learning algorithms in Windows Defender ATP look at script obfuscation layers, API invocation patterns, and other features that can be used to efficiently identify malicious scripts heuristically. Windows Defender ATP also correlates script-based indicators with other proximate activities, so it can deliver even richer contextual information about suspected breaches.

To benefit from the new script runtime instrumentation and other powerful security enhancements like Windows Defender Exploit Guard, customers are encourage to install Windows 10 Fall Creators Update.

Read the The Total Economic Impact of Microsoft Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection from Forrester to understand the significant cost savings and business benefits enabled by Windows Defender ATP. To directly experience how Windows Defender ATP can help your enterprise detect, investigate, and respond to advance attacks, sign up for a free trial.

 

Stefan Sellmer, Windows Defender ATP Research

with

Shay Kels, Windows Defender ATP Research

Karthik Selvaraj, Windows Defender Research

 

Additional readings

 


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#AVGater vulnerability does not affect Windows Defender Antivirus, MSE, or SCEP

On November 10, 2017, a vulnerability called #AVGater was discovered affecting some antivirus products. The vulnerability requires a non-administrator-level account to perform a restore of a quarantined file.

Windows Defender Antivirus and other Microsoft antimalware products, including System Center Endpoint Protection (SCEP) and Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), are not affected by this vulnerability.

This vulnerability can be exploited to restore files that have been detected and quarantined by an antivirus product. To exploit this, malicious applications, including those launched by user-level accounts without administrator privileges, create an NTFS junction from the %System% folder to folder where the quarantined file is located. This NTFS junction can trigger the antivirus product to attempt to restore the file into the %System% folder.

This is a relatively old attack vector. By design, Microsoft antimalware products, including Windows Defender Antivirus, have never been affected by this vulnerability because it does not permit applications launched by user-level accounts to restore files from quarantine. This is part of the built-in protections against this and other known user-account permissions vulnerabilities.

Read more about Windows Defender Antivirus and the rest of our Windows Defender protection products at the following links:

 

*Edited 11/17/2017 to include other Microsoft antimalware products

 


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Questions, concerns, or insights on this story? Join discussions at the Microsoft community and Windows Defender Security Intelligence.

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