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How artificial intelligence stopped an Emotet outbreak

February 14th, 2018 No comments

At 12:46 a.m. local time on February 3, a Windows 7 Pro customer in North Carolina became the first would-be victim of a new malware attack campaign for Trojan:Win32/Emotet. In the next 30 minutes, the campaign tried to attack over a thousand potential victims, all of whom were instantly and automatically protected by Windows Defender AV.

How did Windows Defender AV uncover the newly launched attack and block it at the outset? Through layered machine learning, including use of both client-side and cloud machine learning (ML) models. Every day, artificial intelligence enables Windows Defender AV to stop countless malware outbreaks in their tracks. In this blog post, well take a detailed look at how the combination of client and cloud ML models detects new outbreaks.

Figure 1. Layered detected model in Windows Defender AV

Client machine learning models

The first layer of machine learning protection is an array of lightweight ML models built right into the Windows Defender AV client that runs locally on your computer. Many of these models are specialized for file types commonly abused by malware authors, including, JavaScript, Visual Basic Script, and Office macro. Some models target behavior detection, while other models are aimed at detecting portable executable (PE) files (.exe and .dll).

In the case of the Emotet outbreak on February 3, Windows Defender AV caught the attack using one of the PE gradient boosted tree ensemble models. This model classifies files based on a featurization of the assembly opcode sequence as the file is emulated, allowing the model to look at the files behavior as it was simulated to run.

Figure 2. A client ML model classified the Emotet outbreak as malicious based on emulated execution opcode machine learning model.

The tree ensemble was trained using LightGBM, a Microsoft open-source framework used for high-performance gradient boosting.

Figure 3a. Visualization of the LightBGM-trained client ML model that successfully classified Emotet’s emulation behavior as malicious. A set of 20 decision trees are combined in this model to classify whether the files emulated behavior sequence is malicious or not.

Figure 3b. A more detailed look at the first decision tree in the model. Each decision is based on the value of a different feature. Green triangles indicate weighted-clean decision result; red triangles indicate weighted malware decision result for the tree.

When the client-based machine learning model predicts a high probability of maliciousness, a rich set of feature vectors is then prepared to describe the content. These feature vectors include:

  • Behavior during emulation, such as API calls and executed code
  • Similarity fuzzy hashes
  • Vectors of content descriptive flags optimized for use in ML models
  • Researcher-driven attributes, such as packer technology used for obfuscation
  • File name
  • File size
  • Entropy level
  • File attributes, such as number of sections
  • Partial file hashes of the static and emulated content

This set of features form a signal sent to the Windows Defender AV cloud protection service, which runs a wide array of more complex models in real-time to instantly classify the signal as malicious or benign.

Real-time cloud machine learning models

Windows Defender AVs cloud-based real-time classifiers are powerful and complex ML models that use a lot of memory, disk space, and computational resources. They also incorporate global file information and Microsoft reputation as part of the Microsoft Intelligent Security Graph (ISG) to classify a signal. Relying on the cloud for these complex models has several benefits. First, it doesnt use your own computers precious resources. Second, the cloud allows us to take into consideration the global information and reputation information from ISG to make a better decision. Third, cloud-based models are harder for cybercriminals to evade. Attackers can take a local client and test our models without our knowledge all day long. To test our cloud-based defenses, however, attackers have to talk to our cloud service, which will allow us to react to them.

The cloud protection service is queried by Windows Defender AV clients billions of times every day to classify signals, resulting in millions of malware blocks per day, and translating to protection for hundreds of millions of customers. Today, the Windows Defender AV cloud protection service has around 30 powerful models that run in parallel. Some of these models incorporate millions of features each; most are updated daily to adapt to the quickly changing threat landscape. All together, these classifiers provide an array of classifications that provide valuable information about the content being scanned on your computer.

Classifications from cloud ML models are combined with ensemble ML classifiers, reputation-based rules, allow-list rules, and data in ISG to come up with a final decision on the signal. The cloud protection service then replies to the Windows Defender client with a decision on whether the signal is malicious or not all in a fraction of a second.

Figure 4. Windows Defender AV cloud protection service workflow.

In the Emotet outbreak, one of our cloud ML servers in North America received the most queries from customers; corresponding to where the outbreak began. At least nine real-time cloud-based ML classifiers correctly identified the file as malware. The cloud protection service replied to signals instructing the Windows Defender AV client to block the attack using two of our ML-based threat names, Trojan:Win32/Fuerboos.C!cl and Trojan:Win32/Fuery.A!cl.

This automated process protected customers from the Emotet outbreak in real-time. But Windows Defender AVs artificial intelligence didnt stop there.

Deep learning on the full file content

Automatic sample submission, a Windows Defender AV feature, sent a copy of the malware file to our backend systems less than a minute after the very first encounter. Deep learning ML models immediately analyzed the file based on the full file content and behavior observed during detonation. Not surprisingly, deep neural network models identified the file as a variant of Trojan:Win32/Emotet, a family of banking Trojans.

While the ML classifiers ensured that the malware was blocked at first sight, deep learning models helped associate the threat with the correct malware family. Customers who were protected from the attack can use this information to understand the impact the malware might have had if it were not stopped.

Additionally, deep learning models provide another layer of protection: in relatively rare cases where real-time classifiers are not able to come to a conclusive decision about a file, deep learning models can do so within minutes. For example, during the Bad Rabbit ransomware outbreak, Windows Defender AV protected customers from the new ransomware just 14 minutes after the very first encounter.

Intelligent real-time protection against modern threats

Machine learning and AI are at the forefront of the next-gen real-time protection delivered by Windows Defender AV. These technologies, backed by unparalleled optics into the threat landscape provided by ISG as well as world-class Windows Defender experts and researchers, allow Microsoft security products to quickly evolve and scale to defend against the full range of attack scenarios.

Cloud-delivered protection is enabled in Windows Defender AV by default. To check that its running, go to Windows Settings > Update & Security > Windows Defender. Click Open Windows Defender Security Center, then navigate to Virus & threat protection > Virus &threat protection settings, and make sure that Cloud-delivered protection and Automatic sample submission are both turned On.

In enterprise environments, the Windows Defender AV cloud protection service can be managed using Group Policy, System Center Configuration Manager, PowerShell cmdlets, Windows Management Instruction (WMI), Microsoft Intune, or via the Windows Defender Security Center app.

The intelligent real-time defense in Windows Defender AV is part of the next-gen security technologies in Windows 10 that protect against a wide spectrum of threats. Of particular note, Windows 10 S is not affected by this type of malware attack. Threats like Emotet wont run on Windows 10 S because it exclusively runs apps from the Microsoft Store. Learn more about Windows 10 S. To know about all the security technologies available in Windows 10, read Microsoft 365 security and management features available in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update.

 

Geoff McDonald, Windows Defender Research
with Randy Treit and Allan Sepillo

 

 


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Now you see me: Exposing fileless malware

January 24th, 2018 No comments

Attackers are determined to circumvent security defenses using increasingly sophisticated techniques. Fileless malware boosts the stealth and effectiveness of an attack, and two of last years major ransomware outbreaks (Petya and WannaCry) used fileless techniques as part of their kill chains.

The idea behind fileless malware is simple: If tools already exist on a device (for example PowerShell.exe or wmic.exe) to fulfill an attackers objectives, then why drop custom tools that could be flagged as malware? If an attacker can take over a process, run code in its memory space, and then use that code to call tools that are already on a device, the attack becomes more difficult to detect.

Successfully using this approach, sometimes called living off the land, is not a walk in the park. Theres another thing that attackers need to deal with: Establishing persistence. Memory is volatile, and with no files on disk, how can attackers get their code to auto-start after a system reboot and retain control of a compromised system?

Misfox: A fileless gateway to victim networks

In April 2016, a customer contacted the Microsoft Incident Response team about a case of cyber-extortion. The attackers had requested a substantial sum of money from the customer in exchange for not releasing their confidential corporate information that the attackers had stolen from the customers compromised computers. In addition, the attackers had threatened to “flatten” the network if the customer contacted law enforcement. It was a difficult situation.

Quick fact
Windows Defender AV detections of Misfox more than doubled in Q2 2017 compared to Q1 2017.

The Microsoft Incident Response team investigated machines in the network, identified targeted implants, and mapped out the extent of the compromise. The customer was using a well-known third-party antivirus product that was installed on the vast majority of machines. While it was up-to-date with the latest signatures, the AV product had not detected any targeted implants.

The Microsoft team then discovered that the attackers attempted to encrypt files with ransomware twice. Luckily, those attempts failed. As it turned out, the threat to flatten the network was a plan B to monetize the attack after their plan A had failed.

Whats more, the team also discovered that the attackers had covertly persisted in the network for at least seven months through two separate channels:

  • The first channel involved a backdoor named Swrort.A that was deployed on several machines; this backdoor was easily detected by antivirus.
  • The second channel was much more subtle and interesting, because:

    • It did not infect any files on the device
    • It left no artifacts on disk
    • Common file scanning techniques could not detect it

Should you disable PowerShell?
No. PowerShell is a powerful and secure management tool and is important for many system and IT functions. Attackers use malicious PowerShell scripts as post-exploitation technique that can only take place after an initial compromise has already occurred. Its misuse is a symptom of an attack that begins with other malicious actions like software exploitation, social engineering, or credential theft. The key is to prevent an attacker from getting into the position where they can misuse PowerShell. For tips on mitigating PowerShell abuse, continue reading.

The second tool was a strain of fileless malware called Misfox. Once Misfox was running in memory, it:

  • Created a registry run key that launches a “one-liner” PowerShell cmdlet
  • Launched an obfuscated PowerShell script stored in the registry BLOB; the obfuscated PowerShell script contained a reflective portable executable (PE) loader that loaded a Base64-encoded PE from the registry

Misfox did not drop any executable files, but the script stored in the registry ensured the malware persisted.

Fileless techniques

Misfox exemplifies how cyberattacks can incorporate fileless components in the kill chain. Attackers use several fileless techniques that can make malware implants stealthy and evasive. These techniques include:

  1. Reflective DLL injection
    Reflective DLL injection involves the manual loading of malicious DLLs into a process’ memory without the need for said DLLs to be on disk. The malicious DLL can be hosted on a remote attacker-controlled machine and delivered through a staged network channel (for example, Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol), or embedded in obfuscated form inside infection vectors like macros and scripts. This results in the evasion of the OS mechanism that monitors and keeps track of loading executable modules. An example of malware that uses Reflective DLL injection is HackTool:Win32/Mikatz!dha.
  2. Memory exploits
    Adversaries use fileless memory exploits to run arbitrary code remotely on victim machines. For example, the UIWIX threat uses the EternalBlue exploit, which was used by both Petya and WannaCry, and has been observed to install the DoublePulsar backdoor, which lives entirely in the kernel’s memory (SMB Dispatch Table). Unlike Petya and Wannacry, UIWIX does not drop any files on disk.
  3. Script-based techniques
    Scripting languages provide powerful means for delivering memory-only executable payloads. Script files can embed encoded shellcodes or binaries that they can decrypt on the fly at run time and execute via .NET objects or directly with APIs without requiring them to be written to disk. The scripts themselves can be hidden in the registry (as in the case of Misfox), read from network streams, or simply run manually in the command-line by an attacker, without ever touching the disk.
  4. WMI persistence
    Weve seen certain attackers use the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) repository to store malicious scripts that are then invoked periodically using WMI bindings. This article [PDF] presents very good examples.

Fileless malware-specific mitigations on Microsoft 365

Microsoft 365 brings together a set of next-gen security technologies to protect devices, SaaS apps, email, and infrastructure from a wide spectrum of attacks. The following Windows-related components from Microsoft 365 have capabilities to detect and mitigate malware that rely on fileless techniques:

Tip
In addition to fileless malware-specific mitigations, Windows 10 comes with other next-gen security technologies that mitigate attacks in general. For example, Windows Defender Application Guard can stop the delivery of malware, fileless or otherwise, through Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer. Read about the Microsoft 365 security and management features available in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update.

Windows Defender Antivirus

Windows Defender AV blocks the vast majority of malware using generic, heuristic, and behavior-based detections, as well as local and cloud-based machine learning models. Windows Defender AV protects against fileless malware through these capabilities:

  • Detecting script-based techniques by leveraging AMSI, which provides the capability to inspect PowerShell and other script types, even with multiple layers of obfuscation
  • Detecting and remediating WMI persistence techniques by scanning the WMI repository, both periodically and whenever anomalous behavior is observed
  • Detecting reflective DLL injection through enhanced memory scanning techniques and behavioral monitoring

Windows Defender Exploit Guard

Windows Defender Exploit Guard (Windows Defender EG), a new set of host intrusion prevention capabilities, helps reduce the attack surface area by locking down the device against a wide variety of attack vectors. It can help stop attacks that use fileless malware by:

  • Mitigating kernel-memory exploits like EternalBlue through Hypervisor Code Integrity (HVCI), which makes it extremely difficult to inject malicious code using kernel-mode software vulnerabilities
  • Mitigating user-mode memory exploits through the Exploit protection module, which consists of a number of exploit mitigations that can be applied either at the operating system level or at the individual app level
  • Mitigating many script-based fileless techniques, among other techniques, through Attack Surface Reduction (ASR) rules that lock down application behavior

Tip
On top of technical controls, it is important that administrative controls related to people and processes are also in place. The use of fileless techniques that rely on PowerShell and WMI on a remote victim machine requires that the adversary has privileged access to those machines. This may be due to poor administrative practices (for example, configuring a Windows service to run in the context of a domain admin account) that can enable credential theft. Read more about Securing Privileged Access.

Windows Defender Application Control

Windows Defender Application Control (WDAC) offers a mechanism to enforce strong code Integrity policies and to allow only trusted applications to run. In the context of fileless malware, WDAC locks down PowerShell to Constrained Language Mode, which limits the extended language features that can lead to unverifiable code execution, such as direct .NET scripting, invocation of Win32 APIs via the Add-Type cmdlet, and interaction with COM objects. This essentially mitigates PowerShell-based reflective DLL injection attacks.

Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection

Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (Windows Defender ATP) is the integrated platform for our Windows Endpoint Protection (EPP) and Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) capabilities. When it comes to post breach scenarios ATP alerts enterprise customers about highly sophisticated and advanced attacks on devices and corporate networks that other preventive protection features have been unable to defend against. It uses rich security data, advanced behavioral analytics, and machine learning to detect such attacks. It can help detect fileless malware in a number of ways, including:

  • Exposing covert attacks that use fileless techniques like reflective DLL loading using specific instrumentations that detect abnormal memory allocations
  • Detecting script-based fileless attacks by leveraging AMSI, which provides runtime inspection capability into PowerShell and other script-based malware, and applying machine learning models

Microsoft Edge

According to independent security tester NSS Labs, Microsoft Edge blocks more phishing sites and socially engineered malware than other browsers. Microsoft Edge mitigates fileless malware using arbitrary code protection capabilities, which can prevent arbitrary code, including malicious DLLs, from running. This helps mitigate reflective DLL loading attacks. In addition, Microsoft Edge offers a wide array of protections that mitigate threats, fileless or otherwise, using Windows Defender Application Guard integration and Windows Defender SmartScreen.

Windows 10 S

Windows 10 S is a special configuration of Windows 10 that combines many of the security features of Microsoft 365 automatically configured out of the box. It reduces attack surface by only allowing apps from the Microsoft Store. In the context of fileless malware, Windows 10 S has PowerShell Constrained Language Mode enabled by default. In addition, industry-best Microsoft Edge is the default browser, and Hypervisor Code Integrity (HVCI) is enabled by default.

 

Zaid Arafeh

Senior Program Manager, Windows Defender Research team

 


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