Tag Archives: Process Hollowing

Malware Analysis – PlugX

[The PlugX malware family has always intrigued me. I was curious to look at one variant. Going over the Internet and the research articles and blogs about it I came across the research made by Fabien Perigaud. From here I got an old PlugX builder. Then I set a lab that allowed me to get insight about how an attacker would operate a PlugX campaign. In this post, l will cover a brief overview about the PlugX builder, analyze and debug the malware installation and do a quick look at the C2 traffic. ~LR]

PlugX is commonly used by different threat groups on targeted attacks. PlugX is also refered as KORPLUG, SOGU, DestroyRAT and is a modular backdoor that is designed to rely on the execution of signed and legitimated executables to load malicious code. PlugX, normally has three main components, a DLL, an encrypted binary file and a legitimate and signed executable that is used to load the malware using a technique known as DLL search order hijacking. But let’s start with a quick overview about the builder.

The patched builder, MD5 6aad032a084de893b0e8184c17f0376a, is an English version, from Q3 2013,  of the featured-rich and modular command & control interface for PlugX that allows an operator to:

  • Build payloads, set campaigns and define the preferred method for the compromised hosts to check-in and communicate with the controller.
  • Proxy connections and build a tiered C2 communication model.
  • Define persistence mechanisms and its attributes.
  • Set the process(s) to be injected with the payload.
  • Define a schedule for the C2 call backs.
  • Enable keylogging and screen capture.
  • Manage compromises systems per campaign.

Then for each compromised system, the operator has extensive capabilities to interact with the systems over the controller that includes the following modules:

  • Disk module allows the operator to write, read, upload, download and execute files.
  • Networking browser module allows the operator to browse network connections and connect to another system via SMB.
  • Process module to enumerate, kill and list loaded modules per process.
  • Services module allows the operator to enumerate, start, stop and changing booting properties
  • Registry module allows the operator to browse the registry and create, delete or modify keys.
  • Netstat module allows the operator to enumerate TCP and UDP network connections and the associated processes
  • Capture module allows the operator to perform screen captures
  • Control plugin allows the operator to view or remote control the compromised system in a similar way like VNC.
  • Shell module allows the operator to get a command line shell on the compromised system.
  • PortMap module allows the operator to establish port forwarding rules.
  • SQL module allows the operator to connect to SQL servers and execute SQL statements.
  • Option module allows the operator to shut down, reboot, lock, log-off or send message boxes.
  • Keylogger module captures keystrokes per process including window titles.

The picture below shows the Plug-X C2 interface.

So, with this we used the builder functionality to define the different settings specifying C2 comms password, campaign, mutex, IP addresses, installation properties, injected binaries, schedule for call-back, etc. Then we build our payload. The PlugX binary produced by this version of the builder (LZ 2013-8-18) is a self-extracting RAR archive that contains three files. This is sometimes referred in the literature as the PlugX trinity payload. Executing the self-extracting RAR archive will drop the three files to the directory chosen during the process. In this case “%AUTO%/RasTls”. The files are: A legitimate signed executable from Kaspersky AV solution named “avp.exe”, MD5 e26d04cecd6c7c71cfbb3f335875bc31, which is susceptible to DLL search order hijacking . The file “avp.exe” when executed will load the second file: “ushata.dll”, MD5 728fe666b673c781f5a018490a7a412a, which in this case is a DLL crafted by the PlugX builder which on is turn will load the third file. The third file: “ushata.DLL.818”, MD5 “21078990300b4cdb6149dbd95dff146f” contains obfuscated and packed shellcode.

So, let’s look at the mechanics of what happens when the self-extracting archive is executed. The three files are extracted to a temporary directory and “avp.exe” is executed. The “avp.exe” when executed will load “ushata.dll” from the running directory due to the DLL search order hijacking using Kernel32.LoadLibrary API.

Then “ushata.dll” DLL entry point is executed. The DLL entry point contains code that verifies if the system date is equal or higher than 20130808. If yes it will get a handle to “ushata.DLL.818”, reads its contents into memory and changes the memory address segment permissions to RWX using Kernel32.VirtualProtect API. Finally, returns to the first instruction of the loaded file (shellcode). The file “ushata.DLL.818” contains obfuscated shellcode. The picture below shows the beginning of the obfuscated shellcode.

The shellcode unpacks itself using a custom algorithm. This shellcode contains position independent code. Figure below shows the unpacked shellcode.

The shellcode starts by locating the kernel32.dll address by accessing the Thread Information Block (TIB) that contains a pointer to the Process Environment Block (PEB) structure. Figure below shows a snippet of the shellcode that contains the different sequence of assembly instructions for the code to find the Kernel32.dll.

It then reads kernel32.dll export table to locate the desired Windows API’s by comparing them with stacked strings. Then, the shellcode decompresses a DLL (offset 0x784) MD5 333e2767c8e575fbbb1c47147b9f9643, into memory using the LZNT1 algorithm by leveraging ntdll.dll.RtlDecompressBuffer API. The DLL contains the PE header replaced with the “XV” value. Restoring the PE header signature allows us to recover the malicious DLL.

Next, the payload will start performing different actions to achieve persistence. On Windows 7 and beyond, PlugX creates a folder “%ProgramData%\RasTl” where “RasTl” matches the installation settings defined in the builder. Then, it changes the folder attributes to “SYSTEM|HIDDEN” using the SetFileAttributesW API. Next, copies its three components into the folder and sets all files with the “SYSTEM|HIDDEN” attribute.

The payload also modifies the timestamps of the created directory and files with the timestamps obtained from ntdll.dll using the SetFileTime API.

Then it creates the service “RasTl” where the ImagePath points to “%ProgramData%\RasTl\avp.exe”

If the malware fails to start the just installed service, it will delete it and then it will create a persistence mechanism in the registry by setting the registry value “C:\ProgramData\RasTls\avp.exe” to the key “HKLM\SOFTWARE\Classes\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run\RasTls” using the RegSetValueExW API.

If the builder options had the Keylogger functionality enabled, then it may create a file with a random name such as “%ProgramData%\RasTl\rjowfhxnzmdknsixtx” that stores the key strokes. If the payload has been built with Screen capture functionality, it may create the folder “%ProgramData%\RasTl \RasTl\Screen” to store JPG images in the format <datetime>.jpg that are taken at the frequency specified during the build process. The payload may also create the file “%ProgramData%\DEBUG.LOG” that contains debugging information about its execution (also interesting that during execution the malware outputs debug messages about what is happening using the OutputDebugString API. This messages could be viewed with DebugView from SysInternals). The malicious code completes its mission by starting a new instance of “svchost.exe” and then injects the malicious code into svchost.exe process address space using process hollowing technique. The pictures below shows the first step of the process hollowing technique where the payload creates a new “svchost.exe” instance in SUSPENDED state.

and then uses WriteProcessMemory API to inject the malicious payload

Then the main thread, which is still in suspended state, is changed in order to point to the entry point of the new image base using the SetThreadContext API. Finally, the ResumeThread API is invoked and the malicious code starts executing. The malware also has the capabilities to bypass User Account Control (UAC) if needed. From this moment onward, the control is passed over “svchost.exe” and Plug-X starts doing its thing. In this case we have the builder so we know the settings which were defined during building process. However, we would like to understand how could we extract the configuration settings. During Black Hat 2014, Takahiro Haruyama and Hiroshi Suzuki gave a presentation titled “I know You Want Me – Unplugging PlugX” where the authors go to great length analyzing a variety of PlugX samples, its evolution and categorizing them into threat groups. But better is that the Takahiro released a set of PlugX parsers for the different types of PlugX samples i.e, Type I, Type II and Type III. How can we use this parser? The one we are dealing in this article is considered a PlugX type II. To dump the configuration, we need to use Immunity Debugger and use the Python API. We need to place the “plugx_dumper.py” file into the “PyCommands” folder inside Immunity Debugger installation path. Then attached the debugger to the infected process e.g, “svchost.exe” and run the plugin. The plugin will dump the configuration settings and will also extract the decompressed DLL

We can see that this parser is able to find the injected shellcode, decode its configuration and all the settings an attacker would set on the builder and also dump the injected DLL which contains the core functionality of the malware.

In terms of networking, as observed in the PlugX controller, the malware can be configured to speak with a controller using several network protocols. In this case we configured it to speak using HTTP on port 80. The network traffic contains a 16-byte header followed by a payload. The header is encoded with a custom routine and the payload is encoded and compressed with LZNT1. Far from a comprehensive analysis we launched a Shell prompt from the controller, typed command “ipconfig” and observed the network traffic. In parallel, we attached a debugger to “svchost.exe” and set breakpoints: on Ws2_32.dll!WSASend and Ws2_32.dll!WSARecv to capture the packets ; on ntdll.dll!RtlCompressBuffer and ntdll.dll!RtlDecompressBuffer to view the data before and after compression. ; On custom encoding routine to view the data before and after. The figure below shows a disassemble listing of the custom encoding routine.

So, from a debugger view, with the right breakpoints we could start to observe what is happening. In the picture below, on the left-hand side it shows the packet before encoding and compression. It contains a 16-byte header, where the first 4-bytes are the key for the custom encoding routine. The next 4-bytes are the flags which contain the commands/plugins being used. Then the next 4-bytes is the size. After the header there is the payload which in this case contains is output of the ipconfig.exe command. On the right-hand side, we have the packet after encoding and compressing. It contains the 16-byte header encoded following by the payload encoded and compressed.

Then, the malware uses WSASend API to send the traffic.

Capturing the traffic, we can observe the same data.

On the controller side, when the packet arrives, the header will be decoded and then the payload will be decoded and decompressed. Finally, the output is showed to the operator.

Now that we started to understand how C2 traffic is handled, we can capture it and decode it.  Kyle Creyts has created a PlugX decoder that supports PCAP’s. The decoder supports decryption of PlugX Type I.But Fabien Perigaud reversed the Type II algorithm and implemented it in python. If we combine Kyle’s work with the work from Takahiro Haruyama and Fabien Perigaud we could create a PCAP parser to extract PlugX Type II and Type III. Below illustrates a proof-of-concept for this exercise against 1 packet. We captured the traffic and then used a small python script to decrypt a packet. No dependencies on Windows because it uses the herrcore’s standalone LZNT1 implementation that is based on the one from the ChopShop protocol analysis and decoder framework by MITRE.

That’s it for today! We build a lab with a PlugX controller, got a view on its capabilities. Then we looked at the malware installation and debugged it in order to find and interpret some of its mechanics such as DLL search order hijacking, obfuscated shellcode, persistence mechanism and process hollowing. Then, we used a readily available parser to dump its configuration from memory. Finally, we briefly looked the way the malware communicates with the C2 and created a small script to decode the traffic. Now, with such environment ready, in a controlled and isolated lab, we can further simulate different tools and techniques and observe how an attacker would operate compromised systems. Then we can learn, practice at our own pace and look behind the scenes to better understand attack methods and ideally find and implement countermeasures.

Analysis of a PlugX malware variant used for targeted attacks by CRCL.lu
Operation Cloud Hopper by PWC
PlugX Payload Extraction by Kevin O’Reilly
Other than the authors and articles cited troughout the article, a fantastic compilation about PlugX articles and papers since 2011 is available here.

Credits: Thanks to Michael Bailey who showed me new techniques on how to deal with shellcode which I will likely cover on a post soon.

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Malware Analysis – Dridex & Process Hollowing

[In this article we are going to do an analysis of one of the techniques used by the malware authors to hide its malicious intent when executed on Windows operating systems. The technique is not new but is very common across different malware families and is known as process hollowing. We will use OllyDbg to aid our analysis. ~LR]

Lately the threat actors behind Dridex malware have been very active. Across all the recent Dridex phishing campaigns the technique is the same. All the Microsoft Office documents contain embedded macros that download a malicious executable from one of many hard coded URLs. These hard coded URLs normally point to websites owned by legitimate people. The site is compromised in order to store the malicious file and also to hide any attribution related to the threat actors. The encoding and obfuscation techniques used in the macros are constantly changing in order to bypass security controls. The malicious executable also uses encoding, obfuscation and encryption techniques in order to evade antivirus signatures and even sandboxes. This makes AV detection hard. The variants change daily in order to evade the different security products.

When doing malware static analysis of recent samples, it normally does not produce any meaningful results. For example, running the strings command and displaying ASCII and UNICODE strings does not disclose much information about the binary real functionality. This means we might want to run the strings command after the malware has been unpacked. This will produce much more interesting results such as name of functions that interact with network, registry, I/O, etc.

In this case we will look at the following sample:

remnux@remnux:~$ file rudakop.ex_
 rudakop.ex_: PE32 executable for MS Windows (GUI) Intel 80386 32-bit
remnux@remnux:~$ md5sum rudakop.ex_
 6e5654da58c03df6808466f0197207ed  rudakop.ex_

The environment used to do this exercise is the one described in the dynamic malware analysis with RemnuxV5 article. The Virtual Machine that will be used runs Windows XP.  First we just run the malware and we can observe it creates a child process with the same name. This can be seen by running the sample and observing Process Explorer from Sysinternals or Process Hacker from Wen Jia Liu. The below picture illustrate this behavior.


This behavior suggests that the malware creates a child process where it extracts an unpacked version of itself.

In this case we will try to unpack this malware sample in order to get more visibility into its functionality.  Bottom line, when the packed executable runs it will extract itself into memory and then runs the unpacked code. Before we step into the tools and techniques lets brief review the concept around process hollowing.


This technique, which is similar to the code injection technique, consists in starting a new instance of a legitimate process with the API CreateProcess() with the flag CREATE_SUSPENDED passed as argument. This will execute all the necessary steps in order to create the process and all its structure but will not execute the code.

The suspended state will permit the process address spaced of the legitimate process to be manipulated. More specifically the image base address and its contents.

The manipulations starts by carving out and clearing the virtual address region where the image base of the legitimate process resides. This is achieved using the API NtUnmapViewOfSection().

Then the contents of the malicious code and its image base will be allocated using VirtualAlloc(). During this step the protection attributes for the memory region will be marked as  writable and executable. And then the new image is copied over to the carved region using WriteProcessMemory()

Then the main thread, which is still in suspended state, is changed in order to point to the entry point of the new image base using the SetThreadContext() API.

Finally, the ResumeThread() is invoked and the malicious code starts executing.

This technique has been discussed at lengths and is very popular among malware authors. If you want to even go deeper in this concept you can read John Leitch article. Variants of this process exist but the concept is the same. Create a new legitimate process in suspended state, carve its contents, copy the malicious code into the new process and resume execution.

Now lets practice! In order to debug these steps we will use OllyDbg on a virtual machine running Windows XP.

OllyDbg is a powerful, mature and extremely popular debugger for x86 architecture. This amazing tool was created by Olesh Yuschuk. For this exercise we will use version 1.1. The goal is to extract the payload that is used during the process hollowing technique.

When loading this sample into OllyDbg we are presented with two messages. First an error stating “Bad or unknown format of 32bit executable”. OllyDbg can load the executable but it cannot find the entry point (OEP) which suggest the PE headers have been manipulated. Following that the message “compressed code?” is presented. This warning message is normally displayed when the executable is compressed or encrypted. This is a strong indicator that we are dealing with a packed executable. Here we click “No”.


When the sample is loaded we start by creating a breakpoint in CreateProcessW. This is a key step in the process hollowing technique. We do this by clicking in the disassembler window (top left) and then Ctrl+G. Then we write the function name we want to find. When clicking ok this will take us to the memory address of the function. Here we press F2 and a break point is set. The breakpoints can been seen and removed using the menu View – Breakpoints (Alt+B).


Then we start debugging our program by running it. We do this by pressing F9 or menu Debug – Run. Once the break point is reached we can see the moment before CreateProcessW function is invoked and the different arguments that will be loaded into the stack (bottom right).  One of the parameters is the CreationFlags where we can see the process is created in suspended mode.


For the sake of brevity we wont perform the breakpoint steps for the other function calls. But the methodology is to set breakpoints across the important function calls. Before we start debugging the program we can set a break point for the different function calls that were mentioned and review how this technique works. In this case we will move into the end of the process hollowing technique were we hit a breakpoint in WriteProcessMemory() . Once the breakpoint is reached we can see the moment before WriteProcessMemory() function is called and the different arguments. In the stack view (bottom right) we can see that one of the parameters is the Buffer. The data stored is this buffer is of particular interest to us because it contains the contents of the malicious code that is going to be written to the legitimate process. In this case might give us the unpacked binary.


Following this step the code is resumed and executed. During the debugging process if we have Process Hacker running in parallel we can see the new process being created. We can also edit its properties and view the memory regions being used and its suspended thread. Finally when the code is resumed we can see the parent process being terminated.

That’s it for today. In the next post we will carve this buffer out and perform further analysis on this sample in order to understand its intent and capabilities.

The threat actors behind malware have many incentives to protect their code. The world of packing , unpacking, debugging and anti-debugging is fascinating. The competition between malware authors and malware analysts is a fierce fight. The malware authors write armored malware in order to evade AV and Sandboxing detection. In addition they go great lengths ensuring the analysis will be difficult. For further reference you may want to look into the following books: Malware Analyst’s Cookbook and DVD: Tools and Techniques for Fighting Malicious Code, the Practical Malware Analysis and Malware Forensics: Investigating and Analyzing Malicious Code . More formal training is available from SANS with GREM course authored by Lenny Zeltser. Free resources are the Dr. FU’s Security blog on Malware analysis tutorials. The Binary Auditing site which contains free IDA Pro training material.  Finally, the malware analysis track  in the Open Security Training site is awesome. It contains several training videos and material for free!



SANS FOR610: Reverse-Engineering Malware: Malware Analysis Tools and Techniques
Malware Analyst’s Cookbook and DVD: Tools and Techniques for Fighting Malicious Code
http://www.autosectools.com/Process-Hollowing.pdf John Leitch

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