Tag Archives: ShimCache

Digital Forensics – PlugX and Artifacts left behind

When an attacker conducts an intrusion using A, B or C technique, some of his actions leave artifact X, Y or Z behind. So, based on the scenario from the last article about PlugX, I collected a disk image and memory image from the domain controller. Over the past years I wrote several articles on how to perform acquisition, mounting and processing of such images and analyze them by creating super timelines, look at different artifacts like Event Logs, Prefetch, ShimCache, AMCache, etc., or analyze NTFS metadata or look for artifacts related to interactive sessions. Today, I’m not going to perform analysis but I’m going to list a quick overview about some of the Windows endpoint artifacts that might give us evidence about the actions that were executed in the previous scenario and help us produce a meaningful timeline. In addition, I list some tools that could be used to analyze those artifacts.

Scenario 1: The attacker placed the filename “kas.exe” on the folder “c:\PerfLogs\Admin”. Which artifacts could record evidence about this action?

    • Description: The Master File Table (MFT) is a special system file that resides on the root of every NTFS partition. The file is named $MFT and is not accessible via user mode API’s but can been seen when you have raw access to the disk e.g, forensic image. This special file is a hierarchical database and inside you have records that contains a series of attributes about a file, directory and indicates where it resides on the physical disk and if is active or inactive. The size of each MFT record is usually 1024-bytes. Each record contains a set of attributes. Some of the most important attributes in a MFT entry are the $STANDART_INFORMATION, $FILENAME and $DATA. The first two are rather important because among other things they contain the file time stamps. Each MFT entry for a given file or directory will contain 8 timestamps. 4 in the $STANDARD_INFORMATION and another 4 in the $FILENAME. These time stamps are known as MACE.
    • Tools: Parse and analyze it with SleuthKit originally written by Brian CarrierMFT2CSV from Joakim Schicht or PLASO/log2timeline originally created by Kristinn Gudjonsson
  • NTFS INDX Attribute
    • Description: The MFT records for directories contain a special attribute called $I30. This attribute contains information about file names and directories that are stored inside a directory. This special attribute is also known as $INDX and consists of three attributes, the $INDEX_ROOT, $INDEX_ALLOCATION and $BITMAP. So, What? Well, this attribute stores information in a B-tree data structure that keeps data sorted so the operating system can perform fast searches in order to determine if a file is present. In addition, this attribute grows to keep track of file names inside the directory. However, when you delete a file from a directory the B-tree re-balances itself but the tree node with metadata about the deleted file remains in a form of slack space until it gets reused. This means we can view the $I30 attribute contents and we might find evidence of files that once existed in a directory but are no longer there.
      Tools: o Parse it and analyze it with INDXParse from William Ballenthin or MFT2CSV from Joakim Schicht.
  • NTFS $LogFile
    • Description: NTFS has been developed over years with many features in mind, one being data recovery. One of the features used by NTFS to perform data recovery is the Journaling. The NTFS Journal is kept inside NTFS Metadata in a file called $LOGFILE. This file is stored in the MFT entry number 2 and every time there is a change in the NTFS Metadata, there is a transaction recorded in the $LOGFILE. These transactions are recorded to be possible to redo or undo file system operations. After the transaction has been logged then the file system can perform the change. When the change is done, another transaction is logged in the form of a commit. The $LOGFILE allows the file system to recover from metadata inconsistencies such as transactions that don’t have a commit. The size of the $LOGFILE can be consulted and changed using chkdsk /l and per default is 65536 KB. Why would $LOGFILE be important for our investigation? Because the $LOGFILE keeps record of all operations that occurred in the NTFS volume such as file creation, deletion, renaming, copy, etc. Therefore, we might find relevant evidence in there.
    • Tools: Parse it and analyze it with LogFileParser from Joakim Schicht
  • NTFS $UsnJrnl
    • Description: The change journal contains a wealth of information that shouldn’t be overlooked. Another interesting aspect of the change journal is that allocates space and deallocates as it grows and records are not overwritten unlike the $LogFile. This means we can find old journal records in unallocated space on a NTFS volume. How to obtain those? Luckily, the tool USN Record Carver written by PoorBillionaire can carve journal records from binary data and thus recover these records
    • Tools: Parse and analyze it with UsnJrnl2Csv from Joakim Schicht or from unallocated space with USN Record Carver from PoorBillionaire.

Scenario 2: Which account did the attacker used to log into the system when he placed “kas.exe” on the file system?

  • Windows Event Logs
    • Description: The Windows Event logs record activities about the operating system and its applications. What is logged depends on the audit features that are turned thus impacting the information that one can obtain. From a forensic perspective the Event Logs capture a wealth of information. The main three Windows Event Logs are Application, System, and Security and on Windows Vista and beyond they are saved on %System32%\winevt\Logs in a binary format. For example the Event id’s 4624, 4625 might give us answers.
    • Tools: Parse it and Analyze it with PLASO/Log2timeline, LibEvtx-utils from Joakim Schicht , python-evtx from William Ballenthin or Event Log Explorer. You likely get better results if in your environment if you have consistent and enhanced audit policy settings defined that track both success and failures. In case the attacker  deletes the Windows Event Logs, there is the possibility to recover Windows Event Log records from the pagefile.sys or from unallocated space, from Volume Shadow copies or even the system Memory. You could use EVTXtract from Willi Ballenthin to attempt to recover Event logs from raw data.

Scenario 3: Attacker executed the “kas.exe” binary. Which artifacts might record this evidence?

  • Windows Prefetch / Superfetch
    • Description: To improve customer experience, Microsoft introduced a memory management technology called Prefetch. This functionality was introduced into Windows XP and Win-dows 2003 Server. This mechanism analyses the applications that are most frequently used and preloads them in advance in order speed the operating system booting and application launching. On Windows Vista, Microsoft enhanced the algorithm and introduced SuperFetch which is an improved version of Prefetch. The Prefetch files are stored in %SYSTEMROOT%\Prefetch directory and have a .pf extension. The Superfetch files have a .db extension. Prefetch files keep track of programs that have been executed in the system even if the original file is no longer present. In addition Prefetch files can tell you when the program was executed, how many times and from which path.
    • Tools: PLASO/log2timeline, Windows-Prefetch-Parser from Adam Witt, Prefetch Parser from Eric Zimmerman. For Superfetch you could use SuperFetch tools.
  • ShimCache either from Registry or from Kernel Memory
    • Description: Microsoft introduced the ShimCache in Windows 95 and it remains today a mechanism to ensure backward compatibility of older binaries into new versions of Microsoft op-erating systems. When new Microsoft operating systems are released some old and legacy application might break. To fix this Microsoft has the ShimCache which acts as a proxy layer between the old application and the new operating system. A good overview about what is the ShimCache is available on the Microsoft Blog on an article written by Tim Newton “Demystifying Shims – or – Using the App Compat Toolkit to make your old stuff work with your new stuff“. The interesting part is that from a forensics perspective the ShimCache is valuable because the cache tracks metadata for binary that was executed and stores it in the ShimCache.
    • Tools: From Kernel memory, you can parse it and analyze it with Volatility ShimCache and ShimCacheMem plugin. From the Registry you can use ShimCacheParser https://github.com/mandiant/ShimCacheParser. You can also use RegRipper from Harlan Carvey or AppCompatCacheParser from Eric Zimmerman. In addition, to analyze ShimCache artifacts at scale you can use AppCompatProcessor from Mattias Bevilacqua,
  • AMCache
    • Description: On Windows 8, Amcache.hve replaced the RecentFileCache.bcf file, a registry file used in Windows 7 as part of the Application Experience and Compatibility feature to ensure compatibility of existing software between different versions of Windows. Similar to its predecessor, Amcache.hve is a small registry hive that stores a wealth of information about recently run applications and programs, including full path, file timestamps, and file SHA1 hash value. Amcache.hve is commonly found at the following location: C:\Windows\AppCompat\Programs\Amcache.hve. The Amcache.hve file is standard within the Windows 8 operating system, but has been found to exist on Windows 7 systems as well.
    • Tools: To read the amcache HIVE you could use RegRipper or Willi Ballenthin stand-alone script or Eric Zimmerman AmcacheParser. To analyze AMCache artifacts at scale you can use AppCompatProcessor from Mattias Bevilacqua,
  • Windows Event Logs. 
    • The Windows Event logs – for example id 4688 – could track binary execution if you have the proper audit settings or you use Sysmon.

Scenario 4: The execution of “kas.exe” dropped three files on disk that used DLL Search Order Hijacking to achieve persistence and install the malicious payload. Which artifacts might help identifying this technique?

Identifying evidence of DLL Search Order hijacking is not easy if no other leads are available. Likely you need a combination of artifacts. The following artifacts / tools might help.

  • NTFS MFT, INDX, $LogFile, $UsnJrnl.
  • Prefetch / SuperFetch.
  • ShimCache either from Registry or from Kernel Memory.
  • AMCache.
  • Windows Event Logs could track process execution and give you leads if you have the proper audit settings or you use Sysmon
  • Volatility to perform memory analysis.
  • RegRipper – One thing you could try, among many others that this powerful tool allows,is to identify different persistence mechanism that could have resulted as part of the DLL Search Order Hijacking technique.
  • AppCompatProcessor to analyze ShimCache and AMCache at scale combined with with PlugX signatures.

Scenario 5: The PlugX dropped files have the NTFS timestamps manipulated i.e., It copies the timestamps obtained from the operating system filename ntdll.dll to set the timestamps on the dropped files. What artifacts could be used to detect this?

The time modification will cause a discrepancy between the NTFS $STANDART_INFORMATION and $FILENAME timestamps. You could combine the NTFS artifacts with the execution artifacts to spot such anomalies.  Other technique you could use is with AppCompat Processor which has the Time Stomp functionality that will search for appcompat entries outside of the Windows,  System and SysWOW64 folders with last modification dates matching a list of known operating system files.

Scenario 6: Attacker used the PlugX controller to Invoke a command shell and execute Windows built-in commands. Are there any artifacts left behind that could help understand commands executed?

  • ShimCache either from Registry or from Kernel Memory.
  • Memory analysis with Volatility and look for Process creation, Console History, cmdscan or consoles plugin.
  • The Windows Event logs could track process execution if you have the proper audit settings or you use Sysmon.

Scenario 7: Attacker established a persistence mechanism either using a Service or Registry Key. 

  • Producing a timeline of the Registry would help identify the last modification dates of the registry keys. You could use RegRipper from Harlan Carvey or RECmd from Eric Zimmerman. The Windows Event logs would also help in case the there was a service created on the operating system. For example Event ID 7009, 7030, 7035, 7036, 7040, 7023 or 7045 could help. In addition, to list the services and its properties you could perform memory analysis with Volatility or use RegRipper.

Scenario 8: The attacker accessed the Active Directory database using the “ntdsutil.exe” command. What could be used to detect this activity?

  • As we saw previously, command execution could be identified using ShimCache either from Registry or from Kernel Memory. Because “ntdsutil.exe” would be executed on a Server system, Prefetch won’t help here because its not enabled on Server systems. One of the most usefull artifacts would be the Windows Event logs but you need to have the right settings so it could track binary execution and the interactions with the Active Directory. One thing that might help in case the memory image has been acquired not long after the attacker activity is to perform memory analysis and creating a timeline of the artifacts with Volatility might help identifying the process creation and its parent(s). In addition, you might get interesting leads just by running strings (little and  big endian) on the pagefile.sys. Other than that, the execution of “ntdsutil.exe” the way it was executed on the scenario, leaves behind artifacts on the NTFS metadata.

That’s it for today. With this article I presented a quick listing on some artifacts and tools that can help you perform forensic analysis on a system and help you answer your investigative questions. Many other tools and artifacts would be available depending on the attacker activities, for example if the attacker logged into a system interactively, but the ones listed might give you a starting point and might help you understand what happened and when. One thing that would greatly complement the findings of a system forensic analysis the network data such as the ones that comes from Firewall, Router, IDS or Proxy logs or any other kind of networking logs you might have. Specially if attacker is using a C2 and is clearing evidence such as the threat group that used a file named “a.bat” to clean several artifacts as illustrated on the “Paranoid PlugX” article written by Tom Lancaster and Esmid Idrizovic from Unit 42.

Happy hunting and If you have dealt with a security incident where PlugX was used, please leave your comments about the tools or techniques you used to detect it.

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Digital Forensics – Artifacts of interactive sessions

In this article I would like to go over some of the digital forensic artifacts that are likely to be useful on your quest to find answers to investigative questions. Specially, when conducting digital forensics and incident response on security incidents that you know the attacker performed its actions while logged in interactively into a Microsoft Windows systems. Normally, one of the first things I look is the Windows Event logs. When properly configured they are a treasure trove of information, but in this article, I want to focus on artifacts that can be useful even if an attacker attempts to cover his tracks by deleting the Event Logs.

Let’s start with ShellBags!

To improve the customer experience, Microsoft operating systems stores folder settings in the registry. If you open a folder, resize its dimensions, close it and open it again, did you notice that Windows restored the view you had? Yep, that’s ShellBags in action. This information is stored in the user profile hive “NTUSER.dat” within the directory “C:\Users\%Username%\” and in the hive “UsrClass.dat” which is stored at “%LocalAppData%\Microsoft\Windows”. When a profile is loaded into the registry, both hives are mounted into the HKEY_USERS and then then linked to the root key HKEY_CURRENT_USER and HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Classes respectively. If you are curious, you can see where the different files are loaded by looking at the registry key “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\hivelist”. On Windows XP and 2003 the ShellBags registry keys are stored at HKEY_USERS\{SID}\Software\​Microsoft\Windows\Shell\ and HKEY_USERS\{SID}\Software\​Microsoft\Windows\ShellNoRoam\.  On Windows 7 and beyond the ShellBags registry keys are stored at “HKEY_USERS\{SID}_Classes\​Local Settings\Software\​Microsoft\Windows\Shell\”.

Why are ShellBags relevant?

Well, this particular artifact allows us to get visibility about the intent or knowledge that a user or an attacker had when accessing or browsing directories and, when. Even if the directory does no longer exists. For example, an attacker that connects to a system using Remote Desktop and accesses a directory where his toolkit is stored. Or an unhappy employee that accesses a network share containing business data or intellectual property weeks before his last day and places this information on a USB drive. ShellBags artifacts can help us understand if such actions were performed. So, when you obtain the NTUSER.dat and UsrClass.dat hives you could parse it and then placed events into a timeline.  When corroborated with other artifacts, the incident response team can reconstruct user activities that were performed interactively and understand what happened and when.

Which tools can we use to parse ShellBags?

I like to use RegRipper from Harlan Carvey, ShellBags Explorer from Eric Zimmerman or Sbags from Willi Ballenthin. The below picture shows an example of using Willi’s tool to parse the ShellBags information from the NTUSER.dat and UsrClass.dat hives. As an example, this illustration shows that the attacker accessed several network folders within SYSVOL and also accessed “c:\Windows\Temp” folder.

To give you context, why I’m showing you this particular illustration of accessing the SYSVOL folder, is because they contain Active Directory Group Policy preference files that in some circumstances might contain valid domain credentials that can be easily decrypted. This is a known technique used by attackers to obtain credentials and likely to occur in the beginning of an incident. Searching for passwords in files such as these are simple ways for attackers to get credentials for service or administrative accounts without executing credential harvesting tools.

Next artifact on our list, JumpLists!

Once again, to increase the customer experience and accelerate the workflow, Microsoft introduced on Windows 7 the possibility to allow a user to access a list of recently used applications and files. This is done by enabling the feature to store and display recently opened programs and items in the Start Menu and the taskbar. There are two files that store JumpLists information. One is the {AppId}.automaticDestination-ms and the other is {AppId}.customDestination-ms where {AppId} corresponds to a 16 hex string that uniquely identifies the application and is calculated based on application path CRC64 with a few oddities. These files are stored in the folder “C:\Users\%USERNAME%\AppData\​Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\​Recent\AutomaticDestinations” and “C:\Users\%USERNAME%\AppData\​Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\​Recent\CustomDestinations”. The folder AutomaticDestinations contain files {16hexchars}.automaticDestination-ms and these files are generated by common operating system applications and stored in a in Shell Link Binary File Format known as [MS-SHLLINK] that are encapsulated Inside a Compound File Binary File Format known as MS-CFB or OLE. The folder CustomDestinations contain files {16hexchars}.customDestination-ms and these files are generated by applications installed by the user or scripts there were executed and stored in Shell Link Binary File Format known as [MS-SHLLINK].

Why are JumpLists relevant?

Just like like ShellBags, this artifact allows us to get visibility about the intent or knowledge an attacker had when opening a particular file, launching a particular application or browsing a specific directory during the course of an interactive session. For example, consider an attacker that is operating on a compromised system using Remote Desktop and launches a browser, the JumpList associated with it will contains the most visited or the recently closed website. If the attacker is pivoting between system using the Terminal Services client, the JumpList shows the system that was specified as an argument. If an attacker dumped credentials from memory and saved into a text file and opened it with Notepad, the JumpList will show evidence about it. Essentially, the metadata stored on these JumpList files can be parsed and will show you a chronological list of Most Recently Used (MRU) or Most Frequently Used (MFU) files opened by the user/application. Among other things, the information contains the Standard Information timestamps from the list entry and the time stamps from the file at the time of opening. Furthermore, it shows the original file path and sizes. This information, when placed into a timeline and corroborated with another artifact can give us a clear picture of the actions performed.

Which tools can we use to parse JumpLists?

JumpListsView from NIRSOFT, JumpLister from Mark Waon or JumpLists Explorer from Eric Zimmerman. Below an example of using Eric’s tool to parse the JumpLists files. More specifically the JumpList file that is associated with Notepad. As an example, this illustration shows that an attacker opened the file “C:\Windows\Temp\tmp.txt”with Notepad. It shows when the file was created and the MFT entry. Very useful.

Next artifact, LNK files!

Again, consider an attacker operating on a compromised system using a Remote Desktop session where he dumped the credentials to a text file and then double clicked on the file. This action will result in the creation of the corresponding Windows shortcut file (LNK file). LNK files are Windows Shortcuts. Everyone that has used Windows has created a shortcut of your most favorite folder or program. However, the Windows operating system behind the scenes also keeps track of recently opened files by creating LNK files within the directory “C:\Documents and Settings\%USERNAME%\Recent\”.   The LNK files, like JumpLists, are stored in Shell Link Binary File Format known as [MS-SHLLINK]. When parsed, the LNK file, contains metadata that, among other things, shows the target file Standard Information timestamps, path, size and MFT entry number. This information is maintained even if the target file does no longer exists on the file system. The MFT entry number can be valuable in case the file was recently deleted and you would like to attempt to recover by carving it from the file system.

Which tools can we use to parse .LNK files?

Joachim Metz has an utility that to parse the information from the Windows Shortcut files. The utility is installed by default on SIFT workstation. In the illustration below, while analyzing a disk image, we could see that there are several .LNK files created under a particular profile. Knowing that this profile has been used by an attacker you could parse the files. In this case parsing, when parsing the file “tmp.lnk” file we can see the target file “C:\Windows\Temp\tmp.txt”, its size and when was created.

Next artifact, UserAssist!

The UserAssist registry key keeps track of the applications that were executed by a particular user. The data is encoded using ROT-13 substitution cipher and maintained on the registry key HKEY_USERS\{SID}\Software\​Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion​\Explorer\UserAssist.

Why is UserAssist relevant?

Consider an attacker operating on a compromised system where he launched “cmd.exe” to launch other Windows built-in commands, or opened the Active Directory Domains and Trusts Snap-in “domain.msc” to gather information about a particular domain, or launched a credential dumper from an odd directory. This action will be tracked by the UserAssist registry key. The registry key will show information about which programs have been executed by a specific user and how frequently. Due to the nature of how timestamps are maintained on registry ie., only the last modified timestamp is kept, this artifact will show when was the last time that a particular application was launched.

Which tools can we use to parse the UserAssist registry keys?

Once again RegRipper from Harlan Carvey is a great choice. Another tool is UserAssist from Didier Stevens. Other method that I often use is to use log2timeline using Windows Registry plugin and then grepping for the UserAssist parser. In this example, we can see that an attacker while operating under a compromised account, executed “cmd,exe”, “notepad.exe”and “mmc.exe”. Now combining these artifacts with the Shellbags, JumpLists and .LNK files, I can start to interpret the results.

Next artifact, RDP Bitmap Cache!

With the release of RDP 5.0 on Windows 2000, Microsoft introduced a persistent bitmap caching mechanism that augmented the bitmap RAM cache. With this mechanism, when you do a Remote Desktop connection, the bitmaps can get stored on disk and are available for the RDP client, allowing it to load them from disk instead of waiting on the latency of the network connection. Of course this was developed with low bandwidth network connections in mind. On Windows 7 and beyond the cache folder is located on “%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Terminal Server Client\Cache\ ” and there two types of cache files. One that contains a .bmc extension and a newer format that was introduced on Windows 7 that follows the naming convention of “cache{4-digits}.bin’. Both files have tiles of 64×64 pixels. The .bmc files support different bits per pixel ranging from 8-bits to 32-bits. The .bin files are always 32-bits and have more capacity and a file can store up to 100Mb of data.

Why are RDP Bitmap cache files relevant?

If an attacker is pivoting between systems in a particular environment and is leveraging Remote Desktop then, on the system where the connection is initiated you could find the bitmap cache that was stored during the attacker Remote Desktop session. After reconstructing the bitmaps, that translate what was being visualized by the attacker, it might be possible to reconstruct the bitmap puzzle and observe what was seen by the attacker while performing the Remote Desktop connections to the compromised systems. A great exercise for people who like puzzles!

Which tools can we use to parse RDP Bitmap Cache files?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many tools available. ANSSI-FR released a RDP Bitmap Cache parser that you could use to extract the bitmaps from the cache files. There was a tool called BmcViewer that was available on a now defunct website and is great tool to parse the .bmc files. The tool doesn’t support the .bin files. If you know how to code, an interesting project might be to develop a parser that allows you to puzzle the tiles.

Finally, combining these artifacts with our traditional file system metadata timeline and other artifacts such as ShimCache, would allows us to further uncover more details. Below an illustration of parsing ShimCache from a memory image using Volatility and the ShimCacheMem plugin written by Fred House. We could see that there are some interesting files. For example “m64.exe” and looking at the adjacent entries we can see that it shows the execution of “notepad.exe”, “p64.exe” and “reg.exe”. Searching for those binaries on our file system timeline uncovers that for example m64.exe is Mimikatz.

That’s it for today! As I wrote in the beginning, the Windows Even Logs are a treasure trove of information when properly configured but If an attacker attempts to cover his tracks by deleting the Event Logs, there are many other artifacts to look for. Combine the artifacts outlined in this article with File system metadata, ShimCache, AMCache, RecentDocs, Browser History, Prefetch, WorldWheelQuery, ComDlg32, RunMRU, and many others and you likely will end up having a good understanding of what happened and when. Happy hunting!

PS: Due to the extensive list of references I decided to attach a text file with links: references. Without them, this article won’t be possible.

Luttgens, J., Pepe, M., Mandia, K. (2014) Incident Response & Computer Forensics, 3rd Edition
Carvey, H. (2011) Windows Registry Forensics: Advanced Digital Forensic Analysis of the Windows Registry, Second Edition
SANS 508 – Advanced Computer Forensics and Incident Response

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Threat Hunting in the Enterprise with AppCompatProcessor

Last April, at the SANS Threat Hunting and IR Summit, among other things, there was a new tool and technique released by Matias Bevilacqua. Matias’s presentation was titled “ShimCache and AmCache enterprise-wide hunting, evolving beyond grep” and he released the tool AppCompatProcessor. Matias also wrote a blog post “Evolving Analytics for Execution Trace Data” with more details.

In this article, I want to go over a quick exercise on how to use this tool and expand the existing signatures. First, let me write that, in case you have a security incident and you are doing enterprise incident response or you are performing threat hunting as part of your security operations duties, this is a fantastic tool that you should become familiar with and have on your toolkit. Why? Because it allows the security teams to digest, parse and analyze, at scale, two forensic artifacts that are very useful. The forensic artifacts are part of the Windows Application Experience and Compatibility features and are known as ShimCache and the AMCache.

To give you more context, the ShimCache can be obtained from the registry and from it we can obtain information about all executable binaries that have been executed in the system since it was rebooted. Furthermore, it tracks its size and the last modified date. In addition, the ShimCache tracks executables that have not been executed but were browsed for example through explorer.exe. This makes a valuable source of evidence for example to track executables that were on the system but weren’t executed – consider an attacker that used a directory on a system to move around his toolkit. The AMCache is stored on a file and from it we can retrieve information for every executable that run on the system such as the PATH, last modification time and created, SHA1 and PE properties. You can read more about those 2 artifacts in the article I wrote last year.

So, I won’t go over on how to acquire this data at scale – feel free to share you technique in the comments – but, AppCompatProcessor digests data that has been acquired by ShimCacheParser.py, Redline and MIR but also consumes raw ShimCache and AMCache registry hives. I will go directly to the features.At the time of this writing the tool version is 0.8 and one of the features I would like to focus today is the search module. This module allows us to search for known bad using regex expressions. The search module was coded with performance in mind, which means the regex searches are quite fast. By default, the tool includes more than 70 regex signatures for all kinds of interesting things an analyst will look for when perform threat hunting. Signatures include searching for dual usage tools like psexec , looking for binaries in places where they shouldn’t normally be, commonly named credential dumpers, etc. The great thing is that you can easily include your own signatures. Just add a regex line with your signature!

For this exercise, I want to use the search module to search for binaries that are commonly used by the PlugX backdoor family and friends. This backdoor 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 legitimated executable that is used to load the malware using a technique known as DLL search order. I won’t go discuss the details about PlugX in this article but you can read the White Paper “PlugX – Payload Extraction” done by Kevin O’Reilly from Context, the presentation about Plugx at Black Hat ASIA in 2014 given by Takahiro Haruyama and Hiroshi Suzuki, the analysis done by the Computer Incident Response Center Luxembourg and the Ahnlab threat report. With this and other reports you could start compiling information about different PlugX payloads. However, Adam Blaszczyk from Hexacorn, already did that job and wrote an article where he outlines different PlugX payloads seen in the wild.

Ok, with this information, we start creating the PlugX regex signatures. Essentially we will be looking for the signed and legitimate executables but in places where they won’t normaly be. The syntax to create a new regex signature is simple and you can add your own signatures to the existing AppCompatSearch.txt file or just create a new file called AppCompatSearch-PlugX.txt which will be consumed automatically by the tool. The figure below shows the different signatures that I produced. . At the time of this writing, this is still work in progress but is a starting point.

Next step, launch AppCompatProcessor against our data set using the newly created signatures. The following picture shows how the output of the search module looks like. In this particular case the search produced 25 hits and a nicely presented summary of the hits is displayed on a histogram. The raw dumps of the hits are saved on the file called Output.txt.  As an analyst or investigator, you would look at the results and verify which ones would be worth to further investigate and which ones are false positives. For this exercise, there was a hit that triggered on the file “c:\Temp\MsMpEng.exe”. This file is part of the Windows Defender suite but could be used by PlugX as part of DLL search order hijack technique. Basically, the attacker will craft a malicious DLL named MpSvc.dll and will place that in the same directory as the MsMpEng.exe file and execute MsMpEng.exe. The DLL would need to be crafted in a special way but that is what PlugX specializes in. This will load the attacker code.

Following these findings, we would want to look at the system that triggered the signature and view all the entries. The picture below shows this step where we use the dump module. The output shows all the ShimCache entries for this particular system. The entries are normally sorted in order of execution from bottom to top, and in this case, adjacent to the “c:\Temp\MsMpEng.exe” file there are several windows built-in commands that were executed and a file named “c:\Temp\m64.exe”. This is what Matias calls a strong temporal execution correlation. This is indicative that an attacker obtained access to the system, executed several windows built-in commands and and executed a file called “m64.exe” which likely is Mimikatz or a cousin. 

Following those leads, you might want to obtain those binaries from the system and perform malware analysis in order to extract indicators of compromise such as the C&C address, look at other artifacts such Windows Event Logs, UsnJournal, memory, etc.. and have additional leads. In addition, you might want to further use AppCompatProcessor to search for the “m64.exe” file and also use the tstack module, to search across all the data set for binaries that match the date of those two binaries. With these findings, among other things, you would need to scope the incident by understanding which systems the attacker accessed, find new investigation leads and pivot on the findings. AppCompatProcessor is a tool that helps doing that. This kind of finding would definitely trigger your incident response processes and procedures.

That’s it, hopefully, AppCompatProcessor will reduce the entry barrier for your security operations center or incident response teams to start performing threat hunting in your environment and produce actionable results. If you find this useful, contribute with your threat hunting signatures in AppCompatProcessor GitHub repo and Happy Hunting!


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Digital Forensics – ShimCache Artifacts

shimcacheFollowing our last article about the Prefetch artifacts we will now move into the Windows Registry. When conducting incident response and digital forensics on Windows operating systems one of the sources of evidence that is normally part of every investigation is the Windows Registry.  The Windows Registry is an important component of the OS and applications functionality, maintains many aspects of its configuration and plays a key role on its performance. As written by Jerry Honeycutt on his books the Windows Registry is the heart and soul of modern Windows operating systems. The Windows Registry is a topic for a book on its own, either from a systems or a forensics perspective. One great example is the book “Windows Registry Forensics 2nd Edition“ from Harlan Carvey.

In any case, from a forensics perspective, the Windows registry is a treasure trove of valuable artifacts. Among these artifacts you might be looking at System and Configuration Registry Keys, Common Auto-Run Registry Keys, User Hive Registry keys or the Application Compatibility Cache a.k.a. ShimCache.

In this article we will look into the Application Compatibility Cache a.k.a. ShimCache. When performing Live Response or dead box forensics on Windows operating systems one of the many artifacts that might be of interest when determining which files have been executed and were accessed is the ShimCache. In our last article we mentioned the Prefetch where you could get evidence about a specific file being executed on the system. However, on Windows Servers operating systems, the Prefetch is disabled by default. This means the ShimCache is a great alternative and also a valuable source of evidence.

Let’s start with some background about the ShimCache. Microsoft introduced the ShimCache in Windows 95 and it remains today a mechanism to ensure backward compatibility of older binaries into new versions of Microsoft operating systems. When new Microsoft operating systems are released some old and legacy application might break. To fix this Microsoft has the ShimCache which acts as a proxy layer between the old application and the new operating system. A good overview about what is the ShimCache is available on the Microsoft Blog on an article written by Tim Newton “Demystifying Shims – or – Using the App Compat Toolkit to make your old stuff work with your new stuff“.

The interesting part is that from a forensics perspective the ShimCache is valuable because the cache tracks metadata for binary that was executed and stores it in the ShimCache.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2012 when Andrew Davis wrote ” Leveraging the Application Compatibility Cache in Forensic Investigations” and released the ShimCache Parser tool that the value of this evidence source came widely known. This was a novel paper because Andrew made available a tool that could extract from the registry information about the ShimCache that is valuable for an investigation.  The paper outlines the internals of the ShimCache and where the data resides on the different Windows operating systems.

On Windows XP this data structure is stored under the registry key HKLM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\AppCompatibility\AppCompatCache. On recent Windows the ShimCache data is stored under the registry key  HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\AppCompatCache\AppCompatCache

In the ShimCache we can obtain information about all executed binaries that have been executed in the system since it was rebooted and it tracks its size and the last modified date. In addition the ShimCache tracks executables that have not been executed but were browsed for example through explorer.exe. This makes a valuable source of evidence for example to track executables that were on the system but weren’t executed – consider an attacker that used a directory on a system to move around his toolkit.

On Windows XP the ShimCache maints up to 96 entries but on Windows 7 and earlier the ShimCache can maintain up to 1024 entries. Using the ShimCache Parser we can parse and view its contents. We only need to point to the SYSTEM registry hive file on our mounted evidence as illustrated below.


Nonetheless, the ShimCache as one drawback. The information is retained in memory and is only written to the registry when the system is shutdown. This impacts the ability of getting this source of evidence when conducting live response. To address this limitation Fred House, Claudiu Teodorescu, Andrew Davis wrote a Volatility plugin to read the ShimCache from memory. The plugin supports Windows XP SP2 through Windows 2012 R2 on both 32 and 64 bit architectures. This plugin won the volatility plugin contest of 2015. A write-up about it is available here and here. The plugin can be downloaded from the Volatility Community plugins page.  The picture below illustrates the usage of Volatility with the ShimCacheMem plugin against the memory of the analyzed system.


By looking at the ShimCache either directly from memory or by querying the registry after system shutdown we can – in this case – confirm the evidence found in the Prefetch artifacts. On a Windows Server system because by default the Prefetch is disabled the ShimCache becomes a more valuable artifact.

Given the availability of this artifact across all Windows operating systems, the information obtained from the ShimCache can be valuable to an investigation. In this case, the ShimCache supported the findings of Prefetch on regedit.exe and rundll32.exe being executed on the system.

There are more artifacts associated with this feature. In 2013, Corey Harrell wrote on his blog his findings about the Windows 7 RecentFileCache.bcf file. Essentially, this file is maintained in %SYSTEMROOT%\AppCompat\Programs\ directory and keeps metadata (PATH and filename) about executable that are new in the system since the last time the service Application Experience was run. Yogesh Khatri, continued to research Corey findings and found that on Windows 8 this file has been replaced with a registry HIVE called amcache.hve which contains more metadata. From this file you can retrieve for every executable that run on the system the PATH, last modification time & created,  SHA1 and PE properties. Meanwhile, Yogesh noted that on Windows 7 you could also have the amcache.hve if you have installed KB2952664. To read the amcache HIVE you could use RegRipper or Willi Ballenthin stand-alone script.

The ShimCache has not only been used from a defensive perspective. From a offensive perspective, the ShimCache has been used several times by attacker. One of the best resources I’ve come across about the ShimCache is the website “sdb.tools” created by Sean Pierce dedicated to Application Compatibility database research and where he maintains his research and lists different tools, papers and talks.

That’s it, we went over a brief explanation on what is ShimCache, its artifacts, where to find it in memory and in the registry and which tools to use to obtain information from it. Next, we will go back to our SuperTimeline and continue our investigation.


Luttgens, J., Pepe, M., Mandia, K. (2014) Incident Response & Computer Forensics, 3rd Edition
SANS 508 – Advanced Computer Forensics and Incident Response

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