Boost Your SOC Skills: How to Detect Good Apps Gone Bad

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    Threat actors have a wide range of tools and techniques they can use in cyber attacks including: malware-as-a-service, open-source tools and malware code, red team or admin tools. Besides, there is an extended variety of legitimate tools and features that can be handy for regular users but extremely dangerous when used by attackers. Trusted applications and signed binaries are beneficial for attackers because they provide them with stealthy code execution, sometimes even with high integrity privileges. For an untrained eye the execution of trusted applications by attackers might go under the radar and not ring the alarm. 

    It is very challenging to detect the usage of legitimate applications by attackers while avoiding false positive alerts and alert fatigue. Since these applications are frequently used by the system and endpoint users, it is harder to detect when an application is exploited by attackers and issue an alert.

    Don’t give up, there is a solution. First, as a SOC analyst you need to be familiar with how trusted tools are used by attackers. Second, you need to know which detection methods will be effective in your environment and trigger alerts when attackers are using legitimate tools.

    In this blog we will present several examples of legitimate Windows applications and utilities that were exploited by threat actors in real-life attacks. For each tool we will explain how SOC analysts can detect and identify the usage of these applications by attackers. For each tool we mention, we suggest or create a basic detection rule that can be compiled to fit your log source and SIEM platform. Please note that you may need to slightly modify the rule to better suit your specific log source or SIEM fields in order to use for your organization.

    On March 16th, we will host a livestream where we will present these and other techniques including live examples. Follow us on Twitch to get notified when the livestream starts.

    Legitimate Tools Used in Attacks by Threat Actors

    Technique Name: PsExec


    PsExec is a command-line utility that is used to execute processes on remote systems and also redirect the output of console applications. It is part of the Sysinternals’ PsTools suite created by Mark Russinovich. Although intended as a tool to be used only by administrators. PsExec has been used also by malicious actors. PsExec executes processes in the following syntax. 

    psexec \\RemotePCName [-u username[-p password]] command [arguments]

    The process connects to the remote computer over the SMB ports 445 (TCP) or 139 (UDP), and copies over a service file that is run to set up data transfer between the remote machine and the PsExec process. When the action is completed, PsExec stops the service and removes the file.

    Real Life Example

    NotPetya was a famous ransomware attack that occurred in 2017. It infected thousands of organizations, with over 80% of the victims located in Ukraine, causing billions of dollars worth of damage. NotPetya contained an embedded modified version of PsExec. PsExec was used for remote execution and lateral movement across networks. The credentials were gathered by a credential theft module that was able to extract usernames and passwords from the LSASS process.

    The Russian threat group APT29 (Cozy Bear) has also used PsExec to laterally move across networks and deploy their custom backdoor FatDuke

    How to Detect

    One way to detect PsExec is to detect the creation of a new service. A new service created in Windows will generate an event in the Windows Security logs with the code of 7045. The default name for the PsExec service is PSEXESVC. We created a Sigma rule that will alert when an Event ID 7045 will be triggered by a service with the name PSEXESVC.

    title: Generic PSEXESVC Service Execution or Creation
    author: Intezer
        product: windows
        service: system
            EventID: 7045
            Provider_Name: 'Service Control Manager'
            ServiceName: 'PSEXESVC'
            ServiceFileName|endswith: '\PSEXESVC.exe'
            EventID: 7036
            Provider_Name: 'Service Control Manager'
            param1: 'PSEXESVC'
            param2: 'running'
    condition: service_installation or service_execution

    Another way to detect is the creation of named pipes, created by the service, that is set up to facilitate communication between the PsExec process and the service on the remote host. There are multiple formats that can be created:


    Creation of a PsExec named pipe can be detected through the following Sigma rule: 

    title: PsExec Service Named Pipe Creation
    author: Intezer
       product: windows
       category: pipe_created
             - '\PSEXESVC'
          PipeName|endswith: '-stdin'
          PipeName|endswith: '-stdout'
          PipeName|endswith: '-stderr'
       condition: selection_PSEXESVC and 1 of selection_std*

    The above rules may help if PsExec is not a tool in use by your organization, but if it is in common use, there are other rules that may help detect malicious variants. To detect the use of a renamed or variant of PsExec, you can use this Sigma rule:

    Technique Name: MSHTA


    mshta.exe is a Windows-native binary that executes VBScript or JavaScript embedded within Microsoft HTML Application (HTA) files. Using a legitimate and signed binary as mshta gives attackers the means to execute arbitrary code stored on a remote server while bypassing browser security settings. When mashta is leveraged by attackers it is invoked through files such as lnk files and the malicious payload is executed using inline command line arguments or files that are stored on a remote server.

    Real Life Example

    Operation Cobalt Kitty (APT 32) used mshta to execute Cobalt Strike beacons for the reconnaissancereconsense stage and download further payloads.

    Agen Tesla uses decoy documents containing VBA macro that calls mshta to download the first stage of the attack. Afterwards the malware creates a scheduled task to download and execute a new version of the malware using mshta.

    BabyShark malware, associated with North Korean threat actors, in the first stage of the attack they used a decoy document with VBA macro code that used mshta to download from a remote server HTA file that will execute the first stage of the attack. Later they used mshta in the persistence logic to execute further commands from the command and control server (C2).

    How to detect

    When mshta is used by threat actors it can be invoked by different legitimate applications. For example phishing documents will execute mshta directly or using other processes such as powershell or cmd.  

    mshta is a legitimate application

    Screenshot of “process hacker” when mshta is executed by a malicious Microsoft Word document.

    To identify the usage of mshta by threat actors we need to monitor and alert upon execution of mshta by suspicious processes and execution of suspicious processes by mshta (such as wscript). You can use the Sigma rule below to detect this type of execution:

    title: Suspicious process execution for mshta
    author: Intezer
      category: process_creation
      product: windows
          Image: '*\mshta.exe'
          - 'winword.exe'
          - 'excel.exe'
          - 'powerpnt.exe'
          - 'cmd.exe'
          - 'powershell.exe'
          - 'wscript.exe'
          - 'cscript.exe'
          - 'sh.exe'
          - 'bash.exe'
          - 'reg.exe'
          - 'regsvr32.exe'
          - 'BITSADMIN*'
          ParentImage: '*\mshta.exe'
              - '*\cmd.exe'
              - '*\powershell.exe'
              - '*\wscript.exe'
              - '*\cscript.exe'
              - '*\sh.exe'
              - '*\bash.exe'
              - '*\reg.exe'
              - '*\regsvr32.exe'
              - '*\BITSADMIN*'
      condition: selection1 or selection2
      - CommandLine
      - ParentCommandLine

    Attackers masquerade the usage of mshta by renaming the binary to something less obvious and suspicious, so you should monitor events of changes in the path or the name of system utilities. In our signature we are using the process image name.

    Usually mshtaat execution contains command line arguments and url pointing to remote hosting servers in the signature. Below we look for these suspicious arguments:

    title: mshta execution with command line arguments
    author: Intezer
      category: process_creation
      product: windows
          Image: '*\mshta.exe'
          -  'javascript'
          -  '*.hta'
          -   'vbscript'
          -   'http'
          -   'https'
      condition: selection

    Technique name: Squiblydoo



    Regsvr32 is a command-line utility to manage the registration of DLLs and ActiveX controls in the Registry. Squiblydoo is a technique that was discovered by Casey Smith, it allows the usage of Regsvr32  to load and execute COM scriptlet (JScript or VBScript embedded in XML file) from a remote server. 

    This method is very stealthy. It doesn’t make any changes to the Registry and it bypasses application control and allow-lists as the code is executed under user permissions by Regsvr32.

    Real Life Example

    Leviathan is an espionage group that uses Squiblydoo to execute malicious Dlls.

    APT19 uses Squiblydoo to bypass whitelisting and execute arbitrary code on the victim’s machine. 

    How to detect

    Regsvr32 has several command line arguments, there is a suspicious combination of arguments that can be a good indication that the binary is invoked by attackers:

    • /s will silently execute the command without printing messages
    • /i passes a command line string to DllInstall 

    In addition, this method uses scrobj.dll to execute COM scriptlet. To detect these suspicious process execution we made the Sigma rule below that alerts upon suspicious parent processes.

    title: detect Squiblydoo
     product: windows
     category: process_creation
       Image|endswith: '\regsvr32.exe'
           - '/i:'
           - '/s'
           - 'http'
           - 'https'
           - 'ftp'
       CommandLine|endswith: 'scrobj.dll'
    condition: selection

    To check if a scriptlet file implements this Squiblydoo, use this YARA rule to detect files that may potentially use this technique. 

    Yara rule for detecting possible Squiblydoo scriptlet.

    Technique Name: Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) 


    Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) is an interface through which a program or script can perform operations or manage data on a Windows operating system. WMI gives access to many Windows components, and is therefore heavily leveraged by threat actors to execute behaviors for gathering information, executing additional payloads, and lateral movement. 

    WMI is often used in VBScript. To connect to a WMI namespace in VBScript, the function GetObject can be used with a WMI object path that specifies the namespace that holds the desired classes that you wish to use. The most popular are located in the \root\cimv2 namespace. 

    strComputer = "."
    Set objWMIService = GetObject("winmgmts:\\" & strComputer & "\root\cimv2")

    Queries can then be executed or methods can be called to gather information or perform actions. An example to check if calc.exe is running can be:

    Set colProcesses = objWMIService.ExecQuery("SELECT * FROM Win32_Process WHERE Name = 'calc.exe'")
    If colProcesses.Count = 0 Then
     Wscript.Echo "calc.exe is not running."
     Wscript.Echo "calc.exe is running."
    End If

    Variations of the above have been used in malware to check if there are malware analysis tools or antivirus software running on the machine. 

    Real Life Example

    The Iranian threat group Oilrig have used WMI heavily in their OopsIE malware for virtual machine and sandbox detection. Examples include gathering information on the CPU fan, checking the temperature, and checking the mouse in order to see if there is no entry, typical for virtual environments, or checking for hardware names that have products such as VMWare or VirtualBox as the manufacturer. 

    How to Detect

    WMI usage can be detected in multiple ways.

    Malware can call the WMI command-line (WMIC) utility as a way of interfacing with WMI. To check for this, malware can be sandboxed and the resulting process tree can be analyzed to check what WMI commands were executed. Take for example, Sysjoker. The Windows version of Sysjoker uses WMIC a great deal for the purpose of fingerprinting the machine before sending the information to the command and control server. The WMIC calls can be seen in the behavior report under the process tree graph in Intezer Analyze. 

    Behavior report showing WMIC calls with command lines in Intezer Analyze.

    Malware, especially scripts can have WMI queries that can be easily detected via YARA, permitting that they are not obfuscated. Many open-source YARA rules exist that can help detect suspicious WMI queries or calls, such as creating processes, or fingerprinting the machine. Whilst a WMI call in itself may not be suspicious, when combined with strings that may be used to compare to the result can give an indicator of suspicious behavior, such as strings to check for virtual machines. An example of a YARA rule to detect suspicious behavior is a rule created to detect if a file is using WMI to check the video card information for virtual machine artifacts.

    Rule that detects a file using WMI for virtual machine detection.

    Technique name: UAC bypasses using fodhelper.exe


    User Account Control (UAC) was developed by Microsoft to restrict the privileges of executed applications and prevent threats from automatically gaining high integrity privileges. For example when a user attempts to perform a task that requires administrator privileges, a UAC consent will be presented, also it is possible to configure the system to require the administrator to provide their password. There are several ways to bypass UAC, one of them is using Fodhelper.exe.

    When a user wants to change the language settings on a Windows machine, “Features on Demand Helper” (Fodhelper.exe) is executed. This process is executed with high integrity because its “autoelevate” setting is set to true. As discovered by winscripting Fodhelper.exe will start to look for registry keys that don’t exist. Attackers can create the missing keys and cause Fodhelper.exe to execute arbitrary code with elevated privileges. 

    Real Life Example

    Klingon RAT is an advanced RAT written in Golang used by cybercriminals for financial gain discovered by our research team. The RAT is well-featured and sophisticated, among its capabilities the RAT implements UAC bypass using fodhelper.

    How to detect

    When Fodhelper.exe is called, it looks for a registry key:  HKCU:\Software\Classes\ms-settings\shell\open\command but this key doesn’t exist. Attacks that use Fodhelper to bypass UAC, will first create this key in the registry and then set it’s value. So to detect attacks that use this signed binary you need to monitor the Registry, you can use Sysmon for that.

    Sysmon is a Windows service, once it’s installed it will monitor and log detailed information about processes, network connections and changes to files. The information can be piped into SIEM or Windows Event Collection. If you use the later option the logs can be viewed in the Event log: Event Log → Applications and Services → Microsoft → Windows → Sysmon

    The event of creating new registry key HKCU:\Software\Classes\ms-settings\shell\open\command
    will look like this:

    Adding key to the registry as can be seen in Sysmon.

    To make a Sigma rule to detect the creation of this specific key and possible changes in it’s value, we will create a Sigma rule (below). Note that for the log source we specify sysmon, however if you don’t use it in your environment make sure to update your configuration accordingly. To identify the event of creating a key and setting a value we are using Event ID 12 and 13 respectively.

       product: windows
       service: sysmon
             - 12
             - 13
             - 'HKU'
             - '*Classes\ms-settings\Shell\Open\command*'
       condition: selection

    Bonus Technique: UAC bypasses using Event Viewer

    Another way to bypass UAC is based on a flaw in the execution of Event Viewer (eventvwr.exe) as discovered by Matt Nelson. Lucky, this flaw was fixed by Windows in build 15007 back in 2017. Make sure to patch and update your systems.

    Event Viewer lets users and administrators view information and logs about all of the executed processes on the host or remote endpoint. It is executed with administrator rights. When the Event Viewer is executed, it tries to find and execute mmc.exe, also known as the Microsoft Management Console that provides access to objects from the Control Panel. To locate this binary Event Viewer checks 2 registry locations:

    • HKCU\Software\Classes\mscfile\shell\open\command on Windows 7 or  HKCU\Software\Classes\ms-settings\shell\open\command on Windows 10
    • HKCR\mscfile\shell\open\command

    However, the first location doesn’t exist, and mmc.exe is executed from the second location. So, attackers bypass UAC by creating the missing registry location and execute a process with administrator rights. 

    This method can be used for starting a new terminal session to execute further commands or to execute malicious payloads. Unlike other UAC bypass methods, this one doesn’t require writing a file to the disk and there is no need for process or Dll injection. 

    To detect this method while it is being used by threat actors you can use this Sigma rule.

    Conclusions on How to Detect Attackers Using Legit Apps

    Legitimate applications become very powerful and handy tools when used by attackers. These trusted binaires allow attackers to bypass security policies, avoid detection, and execute arbitrary code on the endpoint. On top of that it is harder to detect when these applications are being used by attackers and when they are used by the users and the operation system. 

    The solution is made of two parts – first awareness and understanding of how trusted applications can be a part of an attack, secondly implementing into your SIEM carefully crafted rules that will trigger alerts when legitimate applications are being abused by attackers.

    How does Intezer investigate and handles cyber attacks using legitimate applications? Learn more here about how Intezer works so we can investigate sneaky attack techniques.

    Try Intezer for free or book a demo to learn more.

    Nicole Fishbein

    Nicole is a malware analyst and reverse engineer. Prior to Intezer she was an embedded researcher in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Corps.

    Ryan Robinson

    Ryan is a security researcher analyzing malware and scripts. Formerly, he was a researcher on Anomali's Threat Research Team.

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