|By Cory Marchand||
|December 21, 2012 11:32 AM EST||
To some of us, seeing an email with malware embedded in a PDF, Word or Excel attachment is common. In fact, it has become the new norm for malware delivery to use file types that are not obviously malicious (versus something like a .exe). Gone are the days of wide-open acceptance of all file extensions for attachments within an email. In today's network defense-in-depth techniques, one of the layers is naturally email security. This includes the scrutinizing of emails for embedded links or attachments that could be potentially malicious, scanning attachments for possible detectable viruses and even inspecting the mail header for details that could point to the continued use of a particular "sender" address targeting an organization.
With the delivery of the malware always evolving to avoid being detected, why is it so common to see multi-stage malware? What exactly IS multi-stage malware, and why can it be more difficult to detect through common defense-in-depth strategies? I recently sat with a customer who ran these questions by me. They were concerned that this might be some kind of new and sophisticated attack being used against their organization that their security team was not aware of. Truth is, this type of attack method is more common than you know, and has been going on for a significant period of time.
Let's start by tackling the easiest questions.
Question: What is multi-stage malware?
Answer: It is malware that is delivered in stages. Seriously, that's it.
Question: So then what are the stages?
Answer: Ah, I was hoping that was your next question...
The typical stages for the delivery are as follows;
Stage 1: The main goal of the first stage is to simply get some kind of execution on a victim computer to retrieve the larger portion of the malware. Utilizing a legitimate looking file (PDF, DOC, XLS) that is embedded with the stage 1 malware, the attacker can entice the target to open it, and allow execution. After execution, the first stage malware may also find some way to make itself persistent. What do I mean by persistent? Well let's say that as soon as you open an infected PDF, the stage 1 malware begins execution on your computer, but you happen to immediately shut down your computer. If that malware did not create some kind of way to re-execute after you start your computer, it will not execute again until you open the infected PDF again. Attackers know that it's unlikely you will re-open the attachment, so they like to build in a way for the malware to re-execute after your computer starts up. That way it is guaranteed to finish its initial job, which is to retrieve the next stage malware.
Stage2: This is where the more robust malware sections of the malware are introduced, potentially causing an unfettered amount of damage to its victim computer. Stage 2 typically gives the attacker an array of capabilities that are not available with stage 1, such as:
- Victim computer screen capture
- Start webcam
- Graphical ability to browse victim computer file system
- Stealing of files and software
- Deletion of files
- Elevation or escalation of privileges
- Keylogging and potential destruction of the victim file system
Furthermore, Stage 2 malware may also provide the ability for the attacker to migrate to another computer on the same network which provides the ability for even more extensive damage by allowing the attacker to spread out and cause an increase in damage.
Question: Are those the only stages of delivery?
Answer: Not always, but this is the most common. Sometimes "plugins" or "modules" are available to add to the malware, and they can be delivered or removed on an as needed basis. The attacker wants to limit the amount of network traffic to a particular domain that is hosting malware as this could lead to detection and blocking, which would stop the potential for successful delivery of any future malware or even stage 2.
Question: Why stage the delivery at all? Why not just embed all of the malware instead of a portion in the infected document or file?
Answer: There are a few reasons for staging the delivery, one of them being size. Simply put, if the size of the malware is large enough then embedding the whole thing into a PDF would make the file quite large; therefore, more suspicious. Another reason is to limit the possibility of detection through various scanners and traffic inspectors. The first stage of the malware is quite light in what commands and system calls that it makes which helps to evade detection by signature or even heuristics. It is not uncommon at all to see a PDF reader software open a PDF, then immediately connect to the Internet. Most PDF readers routinely check for updates as soon as they are opened, and attackers know this to be true often enough. So the stage 1 malware just hides within that behavior, reducing its ability to be detected. Lastly, development of custom malware is expensive and takes time, so losing the entire piece of malware due to detection of any sort can be a huge set back to the attackers. Even if the attackers are using commercial or open source attack tools, rebuilding them to avoid antivirus detection can be time consuming and costly. Losing the stage 1 malware through detection is easier to address than burning the complete malware package. By staging the delivery it limits the potential loss to the attacker. There many other reasons to break the malware up and retrieve upon infection, but these are some of the most important ones.
Question: This is making more and more sense to me, but just quickly can you go over why it's much harder to detect?
Answer: The smaller and more embedded the malware is, the more difficult to detect, especially inside of a commonly used and trusted file. When the commands for the malware are simplified as well as the needs from a victim computer to execute, again, detection is difficult. When malware is overly complicated, or it has large consumption requirements from the operating system to correctly function, the chances for detection though defense-in-depth techniques is increased. Large, complicated malware is more likely to break and alert the user to its presence, or even get detected by antivirus. It is also most likely to fail Deep Packet Inspection at the IDS/IPS layer due to possible signatures for specific system calls the malware makes. Small, simple malware finds a home inside of the most common files and documents that we not only use and open every day, but also are typically allowable as an attachment in an email. Because the malware is small, it can be easily modified, making signature development almost impossible. Breaking the malware apart also changes which security tools are inspecting the malware. If stage 1 is delivered through an email, than you will have to get through an IDS/IPS, an Email AntiVirus product (if you are dealing with an enterprise), as well as any attachment inspection that occurs on the email gateway. Stage 2 is then delivered after successful infection of victim computer, typically after the victim computer asks a particular web server for the stage 2 malware. If this request is done over SSL/HTTPS, then there is a good chance there will be no inspection of the malware until it reaches the host. At delivery, the malware has to contend with antivirus on the victim computer, which is trivial for a sophisticated attacker to either bypass or defeat.
Question: If it's so damn hard to detect, how on earth do I stop it?
Answer: Excellent question, this is something we can address in my next blog, "Better Host Based Protection, Logically".
"IoT is going to be a huge industry with a lot of value for end users, for industries, for consumers, for manufacturers. How can we use cloud to effectively manage IoT applications," stated Ian Khan, Innovation & Marketing Manager at Solgeniakhela, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 04:15 PM EST Reads: 4,137
"We're a cybersecurity firm that specializes in engineering security solutions both at the software and hardware level. Security cannot be an after-the-fact afterthought, which is what it's become," stated Richard Blech, Chief Executive Officer at Secure Channels, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 04:15 PM EST Reads: 593
Information technology is an industry that has always experienced change, and the dramatic change sweeping across the industry today could not be truthfully described as the first time we've seen such widespread change impacting customer investments. However, the rate of the change, and the potential outcomes from today's digital transformation has the distinct potential to separate the industry into two camps: Organizations that see the change coming, embrace it, and successful leverage it; and...
Dec. 4, 2016 03:00 PM EST Reads: 3,245
Data is the fuel that drives the machine learning algorithmic engines and ultimately provides the business value. In his session at Cloud Expo, Ed Featherston, a director and senior enterprise architect at Collaborative Consulting, discussed the key considerations around quality, volume, timeliness, and pedigree that must be dealt with in order to properly fuel that engine.
Dec. 4, 2016 02:15 PM EST Reads: 1,991
We are always online. We access our data, our finances, work, and various services on the Internet. But we live in a congested world of information in which the roads were built two decades ago. The quest for better, faster Internet routing has been around for a decade, but nobody solved this problem. We’ve seen band-aid approaches like CDNs that attack a niche's slice of static content part of the Internet, but that’s it. It does not address the dynamic services-based Internet of today. It does...
Dec. 4, 2016 02:00 PM EST Reads: 915
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place June 6-8, 2017 at the Javits Center in New York City, New York, is co-located with the 20th International Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. @ThingsExpo New York Call for Papers is now open.
Dec. 4, 2016 02:00 PM EST Reads: 1,898
What happens when the different parts of a vehicle become smarter than the vehicle itself? As we move toward the era of smart everything, hundreds of entities in a vehicle that communicate with each other, the vehicle and external systems create a need for identity orchestration so that all entities work as a conglomerate. Much like an orchestra without a conductor, without the ability to secure, control, and connect the link between a vehicle’s head unit, devices, and systems and to manage the ...
Dec. 4, 2016 02:00 PM EST Reads: 572
20th Cloud Expo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy.
Dec. 4, 2016 01:45 PM EST Reads: 2,155
Everyone knows that truly innovative companies learn as they go along, pushing boundaries in response to market changes and demands. What's more of a mystery is how to balance innovation on a fresh platform built from scratch with the legacy tech stack, product suite and customers that continue to serve as the business' foundation. In his General Session at 19th Cloud Expo, Michael Chambliss, Head of Engineering at ReadyTalk, discussed why and how ReadyTalk diverted from healthy revenue and mor...
Dec. 4, 2016 01:30 PM EST Reads: 1,535
The 20th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Containers, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal ...
Dec. 4, 2016 12:45 PM EST Reads: 2,124
You have great SaaS business app ideas. You want to turn your idea quickly into a functional and engaging proof of concept. You need to be able to modify it to meet customers' needs, and you need to deliver a complete and secure SaaS application. How could you achieve all the above and yet avoid unforeseen IT requirements that add unnecessary cost and complexity? You also want your app to be responsive in any device at any time. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Mark Allen, General Manager of...
Dec. 4, 2016 12:30 PM EST Reads: 1,671
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to simplify and streamline our lives by automating routine tasks that distract us from our goals. This promise is based on the ubiquitous deployment of smart, connected devices that link everything from industrial control systems to automobiles to refrigerators. Unfortunately, comparatively few of the devices currently deployed have been developed with an eye toward security, and as the DDoS attacks of late October 2016 have demonstrated, this oversight can ...
Dec. 4, 2016 12:00 PM EST Reads: 781
"ReadyTalk is an audio and web video conferencing provider. We've really come to embrace WebRTC as the platform for our future of technology," explained Dan Cunningham, CTO of ReadyTalk, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at WebRTC Summit at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 11:45 AM EST Reads: 380
Bert Loomis was a visionary. This general session will highlight how Bert Loomis and people like him inspire us to build great things with small inventions. In their general session at 19th Cloud Expo, Harold Hannon, Architect at IBM Bluemix, and Michael O'Neill, Strategic Business Development at Nvidia, discussed the accelerating pace of AI development and how IBM Cloud and NVIDIA are partnering to bring AI capabilities to "every day," on-demand. They also reviewed two "free infrastructure" pr...
Dec. 4, 2016 11:15 AM EST Reads: 906
Major trends and emerging technologies – from virtual reality and IoT, to Big Data and algorithms – are helping organizations innovate in the digital era. However, to create real business value, IT must think beyond the ‘what’ of digital transformation to the ‘how’ to harness emerging trends, innovation and disruption. Architecture is the key that underpins and ties all these efforts together. In the digital age, it’s important to invest in architecture, extend the enterprise footprint to the cl...
Dec. 4, 2016 11:15 AM EST Reads: 2,211
"Dice has been around for the last 20 years. We have been helping tech professionals find new jobs and career opportunities," explained Manish Dixit, VP of Product and Engineering at Dice, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 4, 2016 10:45 AM EST Reads: 884
More and more brands have jumped on the IoT bandwagon. We have an excess of wearables – activity trackers, smartwatches, smart glasses and sneakers, and more that track seemingly endless datapoints. However, most consumers have no idea what “IoT” means. Creating more wearables that track data shouldn't be the aim of brands; delivering meaningful, tangible relevance to their users should be. We're in a period in which the IoT pendulum is still swinging. Initially, it swung toward "smart for smar...
Dec. 4, 2016 09:45 AM EST Reads: 558
Successful digital transformation requires new organizational competencies and capabilities. Research tells us that the biggest impediment to successful transformation is human; consequently, the biggest enabler is a properly skilled and empowered workforce. In the digital age, new individual and collective competencies are required. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Bob Newhouse, CEO and founder of Agilitiv, drew together recent research and lessons learned from emerging and established compa...
Dec. 4, 2016 09:30 AM EST Reads: 812
Extracting business value from Internet of Things (IoT) data doesn’t happen overnight. There are several requirements that must be satisfied, including IoT device enablement, data analysis, real-time detection of complex events and automated orchestration of actions. Unfortunately, too many companies fall short in achieving their business goals by implementing incomplete solutions or not focusing on tangible use cases. In his general session at @ThingsExpo, Dave McCarthy, Director of Products...
Dec. 4, 2016 09:30 AM EST Reads: 616
Businesses and business units of all sizes can benefit from cloud computing, but many don't want the cost, performance and security concerns of public cloud nor the complexity of building their own private clouds. Today, some cloud vendors are using artificial intelligence (AI) to simplify cloud deployment and management. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Ajay Gulati, Co-founder and CEO of ZeroStack, will discuss how AI can simplify cloud operations. He will cover the following topics: why clou...
Dec. 4, 2016 08:00 AM EST Reads: 724