Click here to close now.




















Welcome!

Cloud Security Authors: Elizabeth White, SmartBear Blog, Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan, Matthew McKenna

Related Topics: Cloud Security

Cloud Security: Blog Post

Malware Delivery – Understanding Multiple Stage Malware

How trusted file attachments has opened the vector for continued intrusions.

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".

More Stories By Cory Marchand

Cory Marchand is a trusted subject matter expert on topics of Cyber Security Threats, Network and Host based Assessment and Computer Forensics. Mr. Marchand has supported several customers over his 10+ years within the field of Computer Security including State, Federal and Military Government as well as the Private sector. Mr. Marchand holds several industry related certificates including CISSP, EnCE, GSEC, GCIA, GCIH, GREM, GSNA and CEH.

@ThingsExpo Stories
For IoT to grow as quickly as analyst firms’ project, a lot is going to fall on developers to quickly bring applications to market. But the lack of a standard development platform threatens to slow growth and make application development more time consuming and costly, much like we’ve seen in the mobile space. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Mike Weiner, Product Manager of the Omega DevCloud with KORE Telematics Inc., discussed the evolving requirements for developers as IoT matures and conducted a live demonstration of how quickly application development can happen when the need to comply wit...
Explosive growth in connected devices. Enormous amounts of data for collection and analysis. Critical use of data for split-second decision making and actionable information. All three are factors in making the Internet of Things a reality. Yet, any one factor would have an IT organization pondering its infrastructure strategy. How should your organization enhance its IT framework to enable an Internet of Things implementation? In his session at @ThingsExpo, James Kirkland, Red Hat's Chief Architect for the Internet of Things and Intelligent Systems, described how to revolutionize your archit...
It is one thing to build single industrial IoT applications, but what will it take to build the Smart Cities and truly society-changing applications of the future? The technology won’t be the problem, it will be the number of parties that need to work together and be aligned in their motivation to succeed. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jason Mondanaro, Director, Product Management at Metanga, discussed how you can plan to cooperate, partner, and form lasting all-star teams to change the world and it starts with business models and monetization strategies.
The Internet of Everything (IoE) brings together people, process, data and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before – transforming information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. IoE creates new capabilities, richer experiences, and unprecedented opportunities to improve business and government operations, decision making and mission support capabilities.
The Internet of Things is not only adding billions of sensors and billions of terabytes to the Internet. It is also forcing a fundamental change in the way we envision Information Technology. For the first time, more data is being created by devices at the edge of the Internet rather than from centralized systems. What does this mean for today's IT professional? In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists addressed this very serious issue of profound change in the industry.
Discussions about cloud computing are evolving into discussions about enterprise IT in general. As enterprises increasingly migrate toward their own unique clouds, new issues such as the use of containers and microservices emerge to keep things interesting. In this Power Panel at 16th Cloud Expo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists addressed the state of cloud computing today, and what enterprise IT professionals need to know about how the latest topics and trends affect their organization.
SYS-CON Events announced today that HPM Networks will exhibit at the 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. For 20 years, HPM Networks has been integrating technology solutions that solve complex business challenges. HPM Networks has designed solutions for both SMB and enterprise customers throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
Converging digital disruptions is creating a major sea change - Cisco calls this the Internet of Everything (IoE). IoE is the network connection of People, Process, Data and Things, fueled by Cloud, Mobile, Social, Analytics and Security, and it represents a $19Trillion value-at-stake over the next 10 years. In her keynote at @ThingsExpo, Manjula Talreja, VP of Cisco Consulting Services, discussed IoE and the enormous opportunities it provides to public and private firms alike. She will share what businesses must do to thrive in the IoE economy, citing examples from several industry sectors.
Growth hacking is common for startups to make unheard-of progress in building their business. Career Hacks can help Geek Girls and those who support them (yes, that's you too, Dad!) to excel in this typically male-dominated world. Get ready to learn the facts: Is there a bias against women in the tech / developer communities? Why are women 50% of the workforce, but hold only 24% of the STEM or IT positions? Some beginnings of what to do about it! In her Opening Keynote at 16th Cloud Expo, Sandy Carter, IBM General Manager Cloud Ecosystem and Developers, and a Social Business Evangelist, d...
There will be 150 billion connected devices by 2020. New digital businesses have already disrupted value chains across every industry. APIs are at the center of the digital business. You need to understand what assets you have that can be exposed digitally, what their digital value chain is, and how to create an effective business model around that value chain to compete in this economy. No enterprise can be complacent and not engage in the digital economy. Learn how to be the disruptor and not the disruptee.
Akana has released Envision, an enhanced API analytics platform that helps enterprises mine critical insights across their digital eco-systems, understand their customers and partners and offer value-added personalized services. “In today’s digital economy, data-driven insights are proving to be a key differentiator for businesses. Understanding the data that is being tunneled through their APIs and how it can be used to optimize their business and operations is of paramount importance,” said Alistair Farquharson, CTO of Akana.
Business as usual for IT is evolving into a "Make or Buy" decision on a service-by-service conversation with input from the LOBs. How does your organization move forward with cloud? In his general session at 16th Cloud Expo, Paul Maravei, Regional Sales Manager, Hybrid Cloud and Managed Services at Cisco, discusses how Cisco and its partners offer a market-leading portfolio and ecosystem of cloud infrastructure and application services that allow you to uniquely and securely combine cloud business applications and services across multiple cloud delivery models.
The enterprise market will drive IoT device adoption over the next five years. In his session at @ThingsExpo, John Greenough, an analyst at BI Intelligence, division of Business Insider, analyzed how companies will adopt IoT products and the associated cost of adopting those products. John Greenough is the lead analyst covering the Internet of Things for BI Intelligence- Business Insider’s paid research service. Numerous IoT companies have cited his analysis of the IoT. Prior to joining BI Intelligence, he worked analyzing bank technology for Corporate Insight and The Clearing House Payment...
In his keynote at 16th Cloud Expo, Rodney Rogers, CEO of Virtustream, discussed the evolution of the company from inception to its recent acquisition by EMC – including personal insights, lessons learned (and some WTF moments) along the way. Learn how Virtustream’s unique approach of combining the economics and elasticity of the consumer cloud model with proper performance, application automation and security into a platform became a breakout success with enterprise customers and a natural fit for the EMC Federation.
"Optimal Design is a technology integration and product development firm that specializes in connecting devices to the cloud," stated Joe Wascow, Co-Founder & CMO of Optimal Design, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City.
SYS-CON Events announced today that CommVault has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3–5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. A singular vision – a belief in a better way to address current and future data management needs – guides CommVault in the development of Singular Information Management® solutions for high-performance data protection, universal availability and simplified management of data on complex storage networks. CommVault's exclusive single-platform architecture gives companies unp...
Electric Cloud and Arynga have announced a product integration partnership that will bring Continuous Delivery solutions to the automotive Internet-of-Things (IoT) market. The joint solution will help automotive manufacturers, OEMs and system integrators adopt DevOps automation and Continuous Delivery practices that reduce software build and release cycle times within the complex and specific parameters of embedded and IoT software systems.
"ciqada is a combined platform of hardware modules and server products that lets people take their existing devices or new devices and lets them be accessible over the Internet for their users," noted Geoff Engelstein of ciqada, a division of Mars International, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City.
Internet of Things is moving from being a hype to a reality. Experts estimate that internet connected cars will grow to 152 million, while over 100 million internet connected wireless light bulbs and lamps will be operational by 2020. These and many other intriguing statistics highlight the importance of Internet powered devices and how market penetration is going to multiply many times over in the next few years.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dyn, the worldwide leader in Internet Performance, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 17th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on November 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Dyn is a cloud-based Internet Performance company. Dyn helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Through a world-class network and unrivaled, objective intelligence into Internet conditions, Dyn ensures traffic gets delivered faster, safer, and more reliably than ever.