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Last year, we published a paper titled Hot
Knives Through Butter, Evading File-Based Sandboxes
.  In this
paper, we explained many sandbox evasion methods–and today’s blog
post adds to our growing catalog.

In the past, for example, we detailed the inner workings of a Trojan we dubbed
UpClicker
. The malware was notable for a then-novel technique to
evade automated dynamic analysis systems (better known as sandboxes).
UpClicker activates only when the left mouse button is clicked and
released — a sign that it is running on a real, live, human-controlled
PC rather than within an automated sandbox.

If the malware determines it is running in a sandbox, it lies dormant
so that the sandbox doesn’t observe any suspicious behavior. Once the
sandbox incorrectly clears it as a benign file, UpClicker goes on to a
real computer to do its dirty work.

Last year, our colleague Rong Hwa shared the technical details of another
sandbox-detecting Trojan called  BaneChant
. Like UpClicker,
BaneChant uses human interaction to ascertain whether it is running in
a virtual-machine environment, activating only after it detects more
than three left clicks.

Since then, we’ve seen a spate of new malware that pushes the concept
further. The newest sandbox-evading malware counters recent efforts to
mimic human behavior in sandbox environments.

This blog post describes three tactics that FireEye has discovered in
recent attacks.

Sandbox evasion: a primer

Most sandbox-evasion techniques fall into one of three categories:

Human interaction. This category includes malware that requires
certain actions on the user’s part (a sign that the malicious code is
running on a real-live PC rather than within an automated sandbox).

Configuration specific. Malware in this category takes
advantage of the inherent constraints of file-based sandboxes. For
example, knowing that a sandbox can spend, say, five minutes running
suspicious code for analysis, malware creators can create code that
automatically lies dormant for a longer period. If the code is still
running after that, it’s probably not in a sandbox.

Environment specific. In this category, malware checks for
telltale signs that its code is running in widely used VM
environments. It checks for obscure files unique to VMware, for
instance, or VM-specific hardware drivers.

The first category of sandbox evasion is one of the trickiest to
counter. To fool sandbox-detecting malware, some vendors now simulate
mouse movement and clicks in their virtual-machine environments to
mimic human activity. But malware authors are upping the ante with
even more sophisticated sandbox detection and evasion techniques.

To scroll is human

One malware we discovered lies dormant until the user scrolls to the
second page of a Rich Text Format (RTF) document. So simulating human
interaction with random or preprogrammed mouse movements isn’t enough
to activate its malicious behavior.

Here’s how it works:

RTF documents consist of normal text, control words, and groups.
Microsoft’s RTF specification includes a shape-drawing function, which
includes a series of properties using the following syntax:

{sp {sn propertyName } {sv propertyValueInformation}}

In this code, sp is the control word for the drawing property, sn
is the property name, and sv contains information about the property
value. The code snippet in Figure 1 exploits a vulnerability that
occurs when using an invalid sv value for the pFragments shape property.

turing1

Figure 1: Code exploiting vulnerability in the RTF pFragments property

A closer look at the exploit code reveals a series of paragraph marks
(./par) that appears before the exploit code.

turing2

Figure 2: A series of .par (paragraph marks) that appears before the
exploit code

The repeated paragraph marks push the exploit code to the second page
of the RTF document. So the malicious code does not execute unless the
document scrolls down to bring the exploit code up into the active
window—more likely a deliberate act by a human user than simulated
movement in a virtual machine.

When the RTF is scrolled down to the second page, then only the
exploit code triggers, and  as shown in Figure 3.0, it makes a call to
 URLDownloadToFileA function from the shell code to download an
executable file.

turing3

Figure 3: Exploit code

In a typical file-based sandbox, where any mouse activity is random
or preprogrammed, the RTF document’s second page will never appear. So
the malicious code never executes, and nothing seems amiss in the
sandbox analysis.

Two clicks and you’re out

Another sandbox-evading attack we spotted in recent attacks waits for
more than two mouse clicks before executing. The two-click condition
aims to more accurately determine whether an actual person is
operating the targeted machine—most people click mouse buttons many
times throughout the day—or a one-time programmed click designed to
counter evasion techniques.

Here’s how this technique works:

The malware invokes the function Get AsyncKeyState in a loop.
The function checks whether any mouse buttons are clicked by looking
for the parameter 0x01, 0x02, or 0x04. (The parameter 0x01 is the
virtual key code for the mouse’s left button, 0x02 is the code for the
right button, and 0x04 is the code of the middle button.)

The instruction “xor edi edi” sets the edi to 0. If any of the
buttons is pressed, the code invokes the instruction “inc edi,” as
shown in Figure 4. After that, the  instruction “cmp edi,2” checks
whether the left, right or middle mouse buttons have been clicked more
than two times. If so, code exits from the loop and gets to its real
work. Otherwise, it stays under the radar, continuously checking for
more mouse clicks.

turing4

Figure 4: Assembly code for evasion employing left, middle or right
mouse clicks

Slow mouse, fast sandbox

Another recently discovered evasion technique involves checking for
suspiciously fast mouse movement. To make sure an actual person is
controlling the mouse or trackpad, malware code checks how quickly the
cursor is moving. Superhuman speed is a telltale sign that the code is
running in a sandbox.

This technique also makes use of the Windows function
GetCursorPos, which retrieves the system’s cursor position. In
the example malware code shown in Figure 5, GetCursorPos
returns 614 for the x-axis value and 185 for the y-axis value.

turing5

Figure 5: Malware making first call to API GetCursorPos

After few instructions, malicious code again calls
GetCursorPos to check whether the cursor position has changed.
This time the function returns x= 1019 and y = 259, as shown in Figure 6.

turing6

Figure 6: Malware making second call to API GetCursorPos

A few instructions after the second GetCursorPos call, the
malware code  invokes the instruction “SUB EDI, DWORD PTR
DS:[410F15]”. As shown in the figure 5.0, the value in EDI is 0x103
(259 in decimal) and DS:[410F15] = 0xB9 (185 in decimal). The value
259 and 185 are the Y coordinates retrieved from the two
GetCursorPos calls. If the difference between the two
Y-coordinate measurements is not 0, then the malware terminates.

turing7

Figure 7:  Subtracting the Y coordinates to detect whether the cursor
is moving too quickly to be human-controlled

In other words, if the cursor has moved between the two
GetCursorPos calls (which are only a few instructions apart),
then the malware concludes that the mouse movement is simulated.
That’s too fast to be a real-world mouse or track pad in normal use,
so the code must be running in a sandbox.

A growing challenge

Cybersecurity is a constant arms race. Simulating mouse movement and
clicks is not enough to fool the most advanced sandbox-evading
malware. Now malware authors are incorporating real-world behaviors
into their evasion strategies.

Simulating these behaviors—the way actual people scroll documents,
click the mouse button, and move the cursor— is a huge challenge for
cybersecurity. Anticipating future evasion techniques might be even
tougher. Expect malware authors to employ more novel techniques that
look for that human touch.

In the paper “Hot
Knives Through Butter: Evading File Based Sandboxes
,” we’ve
outlined 15 prior evasion techniques that have been used by advanced
malware in real attacks to bypass file based sandboxes. We plan to
continue updating the evasion series as we come across new techniques
used by the latest threats and advanced malwares to bypass file based sandboxes.

At L Technology Group, we know technology alone will not protect us from the risks associated with in cyberspace. Hackers, Nation States like Russia and China along with “Bob” in HR opening that email, are all real threats to your organization. Defending against these threats requires a new strategy that incorporates not only technology, but also intelligent personnel who, eats and breaths cybersecurity. Together with proven processes and techniques combines for an advanced next-generation security solution. Since 2008 L Technology Group has develop people, processes and technology to combat the ever changing threat landscape that businesses face day to day.

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