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Mandiant has observed Russian nation-state attackers APT29 employing
domain fronting techniques for stealthy backdoor access to victim
environments for at least two years. There has been considerable
discussion about domain fronting following the release of a paper
detailing these techniques. Domain fronting provides outbound
network connections that are indistinguishable from legitimate
requests for popular websites.
APT29 has used The Onion Router (TOR) and the TOR domain fronting
plugin meek to create a hidden, encrypted network tunnel that appeared
to connect to Google services over TLS. This tunnel provided the
attacker remote access to the host system using the Terminal Services
(TS), NetBIOS, and Server Message Block (SMB) services, while
appearing to be traffic to legitimate websites. The attackers also
leveraged a common Windows exploit to access a privileged command
shell without authenticating.
We first discussed APT29’s use of these techniques as part of our
“No Easy Breach” talk at DerbyCon 6.0. For additional details on how
we first identified this backdoor, and the epic investigation it was
part of, see the slides
Domain Fronting Overview
Router (TOR) is a network of proxy nodes that attempts to
provide anonymity to users accessing the Internet. TOR transfers
internet traffic through a series of proxy points on the Internet,
with each node knowing only the previous and next node in the path.
This proxy network, combined with pervasive encryption, makes tracking
the source of TOR Internet activity extremely difficult. A TOR client
can also use the TOR network to host services that are not accessible
from the open Internet. These services are commonly used to host “dark
web” sites such as the defunct Silk Road.
Typically network analysts can identify normal TOR traffic through
signature analysis or the identification of communication with TOR
is a publicly available obfuscation plugin for TOR and an
implementation of the domain fronting technique. To hide TOR traffic,
meek takes advantage of the way that Google and other Internet content
delivery networks (CDNs) route traffic. CDNs often route traffic from
IP addresses associated with one service to servers associated with
another service hosted on the same network. By hosting a meek
reflection server in one of these CDNs, meek can hide TOR traffic in
legitimate HTTPS connections to well-known services.
Meek obfuscates traffic in several stages. First, it encodes TOR
traffic into HTTP specifying the host name of the reflection server
(for example, the default server meek-reflect.appspot.com). It then
wraps that HTTP traffic in a legitimate TLS connection to a server
hosted in the same CDN cloud as the reflection server (in this
example, Google). When the CDN server receives the connection, it
decrypts the TLS traffic, identifies the hostname specified in the
HTTP header and redirects the traffic to the reflection server. The
reflection server then reconstructs the original TOR traffic from the
HTTP stream and sends the traffic to the TOR network, which routes it
to its destination. This process creates an outbound network
connection that appears to contain normal HTTPS POST requests for
google.com on a Google-owned IP address,
while discretely passing the traffic through the reflection server to
the TOR network. Meek can also use the TLS service and cipher suites
used by Firefox to further obfuscate traffic. Differentiating this
traffic from legitimate connections is extremely difficult, and
encryption of both on the initial TLS connection and the TOR traffic
makes meaningful analysis of the traffic impossible. Note: Google
suspended the reflection server meek-reflect.appspot.com, but other
servers, in the Google cloud or other supported CDNs, can fulfill the
Figure 1 displays the traffic flow when using meek.
Figure 1: Meek traffic flow
Mandiant discovered that APT29 enabled a TOR hidden service that
forwarded traffic from the TOR client to local ports 139, 445 and 3389
(NetBIOS, SMB and TS, respectively). This provided the attackers full
remote access to the system from outside of the local network using
the hidden TOR (.onion) address of the system.
The attackers created the following files and directories during the
installation and execution of the backdoor:
- C:Program Files(x86)Googlecore
- C:Program Files(x86)Googledata
- C:Program Files(x86)Googledata 0
- C:Program Files(x86)Googlelock
- C:Program Files(x86)Googlestate
The file googleService.exe is the primary
TOR executable, responsible for establishing and maintaining encrypted
proxy connections. GoogleUpdate.exe is the
meek-client plugin, which obfuscates the TOR connection. These files
are publicly available and have the following hashes:
The file C:Program Files
(x86)Googlecore contains configuration information for the
TOR service googleService.exe. The service
was configured to:
- Communicate on ports 1, 80 and 443
- Bridge traffic
using the meek plugin to https://meek-reflect.appspot.com and obfuscate
HTTPS and DNS requests to appear destined for www.google.com
- Forward traffic from ports
62304, 62305 and 62306 to ports 3389, 139 and 445, respectively
Figure 2 displays the contents of the TOR configuration file core.
Figure 2: Contents of TOR configuration file
The C:Program Files
(x86)Googledata 0hostname” file contained a single line
with the TOR hostname for the system. This hostname was a
pseudorandomly-generated 16 character alpha-numeric name, with the
top-level domain (TLD) .onion.
Files(x86)Googledata 0private_key file contained the TOR
client RSA private key. Figure 3 displays the redacted contents of a
sample private_key file.
Figure 3: Redacted contents of sample private_key
The attackers used the scripts start.ps1
and install.bat to install the TOR service.
After installation, the attackers deleted these scripts from the
system. Additional files in the directory C:Program Files(x86)Google contained cached
data and logs from the operation of TOR.
Additional information on increasing visibility into PowerShell
activity through enhanced logging is available here.
Installation and Persistence
The attacker executed the PowerShell script C:Program Files(x86)Googlestart.ps1 to
install the TOR services and implement the “Sticky Keys” exploit. This
script was deleted after execution, and was not recovered.
By replacing the “Sticky Keys” binary, C:WindowsSystem32sethc.exe, with the Windows
Command Processor cmd.exe, the attackers
then accessed a privileged Windows console session without
authenticating to the system. “Sticky Keys” is an accessibility
feature that allows users to activate Windows modifier keys without
pressing more than one key at a time. Pressing the shift key five
times activates “Sticky Keys” and executes sethc.exe, which, when replaced with cmd.exe, opens a System-level command shell. From
this shell, the attackers can execute arbitrary Windows commands,
including adding or modifying accounts on the system, even from the
logon screen (pre-authentication). By tunneling RDP traffic to the
system, the attackers could gain both persistent access and privilege
escalation using this simple and well-known exploit.
The installation script start.ps1 created
a Windows service named Google Update to
maintain persistence after a system reboot. Table 1 contains registry
details for the “Google Update” service.
Table 1: Registry details for the TOR Google
Update Windows service
The script also modified the Terminal Server registry values fSingleSessionPerUser to allow multiple
simultaneous Windows sessions using the same account, and fDenyTSConnections to allow Terminal Services
connections. Table 2 shows the modified values for these registry keys.
Table 2: Registry modifications performed by start.ps1
APT29 adopted domain fronting long before these techniques were
widely known. By employing a publicly available implementation, they
were able to hide their network traffic, with minimal research or
development, and with tools that are difficult to attribute. Detecting
this activity on the network requires visibility into TLS connections
and effective network signatures. However, when dealing with advanced
threat groups who rapidly develop capabilities and invest in hiding
network traffic, effective endpoint visibility is vital. Monitoring
for potentially interesting events and attacker methodologies, like
lateral movement and new persistence creation, can allow defenders to
identify these stealthy methodologies.
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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