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What took so long? (A little product philosophy)

February 20, 2014

Cobalt Strike’s  January 8, 2014 release generates executables that evade many anti-virus products. This is probably one of the most requested features for Cobalt Strike.

Given the demand–why did it take so long for me to do something about it?

One-off anti-virus evasion is trivial. In 2012, I wrote a one-off stager for Windows Meterpreter. Few products caught it then. Few catch it now. Why? Because very few people use it. There’s no reason for an anti-virus vendor to write signatures against it.

When I use Cobalt Strike–I always bring a collection of private scripts to generate artifacts when I need them. I’ve never had a problem with anti-virus. Many of my users have their own process to generate artifacts. Good stuff is available publicly too. For example, Veil is a fantastic artifact generator.

If anti-virus evasion is so trivial–why didn’t I build new artifacts into Cobalt Strike until now?

Long-term Utility

Every feature I build has to have long-term utility. I want tools that will help get into networks and evade defenses five to ten years from now.

If I built short-term features, my work would hit a local optima that I may not escape. Over time, each improvement would serve only to balance the faded utility of the old things next to it. Without maintenance, a product with short-term features would decay until it’s not useful.

Long-term focus has the opposite benefit. If I do my job right, each release is more useful to my users than any previous release. New features interact well with existing ones and all features become more useful. This sounds like common sense… but it’s not a natural course for software.

Imagine a toolset built around locating known service vulnerabilities and launching remote exploits. Seven years ago–this hypothetical toolset could rule the world. Today? This toolset’s utility would diminish with each day as it’s built for yesterday’s attack surface. Even with patchwork improvements, the best days for this kit are in the past. A few client-side attacks next to a rusty Windows 2003 rootkit creates an image of a dilapidated amusement park with one ride that still works. The world does change and sometimes these changes will obsolete what was otherwise good. At this point, it’s time to reinvent. I feel this is where we are with penetration testing tools.

Expected Life

Every time I build something–I ask, how does this give my users and I an advantage today, tomorrow, and next year? Or better put–what is the expected life of this capability?

On the offense side–a lot of our technology has a comically short expected life. Exploits are a good example of this. Once the vulnerability an exploit targets is patched–the clock starts ticking. Every day that exploit loses utility as fewer opportunities will exist to use it. I don’t build exploits and it’s not a focus of my product. A single exploit is not a long-term advantage. A team or community of exploit developers? They’re a long-term advantage. I leverage the great work in the Metasploit Framework for this. But, in terms of value add, I have to find other places to provide a long-term advantage.

What types of technologies provide a long-term advantage? Reconnaissance technologies are a long-term advantage. NMap will probably have use in the hacker’s toolbag for, at least, our lifetime. A reconnaissance tool is a life extender for your existing kit of attack options. A three-year old Internet Explorer exploit isn’t interesting—except when a reconnaissance technology helps you realize that your target is vulnerable to it. This is why I put so much effort into Cobalt Strike’s System Profiler. The System Profiler helps my users squeeze more use out of the client-side exploits in the Metasploit Framework.

Can you think of other technologies that provide a long-term advantage? Remote Administration Payloads. Meterpreter is almost ten years old. Even though it’s gained features—the Windows implementation is the same core that Skape put together a long time ago. Any effort to make post-exploitation better will pay dividends to users many years from now. So long as there’s a way to fire a payload and get it on a system–it has utility. Well, almost. There’s one pain point to this.

The Big Hunt

On the offensive side–we are in the middle of a shift. My ass was kicked by it three years ago. If you haven’t had your ass kicked by this yet–it’s coming, I promise. What’s this offensive ass kicking shift? It’s pro-active network security monitoring as a professional focus and the people who are getting good at it. Our tools are not ready for this. Our tools assume we have the freedom to get out of a network and communicate as much as we like through one channel. These assumptions hold in some cases, but they break in high security environments. What’s the next move? I’ll give you mine.

I’ve built a multi-protocol payload with ways to control its chattiness, flexibility to use redirectors, peer-to-peer communication to limit my egress points, and in a pinch–the ability to tunnel other tools through it. Why did I do this? If I can’t get out of a network with my existing tools–I’m out of the game. If I can’t maintain a stable lifeline into my target’s network–I’m out of the game. If all of my compromised systems phone home to one system–I’m easy to spot and take out of the game.

We had a free pass to use a compromised network without contest. This is coming to an end. Sophisticated attackers evolved their communication methods years ago. We need tools that provide real stealth if we’re going to continue to claim to represent a credible threat.

I work on stealth communication with Beacon, because I see a long-term benefit to this work. I see Browser Pivoting as a technique with a long-term benefit as well. Two-factor authentication hit an adoption tipping point last year and it will disrupt our favored ways to get at data and demonstrate risk. Browser Pivoting is a way to work in this new world. When I look at the offensive landscape, I see no lack of problems to solve.

Anti-virus Evasion – Revisited

What’s a problem that I didn’t touch, because of the short life expectancy of any one solution? I didn’t want to build a public artifact collection to get past anti-virus.

I remember when the US pen tester community became aware of Hyperion. Researchers from NullSecurity.net wrote a paper on a novel way to defeat any anti-virus sandbox. The technique? Encrypt a payload with a weak key and embed it into an executable with a stub of code to brute force the key. Anti-virus products would give up emulating the binary before the key was brute forced–allowing the executable to pass.

This technique is a long-term advantage. Any one of us can write our own anti-virus bypass generator that uses the Hyperion technique. So long as we keep our generator and its stub to ourselves, it will last a long time. We didn’t do this though. We took the Hyperion proof-of-concept and used it as-is without changes. What happened? Eventually anti-virus vendors wrote signatures for a stub of code in the public binary and then the technique left our minds, even though it’s still valid.

Let’s go back to the original question. Why didn’t I add anti-virus evasion artifacts until now? I didn’t work on this problem because I didn’t have a sustainable plan. I do now.

I wrote an Artifact Kit. The Artifact Kit is a simple source code framework to generate executables that smuggle payloads past anti-virus. Better, the Artifact Kit is able to build DLLs, executables, and Windows dropper executables. I expect that, in the future, Artifact Kit will also build my persistence executables as well.

I updated Cobalt Strike to use the Artifact Kit to generate executables. My psexec dialogs use it. My Windows Dropper attack uses it. I even found that the Metasploit Framework’s Firefox add-on module fired with an Artifact Kit executable becomes a nice way to get a foothold on a fully patched system. This is an example of a new feature complementing existing tools and extending their life and utility.

Artifact Kit’s techniques have a limited lifetime. The more use it gets–the more likely an analyst will spend the time to write signatures and negate the utility of the Artifact Kit. One technique isn’t sustainable. What’s the plan then?

I published the source code to Artifact Kit along with different techniques to a place my customers have access to. I also provided Cortana hooks to make Cobalt Strike use any changes that I or my customers can dream up. Now, anti-virus evasion in Cobalt Strike doesn’t hinge on one technique. It’s a strategy. As soon as one kit gets burned, swap in a new one, and magically everything in the tool that uses it will work. It took some time to think up a flexible abstraction that makes sense. I’m pretty happy with what I have now.

If you’re a developer of offensive capabilities–ask a few questions before you commit to a problem. What is the shelf-life of your solution? Is there a way to extend the life of your solution–if it runs out? And, finally, does your solution have the potential to extend the life of other capabilities? These are the questions I ask to make sure my output has the most impact possible.

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