October 25, 2021


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Emulation of Kernel Mode Rootkits With Speakeasy

Emulation of Kernel Mode Rootkits With Speakeasy

In August 2020, we released a blog post about how the Speakeasy emulation
can be used to emulate user mode malware such as
shellcode. If you haven’t had a chance, give
the post a read today

In addition to user mode emulation, Speakeasy also supports
emulation of kernel mode Windows binaries. When malware authors employ
kernel mode malware, it will often be in the form of a device driver
whose end goal is total compromise of an infected system. The malware
most often doesn’t interact with hardware and instead leverages kernel
mode to fully compromise the system and remain hidden.

Challenges With Dynamically Analyzing Kernel Malware

Ideally, a kernel mode sample can be reversed statically using tools
such as disassemblers. However, binary packers just as easily
obfuscate kernel malware as they do user mode samples. Additionally,
static analysis is often expensive and time consuming. If our goal is
to automatically analyze many variants of the same malware family, it
makes sense to dynamically analyze malicious driver samples.

Dynamic analysis of kernel mode malware can be more involved than
with user mode samples. In order to debug kernel malware, a proper
environment needs to be created. This usually involves setting up two
separate virtual machines as debugger and debugee. The malware can
then be loaded as an on-demand kernel service where the driver can be
debugged remotely with a tool such as WinDbg.

Several sandbox style applications exist that use hooking or other
monitoring techniques but typically target user mode applications.
Having similar sandbox monitoring work for kernel mode code would
require deep system level hooks that would likely produce significant noise.

Driver Emulation

Emulation has proven to be an effective analysis technique for
malicious drivers. No custom setup is required, and drivers can be
emulated at scale. In addition, maximum code coverage is easier to
achieve than in a sandbox environment. Often, rootkits may expose
malicious functionality via I/O request packet (IRP) handlers (or
other callbacks). On a normal Windows system these routines are
executed when other applications or devices send input/output requests
to the driver. This includes common tasks such as reading, writing, or
sending device I/O control (IOCTLs) to a driver to execute some type
of functionality.

Using emulation, these entry points can be called directly with
doped IRP packets in order to identify as much functionality as
possible in the rootkit. As we discussed in the first Speakeasy blog
post, additional entry points are emulated as they are discovered. A
driver’s DriverMain entry point is responsible for initializing a
function dispatch table that is called to handle I/O requests.
Speakeasy will attempt to emulate each of these functions after the
main entry point has completed by supplying a dummy IRP. Additionally,
any system threads or work items that are created are sequentially
emulated in order to get as much code coverage as possible.

Emulating a Kernel Mode Implant

In this blog post, we will show an example of Speakeasy’s
effectiveness at emulating a real kernel mode implant family publicly
named Winnti. This sample was chosen despite its age because it
transparently implements some classic rootkit functionality. The goal
of this post is not to discuss the analysis of the malware itself as
it is fairly antiquated. Rather, we will focus on the events that are
captured during emulation.

The Winnti sample we will be analyzing has SHA256 hash
c465238c9da9c5ea5994fe9faf1b5835767210132db0ce9a79cb1195851a36fb and
the original file name tcprelay.sys. For
most of this post, we will be examining the emulation report generated
by Speakeasy. Note: many techniques employed by this 32-bit rootkit
will not work on modern 64-bit versions of Windows due to Kernel Patch
Protection (PatchGuard) which protects against modification of
critical kernel data structures.

To start, we will instruct Speakeasy to emulate the kernel driver
using the command line shown in Figure 1. We instruct Speakeasy to
create a full memory dump (using the “-d” flag) so we can acquire
memory later. We supply the memory tracing flag (“-m”) which will log
all memory reads and writes performed by the malware. This is useful
for detecting things like hooking and direct kernel object
manipulation (DKOM).

Emulation of Kernel Mode Rootkits With Speakeasy

Figure 1: Command line used to emulate
the malicious driver

Speakeasy will then begin emulating the malware’s DriverEntry
function. The entry point of a driver is responsible for setting up
passive callback routines that will service user mode I/O requests as
well as callbacks used for device addition, removal, and unloading.
Reviewing the emulation report for the malware’s DriverEntry function
(identified in the JSON report with an “ep_type” of “entry_point”),
shows that the malware finds the base address of the Windows kernel.
The malware does this by using the ZwQuerySystemInformation API to
locate the base address for all kernel modules and then looking for
one named “ntoskrnl.exe”. The malware then manually finds the address
of the PsCreateSystemThread API. This is then used to spin up a system
thread to perform its actual functionality. Figure 2 shows the APIs
called from the malware’s entry point.

Figure 2: Key functionality in the
tcprelay.sys entry point

Hiding the Driver Object

The malware attempts to hide itself before executing its main system
thread. The malware first looks up the “DriverSection” field in its
own DRIVER_OBJECT structure. This field holds a linked list containing
all loaded kernel modules and the malware attempts to unlink itself to
hide from APIs that list loaded drivers. In the “mem_access” field in
the Speakeasy report shown in Figure 3, we can see two memory writes
to the DriverSection entries before and after itself which will remove
itself from the linked list.

Figure 3: Memory write events
representing the tcprelay.sys malware attempting to unlink itself in
order to hide

As noted in the original Speakeasy
blog post
, when threads or other dynamic entry points are
created at runtime, the framework will follow them for emulation. In
this case, the malware created a system thread and Speakeasy
automatically emulated it.

Moving on to the newly created thread (identified by an “ep_type” of
“system_thread”), we can see the malware begin its real functionality.
The malware begins by enumerating all running processes on the host,
looking for the service controller process named services.exe. It’s
important to note that the process listing that gets returned to the
emulated samples is configurable via JSON config files supplied at
runtime. For more information on these configuration options please
see the Speakeasy README on our GitHub repository.
An example of this configurable process listing is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Process listing configuration
field supplied to Speakeasy

Pivoting to User Mode

Once the malware locates the services.exe process, it will attach to
its process context and begin inspecting user mode memory in order to
locate the addresses of exported user mode functions. The malware does
this so it can later inject an encoded, memory-resident DLL into the
services.exe process. Figure 5 shows the APIs used by the rootkit to
resolve its user mode exports.

Figure 5: Logged APIs used by
tcprelay.sys rootkit to resolve exports for its user mode implant

Once the exported functions are resolved, the rootkit is ready to
inject the user mode DLL component. Next, the malware manually copies
the in-memory DLL into the services.exe process address space. These
memory write events are captured and shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Memory write events captured
while copying the user mode implant into services.exe

A common technique that rootkits use to execute user mode code
involves a Windows feature known as Asynchronous Procedure Calls
(APC). APCs are functions that execute asynchronously within the
context of a supplied thread. Using APCs allows kernel mode
applications to queue code to run within a thread’s user mode context.
Malware often wants to inject into user mode since much of the common
functionality (such as network communication) within Windows can be
more easily accessed. In addition, by running in user mode, there is
less risk of being detected in the event of faulty code bug-checking
the entire machine.

In order to queue an APC to fire in user mode, the malware must
locate a thread in an “alertable” state. Threads are said to be
alertable when they relinquish their execution quantum to the kernel
thread scheduler and notify the kernel that they are able to dispatch
APCs. The malware searches for threads within the services.exe process
and once it detects one that’s alertable it will allocate memory for
the DLL to inject then queue an APC to execute it.

Speakeasy emulates all kernel structures involved in this process,
specifically the executive thread object (ETHREAD) structures that are allocated for every
thread on a Windows system. Malware may attempt to grovel through this
opaque structure to identify when a thread’s alertable flag is set
(and therefore a valid candidate for an APC). Figure 7 shows the
memory read event that was logged when the Winnti malware manually
parsed an ETHREAD structure in the
services.exe process to confirm it was alertable. At the time of this
writing, all threads within the emulator present themselves as
alertable by default.

Figure 7: Event logged when the
tcprelay.sys malware confirmed a thread was alertable

Next, the malware can execute any user mode code it wants using this
thread object. The undocumented functions KeInitializeApc and KeInsertQueueApc will initialize and execute a
user mode APC respectively. Figure 8 shows the API set that the
malware uses to inject a user mode module into the services.exe
process. The malware executes a shellcode stub as the target of the
APC that will then execute a loader for the injected DLL. All of this
can be recovered from the memory dump package and analyzed later.

Figure 8: Logged APIs used by
tcprelay.sys rootkit to inject into user mode via an APC

Network Hooks

After injecting into user mode, the kernel component will attempt to
install network obfuscation hooks (presumably to hide the user mode
implant). Speakeasy tracks and tags all memory within the emulation
space. In the context of kernel mode emulation, this includes all
kernel objects (e.g. Driver and Device objects, and the kernel modules
themselves). Immediately after we observe the malware inject its user
mode implant, we see it begin to attempt to hook kernel components.
This was confirmed during static analysis to be used for network hiding.

The memory access section of the emulation report reveals that the
malware modified the netio.sys driver,
specifically code within the exported function named NsiEnumerateObjectsAllParametersEx. This function
is ultimately called when a user on the system runs the “netstat”
command and it is likely that the malware is hooking this function in
order to hide connected network ports on the infected system. This
inline hook was identified by the event captured in Figure 9.

Figure 9: Inline function hook set by the
malware to hide network connections

In addition, the malware hooks the Tcpip
driver object in order to accomplish additional network hiding.
Specifically, the malware hooks the IRP_MJ_DEVICE_CONTROL handler for the Tcpip driver. User mode code may send IOCTL codes
to this function when querying for active connections. This type of
hook can be easily identified with Speakeasy by looking for memory
writes to critical kernel objects as shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10: Memory write event used to
hook the Tcpip network driver

System Service Dispatch Table Hooks

Finally, the rootkit will attempt to hide itself using the nearly
ancient technique of system service dispatch table (SSDT) patching.
Speakeasy allocates a fake SSDT so malware can interact with it. The
SSDT is a function table that exposes kernel functionality to user
mode code. The event in Figure 11 shows that the SSDT structure was
modified at runtime.

Figure 11: SSDT hook detected by Speakeasy

If we look at the malware in IDA Pro, we can confirm that the
malware patches the SSDT entry for the ZwQueryDirectoryFile and ZwEnumerateKey APIs that it uses to hide itself
from file system and registry analysis. The SSDT patch function is
shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12: File hiding SSDT patching
function shown in IDA Pro

After setting up these hooks, the system thread will exit. The other
entry points (such as the IRP handlers and DriverUnload routines) in
the driver are less interesting and contain mostly boilerplate driver code.

Acquiring the Injected User Mode Implant

Now that we have a good idea what the driver does to hide itself on
the system, we can use the memory dumps created by Speakeasy to
acquire the injected DLL discussed earlier. Opening the zip file we
created at emulation time, we can find the memory tag referenced in
Figure 6. We quickly confirm the memory block has a valid PE header
and it successfully loads into IDA Pro as shown in Figure 13.

Figure 13: Injected user mode DLL
recovered from Speakeasy memory dump


In this blog post, we discussed how Speakeasy can be effective at
automatically identifying rootkit activity from the kernel mode
binary. Speakeasy can be used to quickly triage kernel binaries that
may otherwise be difficult to dynamically analyze. For more
information and to check out the code, head over to our GitHub repository.