#1267122: Flirting With IDA and APT28

Description: This document shares a methodology used to develop Hex-Rays' Interactive Disassembler (IDA) signatures created as part of pre-analysis for a recently published APT28 sample. The internal functions, features and behavior of the published sample are not discussed. Access to IDA Flair, used to generate signatures for the IDA disassembler, requires a current hex-rays subscription.

On May 17, the U.S. CyberCom Cyber National Mission Force (CNMF) tweeted a VirusTotal link to a new APT28 malware sample. No information about the circumstances surrounding the sample or its discovery was included.

The SHA256 hash of the published sample is:

Consensus amongst researchers suggests the sample is x-tunnel (aka XAPS), a tool used by APT28 to make a compromised host inside the firewall act as a traffic proxy. This allows attacker-controlled traffic originating from external hosts to be relayed to other internal targets that might otherwise be inaccessible owing to perimeter traffic policy.

X-tunnel was first seen in the wild in May 2013, and is understood to have been used in previous compromises including the 2016 DNC hack.

Analysis of other in-the-wild (ITW) builds of x-tunnel shows its capabilities include remote command execution, UDP tunnelling, TLS encryption, proxy support, and persistent HTTP via the HTTP keep-alive header.

Prior versions have weighed in around 1-2MB in size. Versions with obfuscated code, found in 2015, tended towards the larger end of the scale. The sample uploaded by CNMF stands at 3.2MB.

A file this size hints at code obfuscation/virtualisation, static linking and/or embedded resources. Static linking affords self-sufficiency - a high priority for a threat actor operating inside a victim network. Code obfuscation hampers analysis efforts but can make a sample more suspicious in the eyes of antivirus (AV) software.

Evidence within the sample indicates it was produced using Microsoft Visual C++. When
formulating an execution plan for a target computer, the author has two options: assume the corresponding (and necessary) Visual C++ Redistributable package is installed, or bundle (link) every piece of executable code needed within the file itself. This latter approach of static linking increases the size of the file but also increases the odds of successful execution.

A few hints that our x-tunnel binary was built with Microsoft Visual C++:

1. The presence of a .pdata section containing the exception data directory. It’s here that the compiler stores exception handling metadata for PE32+/64-bit binaries. This section is present even for the simplest C/C++ ”Hello World” applications, provided it links against Microsoft Visual C++ Runtime.

2. For C++ specifically, the presence of mangled function names and references to Standard Template Library namespaces/containers/classes (“std”, “vector”, “ios”) within the strings output.

3. Output from parsing the PE Rich header.

For the alternative of dynamic linking a Visual C++ PE, you would typically see an import for mscvpXXX.dll, where XXX maps to the Visual Studio release number – 120 for Visual Studio 2013, 140 for Visual Studio 2015 etc.

Disassembly of the sample using IDA shows a vast sea of executable code. What approach can we use to tackle the analysis of such an unwieldy file, allowing us to quickly zero in on its design and capabilities?

IDA’s Navigator toolbar offers a visual decomposition of a sample’s executable code and data. If, during sample loading, the automatic use of Flirt Signatures is disabled (see “Kernel Options 2”), measuring the number of functions can be achieved using a simple Python one-liner:


Figure 1: Function count via IDAPython

Since we’re dealing with a 64-bit Microsoft Visual C++ binary, we can apply the relevant default signatures provided with IDA (first re-select Use flirt signatures under General -> Kernel Options 2): vc64rtf, vc64ucrt.

The Signatures sub-view tells us ~1600 functions have been identified as library (benign) code:

Figure 2: First round of default signatures provided by IDA

The majority of published x-tunnel samples link against the same version of the OpenSSL TLS/SSL library. Strings output for this sample shows it is also following suit: 1.0.1e 11 Feb 2013.

Analysts following along at home will also have noticed another recurring identifier present in the strings output: “poco”. Google results show this to be a C++ framework. In the ongoing effort to stay ahead of endpoint security, the author(s) have evidently re-tooled x-tunnel using a framework.

Leveraging custom IDA Flirt signatures to fill in as many of the blanks as possible (by identifying benign library code) reduces the time required to derive meaningful analysis of the sample. Focusing our efforts on understanding the important (interesting) parts means we can expedite delivery of actionable threat intelligence.

Strings output tell us version 1.7.3 of the Poco framework was used. We can use this information to build a static library (.lib) and from that, derive custom IDA signatures.

Note: The Flair tools pcf (COFF parser) and sigmake (Signature File Maker) are available from the Hex Rays website as a zip download (active subscription required). Both Mac and Windows binaries are included; substitute paths in examples below reflect the location of your zip extract (and operating system, if using Windows).

The first question we need to answer is which version of Visual Studio should we use to build our libs, and for the sake of curiosity, does it matter? (Spoiler: yes it does, at least for the small number of default installs of Visual Studio that were tested).

The Rich header in the PE holds metadata about the compiler/linker used to produce a binary. Parsing it using one of the widely available tools we are shown:

Figure 3: Rich header embedded within the sample

Assuming this isn’t a forgery, our first build attempt should be with Visual Studio 2010 RTM.

Note: Building the OpenSSL and Poco static libraries was performed using the author’s standard Windows 7 SP1 x86 analysis environment. Building under a native x64 environment should only involve minor changes to the steps described below.

The Poco framework’s 1.7.3 source code is readily available for download from Github. The build instructions are easy to follow (see README, “Building on Windows”). The only minor caveat is a dependency on OpenSSL, which needs to exist first. We will adjust the build process slightly to remove the MySQL dependency. This can be done by editing the Poco components file.

Building the OpenSSL .lib files is also straightforward. As stated by the documentation, some prerequisites need to be installed such as ActiveState ActivePerl; make sure perl.exe is in your %PATH% (handled by the installer when using defaults).

Since our sample is 64-bit, we use the Visual Studio x64 Cross Tools Command Prompt (see Windows Start menu under Visual Studio Tools).

As per the OpenSSL build documentation, running the following commands in the extracted source code directory should produce the necessary libeay32.lib and ssleay32.lib static libraries. This, in turn, will allow us to build Poco and finally produce our IDA signatures:
perl Configure VC-WIN64A
anmake -f ms\nt.mak

Figure 4: Building OpenSSL static libs

Assuming the build process completes without error, static libraries should be in the out32 folder:

Figure 5: OpenSSL x64 1.0.1e static libraries

With these available, we can now build the Poco C++ framework libs. We need to modify the Poco buildwin.cmd file to indicate the location of our freshly built OpenSSL libraries and provide the whereabouts of OpenSSL header files. Here’s the edited buildwin.cmd:
rem Change OPENSSL_DIR to match your setup
set OPENSSL_DIR=E:\Code\openssl-1.0.1e.tar\openssl-1.0.1e

Figure 6: Poco framework buildwin.cmd environment variables

Note the use of inc32 for the OPENSSL_INCLUDE variable. The 1.0.1e tarball contains symlinks from include to inc32 that fail to extract properly on a Windows host, resulting in 0 byte .h files in the include folder.

We can now build the Poco framework static libs using the Visual Studio 2010 x64 command prompt:

buildwin.cmd 100 build static_mt release x64 nosamples notests

Figure 7: Command to build Poco static libs

The emitted libs can be found in the lib64 folder:

Figure 8: Poco framework static libraries

Armed with our Poco and OpenSSL library files, we can now generate the IDA signatures.

The syntax for pcf and sigmake is straightforward. First, derive a pattern file for each of our .libs using pcf, found inside the Flair .zip download, available from Hex-Rays.

An example execution of pcf for the OpenSSL libs on Mac OS (the .libs were copied locally from the build VM):
./flair72/bin/mac/pcf libeay32.lib
libeay32.lib: skipped 98, total 5646

Figure 9: Generating the IDA pattern file on MAC

For Windows, an equivalent command would be:

.\flair72\bin\win\pcf.exe libeay32.lib

Figure 10: Generating the IDA pattern file on Windows

Now generate signature files and resolve any resulting collisions. Collisions occur when the generalized opcodes taken from object files within the .lib are the same for more than one sub routine. The Flair signature generator won’t arbitrate, it’s up to the user to hand-curate (or ignore) any collisions.

Red the rest in this link

More info: https://threatvector.cylance.com/en_us/home/flirting-with-ida-and-apt28.html

Date added July 11, 2019, 5:56 p.m.
Source threatvector
  • All New Malware or Attack Alerts - New Reports / IOCs in
  • . APTs - Advanced Persistent Threats - New Reports in
  • . APTs - Russia - New Reports in
  • Heartbleed (Not malware but a bug in OpenSSL)
  • Info on - SSH, SSL, TLS, STunnel etc.
  • OpenSSL - Also FREAK, HeartBleed, Poodle, LogJam
  • Russia - APT28 /Fancy Bear/Sofacy/Sednit/Zebrocy/Sourface/Pawn Storm /Fysbis/Threat Group-4127 (TG-4127)/X-Agent/XAgent/XAgentOSX/Iron Twilight/Group 74/Tsar Team/DealersChoice/Strontium/Earworm/Snakemackerel/Zekapab
  • Russia - Cannon APT Malware (Fancy Bear/ APT28, similar to to Zebrocy)
  • Russia - Lojax Malware / UEFI Rootkit (Fancy Bear/ APT28)
  • Russia - PETYA / NotPetya / Nyetya / GoldenEye / ExPetr Ransomware - See also PetrWrap Folder - thought to be connected to APT28
  • Russia - VPNFilter (APT) Malware (Fancy Bear/ APT28)
  • SSL / Certificate Validity Vulnerabilities
  • SSL - Various