Friday, February 7, 2014

Anti-forensics and memory analysis.

Recently there have been a number of talks around the place about anti-forensic techniques. The most recent example is the Shmoocon talk by Jake Williams and Alissa Torres: ADD — Complicating Memory Forensics Through Memory Disarray with the tool published here, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which is a proof-of-concept "evidence planting" tool.
Before that there was a blackhat talk One-byte Modification for Breaking Memory Forensic Analysis, and even we have published a paper on anti-forensics titled Anti-Forensic Resilient Memory Acquisition
In response to the ADD work, Jack Crook wrote the blog post Forensic Analysis of Anti-Forensic Activities where he analyzes the artifacts that ADD leaves behind, and the Volatility Blog published a rather confident piece Titled ADD: The Next Big Threat To Memory Forensics….Or Not claiming that anti-forensics is dead, and the author reassures us that "There is a significant amount of work that needs to be done for this to change, so while the attackers are spending their weeks and months trying to build things up to spec, rest assured that with proper training and the right tools, you won’t need to worry about future versions.". So all we need is training and tools apparently.
In my opinion, the reality is slightly less bright than the Volatility blog post would like us to believe. Anti-forensics can be very effective and being overconfident is really setting an investigator up for a fall. I think the topic of anti-forensics is one that needs wider discussion in the forensic community and to be taken seriously.
There are two goals that anti-fornsic techniques can implement:
  1. Prevent the analyst from analyzing the image in the first place.
  2. Plant evidence to decoy or confuse the investigation (or even to present doubt to the whole thing in a court proceeding).
We really do need to consider both goals, as currently these are both very effective. It does not pay to just "shoot the messenger" without considering the message itself. ADD is not a perfect tool - it is merely a proof of concept, but it can easily be changed to defeat Volatility or any other memory analysis tool.

Goal 1: Disable memory analysis tools.

To achieve this goal the anti-forensic tool simply needs to prevent the initial acquisition, or the subsequent analysis. We have already published how a tool can interfere with memory acquisition by manipulating the data structure that back the MmGetPhysicalMemoryRanges() function. Virtually all memory acquisition tools use this function to work out where they should be reading. But since this function is undocumented and is not normally used, it is quite safe to patch it without affecting system stability.
Memory acquisition tools also typically use a couple of well known APIs such as MmMapIoSpace() and ZwMapViewOfSection() which have previously been patched as far back as 2006 in Darren Bilby’s ddfy work.
So anti-forensics is definitely not dead in the memory acquisition world.
How about the analysis world? It is easy to disable a memory analysis framework, such as Volatility or Rekall since the tool makes many assumptions which may not be true. For example, we have run a hands on memory forensic workshop during the 2013 Open Source Digital Forensic Conference (OSDFC) workshop, titled Memory Forensics With Volatility. In that workshop, we have used theWinPmem driver (now part of the Rekall framework) to actively manipulate physical memory to examine how good the analysis tool was. (You can still view the workshop on You-tube).
At first we corrupted the "KDBG" owner tag from the KdDebuggerDataBlock structure. The first thing that Volatility does is to recover the KDBG structure from memory (Rekall no longer uses the KDBG but that is the topic for another post). Without a valid KDBG it is very hard to use Volatility since it uses it to locate the PsActiveProcessHead data structure so it can list processes etc. In fact the Volatility blog post The Secret to 64-bit Windows 8 and 2012 Raw Memory Dump Forensics stresses the importance of finding the correct KDBG structure. The important thing, however, is that the KDBG structure is not really used in Windows under normal circumstances (its used by the kernel debugger and to produce a crash dump). So removing it does not affect system stability.
It is quite trivial to remove the KDBG signature, in which case Volatility is unable to proceed without a lot of hand holding. It is also possible to add false positive (since kdbgscan is just a simple scan for a known signature), which can force Volatility to present whatever results one wishes when traversing lists such as the process list or the module list (i.e. one can create entire fake lists which are not even used by the kernel at all).
In fact quoting from the Volatility blog post "In other words, tools that use object carving (i.e. pattern matching, scanning) as an analysis technique are implicitly susceptible to attacks that create objects that look like the ones being carved.". One wonders what that statement means to the analysis process, since the entire Volatility analysis process begins with a fuzzy signature matching carve for the KDBG structure.

Goal 2: Plant or change evidence.

This goal for an anti-forensic tool is to confuse the analysis process. It is actually much easier than it sounds since the analysis process is usually focused around the output of the tool. So all one needs to do is find data that the tool presents (but is not essential for system stability) and change it to say whatever they want. Without prior knowledge most investigators will simply trust the output of their tool.
For example, in our OSDFC workshop, we illustrated how one can simply overwrite the filename strings presented in the vad plugin output to whatever you want (One can similar change protection flags). Since the filename itself is not used to read from the file once the handle is created, it does not matter what is written there. This can be used to influence the output of the vadinfo plugin (either to hide or plant evidence). Similarly one can alter process names, pid-ppid relations, driver names etc, and ever remove entire VAD nodes.
In fact, during that workshop we used the actual Volatility tool to tell us where the offset of the strings were in physical memory. This way we knew exactly which bytes to change in the physical memory, so that the tool output said what we wanted. The only caveat was that whatever we changed was not critical for stable system operation. Since memory forensic tools are designed to find the evidence and tell you where it is, they can all be easily misused to tell you which bytes in memory you should alter to reflect in the tool output.
Many Volatility plugins rely on pool scans which use fixed signatures. A good anti-forensic technique is to simply overwrite the pool tags (which are just known strings used for debugging) - this renders all the volatility pool scanning plugins worthless. Most other scanning plugins also use artifacts which can easily be changed to avoid signatures matching.


As much as I would love to live in a world where anti-forensics is not effective, the real world is less perfect. As investigators we need to acknowledge the fact that we are not perfect and can easily be fooled by anti-forensic techniques. It is an arms race after all. A little bit of training can improve your ability to detect these techniques, but you can never be sure.
Just a quick word on Jack Crook’s blog post. It is important to realize that Jack went about his analysis with 20/20 vision knowing exactly what he was looking for. If you re-read he analysis without the knowledge that ADD was at play you would see:
  • A process in psscan which does not appear in any of the other lists. (This is perfectly plausible for existed processes).
  • Some command line output extracted with strings that mention the suspicious process (OK Maybe the authors of ADD did not have great opsec, they could have scripted the tool better.).
  • Netscan output which does not agree with the output of the apparently unpublished tcpscan plugin. This is still consistent with the theory that the process has existed or closed all of its connections, but we don’t really know since the tcpscan module is not published so we don’t know how it works.
  • The file paths start with "\private\" instead of "\Device\HarddiskVolume0\". Maybe an oversight on behalf of the ADD authors - I am sure the string can say whatever you want.
Finally Jack finds the string "ADD" in various forms in the strings output (e.g. add.exe and the bat script which runs the add binary with all the parameters). Had he not known in advance the tool was called add.exe I don’t think this would have been that suspicious. (We still resort to memory analysis using strings in 2014?)
It is not constructive to pick the faults in a specific implementation of an anti-forensic POC, ignoring the overall lesson - which is that anti-forensics is actually very effective, especially when you don’t know it is there. If one re-reads Jack Crook’s blog post without the knowledge that there is anti-forensics employed, one can see that most investigators will probably fall for the story that the tool is trying to sell: "There was an exited process which had these sensitive files open and also had network connections.".

Update: An earlier version of this post erroneously attributed the blog post to Brent Muir, my apologies.


Jack Crook said...

Hi Michael.. you may want to make a change to your blog post as Brent Muir didn't write "Forensic Analysis of Anti-Forensic Activities". I wrote the post and only included the tweet because it stated that ADD renders memory dumps useless.

I agree, I already knew that Jake's tool was being used. The the point of the post was to not to bash the tool, but to identify the tool, how it was being used and how to detect it going forward. I thank Jake for releasing the memory image to the community. This was my first experience with anti-forensics and I think I learned some things from it.

Oh also... yes, even in 2014 I still find strings valuable :)

Michael Cohen said...

Hi Jack, My apologies for the confusion, I have edited the post.

My issue was not specifically with your post, it is a good example of the application of memory analysis techniques. It is very well documented too :-) My issue was with the claim that your analysis "made short work of the ADD tool" (this claim appeared on the Volatility blog), since I do not believe that you would have been able to identify a proper weaponized tool (i.e. not a POC - something a serious attacker would use.) without prior knowledge that it is there.

I think there is a tendency within the DFIR community to feel over confident in our tools and this may lead to complacency. Every now and again a paper appears about anti-forensics demonstrating some way of hiding or defeating forensic analysis (Lets face it - it is not that hard to defeat the current set of analysis tools we have - we are an easy target :-). The first step to making the tools and techniques better is to admit that there is a problem, rather than just dismiss these as not workable.