Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Book Writing Misconceptions

You have to admit, our industry is fraught with misconceptions.  Misconceptions and misunderstandings about business practices, about what things should be versus what they really are, about what some data represents, misconceptions about how many emails some people get, and misconceptions about how "busy" people are. The list goes on. From my own perspective, I get it.  I've been in work-from-home positions since about 2006, but even when I was working in an office or "cube-farm", my world view was somewhat limited. As such, I really try to ask and find out before I make an assumption about something...I try.  That doesn't mean that I always succeed.  But I do think that it's human nature to make some assumptions about things.

From an external perspective, over the years I've received emails and messages that have started off, "...I know you're probably too busy to answer this...", but that's never been the case.  Ever.  In more than a few instances, I've responded in under an hour, and in cases where the exchange has been about RegRipper plugins, I've returned a working plugin in under an hour, and then proceeded on to provide something a bit more polished, usually in under 4 hrs.  This is simply meant to illustrate my point, that someone who doesn't have any insight into my daily work life will assume that I'm "too busy", but that's simply their perspective, developing in isolation from any meaningful input.

Okay, that being said, on to the part of this post that deals with writing books.  I'll be the first to admit that when I started down the road of publishing my first book I had what turned out to be a few pretty big misconceptions about what working with a publisher would do for me, and I'm here to share them.

Before I get started, however, let me be clear...I'm not asking for anything.  I'm not writing this in hopes of getting feedback, nor to get anyone to change what they do, nor to suddenly pick up a banner and charge forth.  Not at all.  I'm simply pulling together stuff I've had sitting around in draft form, and I thought I'd put it out there.  If this shines a light for someone, great. 

Also, I've cancelled my contract for book number 10, which was to be titled, "Practical Windows Investigations". The content of this book had been shared here and here.

Okay, then...let's go.

Book Writing
I didn't embark on this journey to obtain notoriety or fame.  I started down this road because I had found the books on my topic(s) of interest wanting...I couldn't find any books containing the content that I wanted in bookstores. As such, I decided that I wanted to put together a book that I would want to take off the shelf of a book store, and proceed to check out.  In most of the cases to that point, I had seen titles that contained the words "Windows" and "forensics", taken the book down and thumbed through it, and then put it back, dissatisfied with the content.  I did ultimately purchase several of the books, but that was because I wanted something in front of me to remind me, "not this".

You don't get rich writing books, especially books in a genre such as DFIR.  This is not a condemnation of the community, it's a simple fact.  Simply put, the topic is far too niche.  What you do get out of it is a bit of taxable income which seems great before taxes, but come March and April is another part of the paperwork that you need to be sure that you have in order.  This is not a complaint, it's simply a fact.

At one point, years ago, what I was doing and writing caught the attention of someone at Microsoft, and they used part of their team budget to provide me with an MSDN account.  This allowed me to get access to newer operating systems (this was pre-Windows 7) and applications, in order to answer questions like, "...what if you do that with the newer OS/application?"  However, he moved on from his role and there was no more interest from Microsoft, and the subscription lapsed.

Maybe the biggest misconception I had when I started, and held even during the early days of my publishing "career", was that somehow the publishing company was going to the marketing driver for the book(s), and that they'd be wildly successful because of that.  I thought that somehow, maybe at some point, I'd write something that would get the attention of Microsoft, and through those marketing efforts, I'd somehow "level up" and embark on a new and exciting career path.  Again, that was a pretty big misconception on my part.

Okay, now for a marketing "war story".  Keep in mind, I'm not a marketing person, but at one point, I was due to speak at a fairly big conference ("big", as in within the DFIR community), and I noticed that there was a total of about half a dozen folks attending that same conference who all had published titles under the publisher's imprint.  And those titles included the word, "forensics", as did the title of the conference.  I reached to the publisher and asked if there were plans to sell books at the conference.  After all, this is what one would call a "target-rich environment".  Set up a table, have books available, and have the authors come sign books after their speaking event.  While the publishing company did have a relationship with the conference vendor, it turned out that there were no plans to do anything with respect to that conference.  After a back-and-forth, and an incredulous email or two from me, the publisher decided to their credit that while they were on a family vacation in the city, they would bring a couple of boxes of books and set up a table.  All of the authors in attendance rallied, and stopped by the table at various times to sign books that had just been purchased...pick up the book from the table, pay for it, shuffle a few steps to the right and get it signed by the author, who was just speaking on the podium a few minutes ago.  By the time the event was complete, the publisher had only a few books left.

I never understood why this had not been part of the plan.  When I had asked about the marketing plan for previous books, I was told at one point that the publisher had a list of 101 "big names in the industry", to whom they would send books and hope for a review.  I got the list and noted that most of the names on the list had no interest in host-based, nor Windows, digital forensic analysis.

The publisher does not ask me about attending conferences for book signings.  Sounds cool, I know, but it's not something that was done.  Would it make sense for the publisher's marketing department to contact authors about conferences focused on the community (digital forensics, IR, threat response/intel, etc.), maybe help get them a speaking slot, and then have those speakers spend time at the publisher's table signing books?  Yes, it would...but perhaps due to very limited marketing budgets, it doesn't happen as much as you'd think.  Again, a big misconception on my part.

In my experience, all of the marketing for published books needs to be done by the author, through whatever social media networks they have.  The other step I've taken to promote the books is, over time, I've developed a position where I've been able to negotiate some changes to the default contract; one of them has been the number of complimentary copies of books I receive.  When I get them, I then send signed copies to those folks in the industry who've had the greatest impact on the book being published, and others I give away.

Follow-on Editions
Another misconception of mine, based on the language in the contracts I signed, was that the publisher might "find value" in a book and come to me about writing a follow-on edition to a book.  It turns out that this was never the case.  WFA 2/e?  That was something I pushed, as it was with editions 3 and 4.  The same was true with WRF 2/e.  None of the follow-on editions were the result of the publisher coming to me and suggesting/requesting the new edition, due to the success of the previous edition or requests they'd received that a follow-on was needed/due, etc. 

Similarly, the creation of follow-on editions hasn't been something that's been requested or pushed by the community.  For the most part, if an edition needs to be updated, if anyone contacts me about it, that's all they say.  "It's out of date", or "it needs to be updated".  When I ask for specifics, along the lines of "where would you like it to go?" or "what topics would you like to see addressed?", that's where the exchange comes to a grinding halt.

Another aspect of the follow-on editions that likely led to a drop in sales was a move to standardized cover art.  As a concept, this was a good idea, but the execution led to considerable confusion.  What happened was that most of the titles used similar cover formatting, and while the words were different, the colors were similar.  For example, only two shades of green were used, so when I took copies of the newly published Windows Registry Forensics to a conference as give-aways, one of the recipients told me that he already had the book.  As it turned out, he had Windows Forensic Analysis, but the cover art and colors were so similar, he couldn't tell the difference between the two books (yes, even though the words on the book were different) without looking closely at the words.

Having copies of my books on my bookshelf, side-by-side, all with similar cover art and color looks pretty cool.  Add Brett's books right beside them and to me, it looks impressive.  However, in practice, it made the books difficult to distinguish and likely lead to missed sales, as casual observers saw the design and color, decided that they already had a copy, and moved on.

After I had completed IWS and it had been "on the streets" for about a month or so, I received a survey from the publisher.  The questions were centered around requesting feedback regarding my experience with the production of the book.  Well, I'll tell you that my responses and comments were not what one would call "glowing", and at the end of the survey, I checked the box, "yes, I would be willing to discuss my responses...".  I never heard back.  This was my ninth published book, albeit the first under this particular publisher (this one had purchased my previous publisher).  I assumed (incorrectly, again, it seems) that my considered comments would have some level of credibility, and that sending me the survey was something more than simply pro forma and rote.

Guess what?  Writing DFIR books does not get you to a point where you can retire as soon as your first book is published.  Or even your second or third.  Lots of folks in the community assume that because they enjoyed the book or because they have the book, everyone has it and the author is living in a mansion between Dean Koontz and Stephen King.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

While I'm happy that several of my books have been translated into foreign languages (looks good on my bookshelf), the fact of the matter is that in one case, I made $20 on the deal.  Before taxes.  Publishers sell the right to translate the book for a set fee, and the author gets a royalty on that fee, not on each of the books actually sold in that language.  No, this wasn't a shock to me, as I'd read the contract.  Honestly, I hadn't expected any of the books to be translated into another language.  I'm simply sharing this to clear up a misconception.

After all of this, I had to ask myself, why am I signing over my intellectual property to someone who's not really interested in it, has no interest in supporting the continued development of it, and at the end of the day just made it harder than it needed to be to get a book published.

I've tried three times over the years to get the publishing company I was working with to move in a direction that made the process for authors in the DFIR community a lot smoother to get a book published, from cradle to grave.  The plan I laid out cost the publisher nothing to implement, and the first time I brought it up there were a lot of misconceptions; it seemed that the publisher could not fathom the idea, and filled in what they saw as "gaps" with assumptions.  By the time I got the editor on my side and championing the idea, she left the company and I had to start all over again.  I realize that you can't change a 500 year old business model overnight, and I wasn't trying to, but it became clear that the publisher did not want to move in the direction of increasing the number and quality of DFIR books they were publishing, so why bother?

My thought was that I could act as a liaison for new authors, to help them understand the process and set expectations, and help them overcome some of the hurdles they would encounter.  In short, to help new authors get published and ultimately have a wider range of material and topics covered and available.

The Community
There's another side to this that isn't talked about, and it's the misconception(s) held by the vast majority of the "community".   Most of the folks I've engaged with over the years seem to have the belief that if someone gets a book published that they're somehow "famous", an "expert", and far "too busy" to be bothered with a call or an email.  That "busy", in their minds, seems to translate into "rolling in work".  "Busy" is a badge of honor that many seek out, but I've been working pretty hard over the past year to abolish my own use of the word, even in casual conversation.  This is due to the fact that even if I'm working hard on something...a report, creating the smallest weaponized LNK file possible, whatever...sometimes taking a break to either address a request or tell them I'll reply later is a good distraction.

The honest truth is that I'm somehow "famous" or a "rock star" simply not the case.  I still have to apply for jobs, just like everyone else.  I still have to submit to CfPs to speak at conferences, just like everyone else.  I do not get calls or requests to perform actual analysis work, and at one point (right after my third book was published), I was literally turned down for a job simply because I had published books.  That's right; I was told, "...we can't afford you...", even though we had not gotten to the part of the interview process where we were discussing compensation, and HR hadn't even asked me about my current salary.

Several years ago, I was contacted by an attorney via LinkedIn, and asked to do some work, which I did pro bono.  I wasn't the first, nor only person contacted, but I was likely the first one to respond.  It was a fascinating case (because it was real world) and the result was that based on my report, the judge decided to drop the case.  The fact is that the person who reached to me had no idea who I was, and had simply taken a chance on contacting me based on my social media profile.

My point is simply that I've been told many, many times that someone did not reach out to me because they thought I was "too busy".  This is true no matter how many times I've dispelled that myth.  In some cases, I've turned a request for a new RegRipper plugin (or an update to an older one) around in an hour, and returned something a bit more polished in four hours.  I've answered questions, responded to emails, and been on phone calls...when asked.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

LNK Files

Update, 28 Feb: Just a quick note...this post is not about tools.  I do not mention any tools in the post, and the content isn't about one tool being better than another. I do mention using a hex editor, but that is simply to verify finds from whichever tool is used.  In the first example below, every parsing tool available would've returned the exact same time stamps, and I would have (and recommended) used a hex editor to confirm the finding. At the time I'm writing this update, this post has been viewed 1258 times, and not one question about tools has been posted as a comment. This post is about LNK file metadata, what it means, and how it can be used in analysis. Thanks.

I know, I know...yet another blog post on LNK files...yeah.  I get it.  But some new things popped up recently that I wanted to take advantage of, and they ended up here.

I had an opportunity to look at several LNK files recently, and I wanted to dig a bit deeper into their metadata.  Most available write-ups make mention of the LNK file, but tend to gloss over the file and move right to the embedded command and the next stage download.  I wanted to take a closer look at what's in the LNK file, because after all, this is something created within the adversary's environment that they're sending out.  In a lot of ways, it's like free money, so why not make the best use of what you have available, and squeeze every little bit out of the data that you have?  Maybe it's just me, but when the adversary gives you something, it's hardly a "little bit".

Consider this: several years ago, the folks at JPCERT/CC said that LNK files give us a view into the attacker's development environment; this was, and still is, a great idea, so let's see if we can not only replicate what they did (with respect to metadata extraction) but also see if we can't squeeze just a bit more out of the files, and see  what we can learn about the adversary's development environment, and maybe even see what we can learn about the tools they use to create the LNK files.

I ran across two write-ups on LNK files recently; perhaps it would be more correct to say two write-ups on the same (or very similar) LNK file.  I found this write-up at D3xt3r's Malware Lab (blog includes a hash), and this write-up on Max's blog (blog includes a link to download the sample).  While D3xt3r's write-up is dated 16 Feb 2019, Max's doesn't have a date as part of the published material, but it does appear to have been published in Feb 2019, as well.  This is to say that they're both fairly recent posts, and as such, the LNK file itself may be fairly recent, as well.

Anyway, I wanted to take a look at a few things associated with the LNK file metadata that weren't discussed in either blog post, specifically what we could learn by going really deep in parsing the files.  One of the first things that I looked at was the shell item ID list, shown below:

shitemidlist       My Computer/C:\/Windows/system32/cmd.exe
**Shell Items Details (times in UTC)**
  C:0                   M:0                   A:0                  Windows (8)
  C:0                   M:0                   A:0                  system32 (8)
  C:0                   M:0                   A:0                  cmd.exe (8)

As we can see from the above output, I parsed the shell item ID list, but the time stamps embedded within the individual shell items (the creation, modification, and last accessed times of the resources) appear to all be zeros.  Using a hex editor, I verified this quite easily, and in fact, the bytes at the locations for the time stamps within each of the shell items are all zeros.  Interestingly enough, the LNK file mentioned here also has the shell item time stamps zero'd out, so this is likely not a unique finding.  However, it's unclear whether this is the result of the tool used to create the LNK file, or of anti-forensic/obfuscation efforts taken after the LNK file was created.

We also see that the version information for the shell items is "8", indicating that the platform is Windows 2008, 7, or 8 (per section 6.5 here).  This gives us some additional (beyond what the JPCERT/CC folks discussed) insight into the development environment used by the adversary.

Now, let's take a look at the contents of the PropertyStoreDataBlock, shown below:

GUID/ID pairs:
         SID: S-1-5-21-1243223150-2135741377-3118647425-500

As we can see,there are two GUID/ID pairs, the first of which points to a Unicode string that is a SID.  This is fairly common, in that we not only see the GUID/ID pair populated with a SID in a good number of LNK files, but we can use native tools (PowerShell, etc.) on Windows systems to create LNK files that contain this property set.  In this instance, the RID points to the default Administrator account for the system.  For the second property, the GUID indicates that it's a Summary Information Property Set, and the ID indicates that it's a comment.  Looking at the contents of the property set itself (via a hex editor), there don't appear to be any visible strings.

Interestingly, the LNK file does not appear to have a TrackerDataBlock, and as such, there is no machine ID (system NetBIOS name) embedded in the LNK file.  Again, this is pretty easy to verify via a hex editor.

What we have so far is a pretty interesting view into the manufacture of this LNK file.  There are some 'normal' elements of the file structure that exist, and there are other elements that we expect to see, but have been removed.  This is only one file, so without more insight, anything regarding the "why" is simply speculation and assumption.  What we do know at the moment is that steps were taken, either during the manufacturing process or afterward, to remove elements of the file structure, and the removal of those elements did not impact the function of the LNK file itself.

Finally, the D3xt3r post also includes a link (no pun intended) to this TrendMicro post from 2017.  The TM post indicates that, at the time, the use of LNK files to download malware was a "rising trend".

I also ran across this write-up from Carbon Black, dated 11 Feb 2019. The LNK file discussed in the Cb blog post contains some interesting metadata.  For example, this file happens to contain a description field, as shown below:

description        AVI

I can't say that I've often seen a description field within an LNK file that's been populated.  However, I should note that the LNK file from the 2018 campaign described here did have a description field of "ds7002.pdf"; the LNK file from the 2016 campaign did not.

In addition, we can see from the shell item ID list (below) that the shell items contain time stamps, and that the version numbers embedded within the shell items indicate that the system is a Windows 8.1 or 10 system.

shitemidlist       My Computer/C:\/Windows/System32/WindowsPowerShell/v1.0/powershell.exe
**Shell Items Details (times in UTC)**
  C:2018-04-11 21:04:34  M:2018-11-16 21:29:56  A:2018-11-16 21:29:56 Windows (9)
  C:2018-04-11 21:04:34  M:2018-11-21 17:32:02  A:2018-11-21 17:32:02 System32 (9)
  C:2018-04-11 23:38:22  M:2018-04-11 23:38:22  A:2018-06-28 23:05:46 WindowsPowerShell (9)
  C:2018-04-11 23:38:22  M:2018-06-28 23:04:20  A:2018-06-28 23:04:20 v1.0 (9)
  C:2018-04-11 23:35:28  M:2018-04-11 23:35:28  A:2018-04-11 23:35:28 powershell.exe (9)

Looking at the PropertyStoreDataBlock (below), we see a SID, as well as another property.

GUID/ID pairs:
    SID: S-1-5-21-1607665944-3235443811-1991609163-1001

Looking at the SID, we see that in this case, the RID is "1001", indicating a user account was used to create the LNK file (as opposed to the built-in administrator account, with a RID of 500).  In fact, we know from the RID that this was the second user account created on the system.

Looking up the other GUID, it appears to be a System.VolumeID property; I'm still looking for information on how to parse this property field.

Finally, we have the TrackerDataBlock (below):

Machine ID                     : x10-slim
New Droid ID Time         : Sun Jul 29 22:57:38 2018 UTC
New Droid ID Seq Num  : 5969
New Droid    Node ID     : e8:9e:b4:3a:a3:ea
Birth Droid ID Time         : Sun Jul 29 22:57:38 2018 UTC
Birth Droid ID Seq Num  : 5969
Birth Droid Node ID        : e8:9e:b4:3a:a3:ea

As we can see from the TrackerDataBlock, the NetBIOS name of the system on which the LNK file was created is "x10-slim". Looking up the MAC address OUI (i.e., e8:9e:b4) indicates that it belongs to "Hon Hai Precision Ind. Co.,Ltd.", which was also mentioned in the JPCERT/CC article. Through the course of discussions of "toolmarks", one of the topics that came up was that a common virtual machine may be used by actors; the fact that a VM is used is supported by the OUI lookup, but something that hasn't been addressed is how common this may be.

I also ran across a Proofpoint blog post from August 2017 that was very interesting, and not just because of the use of Game of Thrones as the lure.  In this particular case, the LNK file was embedded within the .docx lure file

First, let's take a look at the shell item ID list (below):

shitemidlist       My Computer/C:\/WINDOWS/system32/WindowsPowerShell/v1.0/powershell.exe
**Shell Items Details (times in UTC)**
  C:2006-05-22 17:08:04  M:2007-12-06 05:29:12  A:2007-12-06 05:29:12 WINDOWS (3)
  C:2006-05-22 17:08:04  M:2007-12-04 00:44:06  A:2007-12-04 00:44:06 system32 (3)
  C:2007-09-21 00:56:32  M:2007-09-21 00:56:32  A:2007-09-21 00:56:32 WindowsPowerShell (3)
  C:2007-09-21 00:56:32  M:2007-12-03 06:20:46  A:2007-12-03 06:20:46 v1.0 (3)
  C:2009-07-13 23:49:08  M:2009-07-14 01:39:22  A:2009-07-13 23:49:08 powershell.exe (8)

In this case, the version of "3" from the shell items indicates a Windows XP or 2003 system.  And yes, I did catch (and verify) that the version info for the final shell item ("powershell.exe") is indeed "8".  This seems to indicate that the LNK file was created on an older platform.

Skipping past the encoded Powershell command, we see a couple of times of interest.  First, the PropertyStoreDataBlock (below):

GUID/ID pairs:
   SID: S-1-5-21-3345294922-2424827061-887656146-1000

Okay, this LNK file has 5 items in this data block, which is unusual in itself.  We see the SID, which as with the LNK file from the Carbon Black post, is for a user account.  We also see a number of other GUID/ID pairs, as well, and I think that this may be the result of the EnableTargetMetadata flag having been set in the LNK file.  I say this because if you read the description of the flag (here), it says:

The shell link attempts to collect target properties and store them in the PropertyStoreDataBlock (section 2.5.7) when the link target is set.

I'm not 100% clear on what this means, but it seems to say that target properties are stored when the target of the LNK file is "set".  I guess maybe another question to consider is, was the flag specifically set, and if so, what tool or application was used to create the LNK file?

Moving on, we see that this particular LNK file has a code page value identified in the metadata, as shown below:

Code page: 936

The code page is identified as "simplified Chinese", which makes sense because the campaign was thought to have a Chinese nexus.  However, what I have to wonder is how many times a code page is seen within LNK files.  For example, neither of the LNK files discussed here appeared to contain code pages.  I rarely see write-ups that mention LNK files that also mention a code page entry.

Is it possible that this field was modified as a "false flag" or "red herring"?  Sure.  When looking at any single metadata field with a file structure in isolation, the possibility exists that it was modified.  We've seen evidence, just in this blog post, of either a manufacturing process that creates the files in the state that we see them, or an "after market" process that removes the missing elements from the file structure.  But what we're not seeing is the exploration of these findings in the context of the larger campaign.  Are the actors creating other "false flags"?  If so, how pervasive are they?  Are the LNK file elements linked to other campaigns, possibly even ones associated with different actors?

Finally, the TrackerDataBlock contains a machine ID of "john-win764".  Used in conjunction with the SID and volume serial number (in this case, "CC9C-E694"), a VirusTotal retro-hunt might turn up other examples of similar LNK files.

Final Thoughts
Some thoughts come to mind as a result of looking at these files.  First off, there's a good bit of metadata that can be used to do research on campaigns, particularly through individual archives, as well as VirusTotal (re: retro-hunt).

I know some folks have said, "...yeah, but it's easy to change those fields...".  Sure, I agree to an extent, but there would be a 'cost' associated with that.  The Proofpoint team addressed this in their post.  However, what I'm referring to is parsing files already collected, ones that have been archived by teams following the campaigns and collecting data, or are available from other archival sources (VirusTotal, etc.).  If those files are tied to specific campaigns, or attributed to specific actors, then you may have something there.  Not only can you see if and how the files have changed over time (like the FireEye folks did), but what if LNK files with similar metadata appear across different campaigns, and are used by different actors?  What does that tell us?

Further, what this sort of analysis shows is that there's a lot going on underneath the MITRE ATT&CK technique, specifically, "Initial Access, Spearphishing Attachment".  In fact, quite a few sub-techniques and even specific technical details seem to pop right out.  Just look at what we've seen so far; some LNK files are sent as attachments themselves, but in other cases, the LNK files are embedded in a lure document.  Embedded commands differ (WMIC, Powershell, etc.), as does the level of obfuscation and encoding. Some LNK files contain embedded commands with some serious obfuscation, while some contain no obfuscation whatsoever.  We could create an entire matrix just for weaponized attachments.

The JPCERT/CC article described some work done in clustering LNK files based on some of the available metadata around different attacks, which was very interesting.

Additional Resources
FireEye blog post, re: FIN7 - mentions LNK "toolmarks"
PodCast with Nick Carr, discussing "toolmarks"
2018 NCSC Advisory - discusses not only the use of iconfilename fields in LNK files to maintain persistence across password changes, but also includes a very basic Yara rule for detecting the 'weaponized' LNK file (I should note that none of the metadata was shared)

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Tribe of Hacker Responses

When I shared my review of Marcus and Jennifer's Tribe of Hackers, I suggested to the reader that there was value in responding the questions themselves.  In this post, I'm sharing my first swag at my own responses to Marcus's questions.

1. If there is one myth that you could debunk in cybersecurity, what would it be?
That it's all about technology.  There is much more to "cyber" than technology, largely because technology is designed, purchased, employed, deployed, used, and abused by people.  When it comes to software products, it's people who use them.  When you're threat hunting, it's one person or team against another.  Policies are created, enforced, and abused by people.

There was an engagement that I was working with several other team members, and we'd identified a number of systems from which we required images for analysis.  All of these systems were in the data center, and none of them were "easy".  Needless to say, none of us wanted to stay in the data center for the time it was going to take to acquire the images, so we set our processes up, and then covered EVERYTHING in tape and signage.  In some ways it was as necessary as it was ridiculous.  We did this because we knew that the technology and process were sound, but that someone would likely come in and remove everything.

If you have kids, particularly ones that are grown now, you'll know one aspect of what I'm referring to.  Kids can be like a hive mind; they're all texting and on social media, and when one of the finds something interesting or new in the technology they use, within seconds, they all know it.  It doesn't matter if it's some undocumented feature in the new phone someone got, or something that allows parents to monitor the kid's activities through the latest social media app; as soon as one knows, they all know.  If this doesn't illustrate that people are the key, I don't know what does.

2. What is one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck actions that an organization can take to improve their cybersecurity posture?
C- and E-suite executives, particularly the CEO, must take the cybersecurity posture of the organization seriously, and make it a priority.  And I mean, really make it a priority, not say that it is and then go back to what they were doing..  You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.

If the CEO says that security is important, those within the company will know based on her actions, not her words.  If they see her tailgating into the office after issuing a "no tailgating" policy, even once, the policy is no longer effective.

You can hire all the "smart people" you want to help you with your security posture...a lot of organizations say that they do exactly that.  "We hire smart people, and they tell us what do do."  Sure, okay...but do you listen?  I know a lot of smart people who have left organizations out of frustration because they said what needed to be done ("...we need to implement multi-factor authentication on our remotely accessible resources..."), but it hasn't been done, even after events have occurred that illustrated the need.

Wrestlers and snakes know, where the head goes, the body follows.  So, make cybersecurity a business process.  Businesses have all kinds of processes, from payroll, to vendor and partner vetting, to fulfillment and customer service.  Making cybersecurity a business process makes it part of the business, not the clumsy, drunk uncle that shows up on the holidays.

3. How is it that cybersecurity spending is increasing but breaches are still happening?
Spending does not equate to security.  Years ago, I responded to a customer who'd purchased three copies of ISS's RealSecure IDS product.  You're thinking, "wow, that's oddly specific...", but the fact was that one copy, still in the shrinkwrap, was being used to prop open the door to the SOC. People get hired into fancy new positions with big salaries, and are completely ineffective against embedded corporate culture.

4. Do you need a college degree or certification to be a cybersecurity professional?

I say this with the understanding that when you write your resume, as with anything else, you have to keep your audience in mind.  After all, being a "professional" implies that you're paid by someone, and in order to be paid by someone, you need to get a job.  Part of that is having a degree.  From my perspective as someone who has been a "gatekeeper" once or twice, when someone is looking to fill one position from 50 candidates, there has to be some way to trim the field, and a degree, any degree, is one way to do that.

Do you need a degree to be good at what you do?  No, not at all.  I've worked with some really exceptional practitioners who are really, really good, and I've worked with people with advanced degrees that have left me shaking my head in wonder.

5. How did you get started in the cybersecurity field, and what advice would you give to a beginner pursuing a career in cybersecurity?
I got started in "cybersecurity" back in '95, while I was in graduate school.  I asked a question that someone refused to answer.  It wasn't that they couldn't answer the question; they looked at me, smiled, and walked away.  Had their answer been different, I might not be where I am today.

My advice...engage.  The "cybersecurity" field has grown to be so large as to be overwhelming. Engage with a mentor to help you narrow things down, specifically to help you determine what you want to do in this field.

One reason why I recommend engaging is that my career in cybersecurity started long before I was in cybersecurity, going back to times when I learned or did things that laid the foundation for what I do now, but even today, are not really discussed.  For example, I took public speaking in college (circa '86).  Throughout my military training, there were multiple times when I was given a limited amount of time to prepare a short "speech"; that is, learn to speak coherently on the fly, in public.  I was evaluated multiple times during training, had to use it in my job, and then when I went back to the training environment, I had to evaluate others on their ability to do the same.

There was also a great deal that I did with respect to planning, and then executing that plan.  I found that this helped me a great deal when planning and executing assessment exercises, incident response engagements, etc.

What I'm saying is that, as is the case with others who "grew up" in cybersecurity before there really was such a thing, there was a great deal that I brought with me when I moved into a field that was very much in its infancy.  A lot of these things are not included in the courses or programs of instruction today, but are indispensable nonetheless.  The only way folks today are going to "catch up" is to actively engage with those who have been in the field for some time.

6. What is your specialty in cybersecurity? How can others gain expertise in your specialty?
Early on, I was doing assessment work, including war dialing. Not too long afterward, I moved into digital forensics and incident response work, and I've been doing that for quite some time.  Over a decade ago, that work started including targeted attacks, by both ecrime and nation-state actors.

I'm probably most known for the DFIR side, particularly as it applies to Windows systems.  I've also spent some time looking at data structures within files found on Windows systems, with an eye toward using metadata to extend analysis, as well as to inform and extend the threat intelligence picture.

The field has grown significantly since I started, and has gotten to the point where it is almost impossible to keep up.  My recommendation to anyone is to pick someplace to start...just pick one.  Look at it the way you "eat an elephant", so to speak...you do so one bite at a time.  Are you interested in malware analysis?  Start small.  Focus on something to get started...say, the PE file structure.  Learn what it is, and what it should "look like".  Build from there.  Or, you may find out that that aspect of cybersecurity is not for you.

Regardless, the point is to not get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all; break it down into smaller chunks and start by taking that first step.  Then take another.  Then another.

7. What is your advice for career success when it comes to getting hired, climbing the corporate ladder, or starting a company in cybersecurity?
Engage.  Get to know people, both in the field, as well as in other fields and disciplines.

Getting to know others in the field is going to have a profound impact on you.  First, it's going to help you with whatever level or degree of "imposter syndrome" with which you may have inflicted yourself.  Second, it's going to show that a lot of your assumptions about others are, again, self-inflicted, and wild misconceptions.

Above all, actively engage.  Clicking "like" and posting pictures of your food, your pet, or your workout is not actively engaging.  It's great to have hobbies and interests outside of cybersecurity, and it's something I highly recommend; however, in the age of "social" media, I think we've really lost track of what it means to actively engage.

8. What qualities do you believe all highly successful cybersecurity professionals share?
A sense of humor, and a focus on the goals that really matter.

Also, highly successful cybersecurity professionals understand the value in documenting things.  Truly successful professionals don't hoard information or experiences, and don't hide behind the "I don't remember" excuse.  There is too much that we don't know in this field to not be sharing what we do know, and one of the biggest qualities I see that truly successful professionals in this field share is sharing. 

9. What is the best book or movie that can be used to illustrate cybersecurity challenges?
There are two books that come to mind; "Once an Eagle" by Anton Myrer, and "Leadership in the Shadows" by Kyle Lamb.  Both are books that address leadership, but from a perspective that may be somewhat different than what you're used to.

Myrer's book is a fictional account of two officers, one who rises through the ranks by his own hard work and dedication, and the other who is "born" to it.  In a lot of ways, I see a parallel between these two officers, and what we see in business today.

Lamb's book is much more practical, but no less impactful or important.  Lamb addresses and discusses leadership from the perspective of a career working in special operations, providing lessons learned the hard way.  Leaders in the business world would see their effectiveness explode if they started following just some of what he describes in the book.

I know, I know, I've heard the same thing throughout my career in the private sector; "...that's the military, it won't work here."  The simple fact is that it will not only work, following (and living) military style leadership principles will have a profound effect not only on those around you, but the business, as well.

10. What is your favorite hacker movie?
"Hackers", hands down.  I not only enjoyed it (after all, it was a movie), but there are some very quotable lines in the movie, and when I'm giving a presentation I tend to share quotes from pop culture that, to me, are funny in the moment.  Movies from the '80s, '90s ("Hackers" is circa '94), and the later 2000s ("Deadpool") are fodder for many presentations.

11. What are your favorite books for motivation, personal development, or enjoyment?
I've always been a fan of first person perspectives of historical events, specifically first person accounts shared by military special operations personnel.  It doesn't matter if the event is VietNam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the myriad smaller, undisclosed events, I find the "boots on the ground" perspective absolutely fascinating.  Having served in the military, and then working in DFIR, it's interesting that in both cases, there is the "historical write-up" of an event from a macro-perspective, but there is also the perspective of the individual working in the trenches.  It's that worm's-eye view that is often missed.

For enjoyment, I've always leaned towards science fiction.  William Gibson and Orson Scott Card are two of my favorites.  One of William Gibson's books talked about "locative art", or digital renderings that existed in a place, dependent upon your location and which direction you were looking.  Interestingly enough, we're starting to see some of that in VR realms. Card's series of books that started with "Ender's Game" have provided me with some great reading on plane flights.

12. What is some practical cybersecurity advice you give to people at home in the age of social media and the Internet of Things?

Simply put, if you don't want your drama on social media, don't put it there.

With respect to IoT, there's no reason why everything needs to be connected to the Internet.  Baby monitors do not need to be accessible to anyone and everyone. The simple fact is, when something is made "easier", it's made easier for everyone.  If you can search for accessible security cameras online with a simple query, why would a baby monitor or your refrigerator be any different?  When technology is developed and made widely accessible, the unspoken guarantee is that there is no security, and you don't need to be an "expert" to understand that fact, nor to abuse it.

Vehicles have all sorts of new "safety" features built in, not to protect the driver, but to offset and overcome all of the other distractions we've put in front of the driver.

13. What is a life hack that you’d like to share?
Don't listen to that inner dialog that prevents you from doing something.  A while back, I was going through a very dark time in my life, and was overwhelmed with the tasks I had before me.  To make things a bit worse, there were people actively working against me.  Let me be clear, this was not a perception based on the negativity that I'd wrapped myself in; these people were actively saying and doing things to make my life difficult.

However, in one moment of clarity, I had an epiphany.  I realized that if I broke the mountain in front of me down into management, compartmentalized components, I ended up saying to myself, "wait a minute...hundreds of people do each of these things every day, and do them successfully".  Why can't I?

That moment changed everything for me.

14. What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, and how did you recover from it?
Biggest?  Wow, where to begin?  I've made so many mistakes over my career that it's hard to pick just one. I've misplaced dongles.  I've said the wrong thing or reacted the wrong way in front of a customer.  I've had a small error in a script snowball into a much bigger mistake in my findings.

You can recover from mistakes, and if what we see in the news media on a regular basis is any indication, there is only one way to do so.  Own up.  Accept responsibility, and learn from the mistake.

One thing that I try very hard to do is recognize when I've made a mistake early on, own it, and most importantly, inform my boss as soon as possible.  Did you get a call from a customer, get on a late fly and fly all night (at considerable expense) and then miss the meeting because you overslept?  Bite the bullet, and tell your manager first.  Don't make excuses.  Yes, your manager will be upset, but not nearly as upset as they would be if they were hearing about the issue from the customer.

Mistakes are like breaches; you have to accept that they're going to happen. It's what you do about them that matters.  Own up, and learn from your mistakes.  Also, take every opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others, not just by passively following someone, but by actively engaging with them.  I guarantee you that if you get the opportunity to sit down with someone and engage over a beer, at some point, you'll find out what mistakes they learned from.

Note that others have taken up this mantle, as well.  For example, Mark Kelly shared his responses on LinkedIn.

Friday, February 22, 2019


If you follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn, you will very likely have seen me mention "aperture" more than a few times.  My use of the term has been in reference to digital analysis work (DFIR), as well as to the production and use of threat intelligence, particularly pursuant to, or with respect to, DFIR work.

What is "aperture"?  What am I referring to when I say, "aperture"? A definition I found online states that an aperture is "a space through which light passes in an optical or photographic instrument". In the context that I'm using the term, the "space" is a lens shaped and polished by our own individual experiences, and the "light" is the data that we have available.  How we interpret an event is based on what we know about the event (the data), applied to and filtered through the lens our own experiences.

To illustrate "aperture" by example, most of my background has been in DFIR work.  As a consultant, I was usually deployed after (sometimes quite a while after...) a breach had occurred, and I usually had host-based data with which to work.  The data that I did have available was heavily dependent upon a number of factors, including (but not limited to) the version of the OS, how long it had been since the actual breach had occurred, actions admins had taken, etc.  All of this is to say that for the most part, I did not have access to time stamped process creation data, nor to real-time telemetry of any kind.  I may have had artifacts of files that existed on the system at one time, or artifacts left behind by an application being executed, but what I did not have was the full, complete sequence of commands run by the bad actor.  I may have had access to historical data of some kind (i.e., Registry data, VSCs, etc.), but for the most part, my aperture was limited to what was available in the image.

As my career evolved into targeted threat hunting and response, my aperture widened a bit.  Sometimes, a response engagement was based on something detected through monitoring (process creation events, etc.) of the customer's network.  As such, we would have access to quite a bit of information about the malicious actor's activities, via endpoint telemetry collected through monitoring.  Other times, my response started by deploying an endpoint solution, which means that the only historical data available prior to the customer's call was logs and whatever was still available on the endpoints.

However, in other instances, the monitoring infrastructure was not created or enabled until after the customer called us.  Following the call, the monitoring infrastructure would be deployed, and the aperture was still limited; however, by deploying a sensor or agent, we were able to widen that aperture a bit.

Another example of aperture can be seen in the annual trend reports that we see published by security companies.  Not long ago, a friend of mine was at a company where about 90% of the work they did was PFI work; they did a lot of payment card industry (PCI) breach investigations.  In this example, the data that they had available was predominantly based on the PCI cases, interpreted through the analysis and experiences of the individual analysts.

We all have our own aperture; OSINT/Intel, EDR monitoring (via a SOC or MSS function), and DFIR all have their own aperture, based on the nature of the specific business model followed by each function, and their customer base.

Consider this example...OSINT tells us that a particular threat actor or group is targeting a specific vertical.  DFIR response to an engagement may show evidence that certain documents or information was collected, archived, and exfil'd.  However, very often, actors will encrypt the archives with a password, so while we may be able to determine the exfil mechanism (place the files on a web server, download them with a normal "GET" request, then delete them...), we may not be able to open the files to see exactly what was taken.  Having an EDR solution in place will show us a great deal about what the actor did, where they went within the infrastructure, what they took, and the password they used to encrypt the archives.

So what?  Why, or how, is aperture important?

For one, we have to acknowledge that we may not have a complete view of the incident or intrusion.  For example, if you're developing a "profile" of a threat group based on OSINT, which may include public reporting produced by others, you're going to have a much different view than that intrusion being actively monitored through the use of EDR technology.  The same is true for an after-the-fact DFIR engagement, particular one that did not benefit from the use of EDR technology (actor is long gone...).

Aperture is also important to keep in mind when we're viewing available information, such as blog posts, reports, etc.  Some are very clear on the aperture; "..we saw this once, on one customer's infrastructure..."; here's a great example from Carbon Black.  With the annual reports that company's publish, we have to keep aperture in mind, as well.  For example, a number of years ago, a friend of mind worked at a company where a majority of the work they did was PFI response investigations; keeping that in mind, what they shared in their annual report was cast in a different light.  In that sense, the report clearly didn't cover even a small minority of the available connected systems, and those engagements that were discussed were, for the most part, somewhat specific.

As we engage and develop our understanding, this is something to keep in mind. 

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Review: Tribe of Hackers

I'm not a hacker.  Yes, I'm intensely curious about technology, and in particular, computing.  However, I don't consider myself a "hacker", in the sense that the term began to be used in the mid- to late-'90s.  That is, the term was co-opted by marketing teams and became somewhat equivalent to "pen tester", and even began to be distinguished by prepending it with "ethical".  No, I've been on the defense/investigation side of the infosec community for most of my career. But I still downloaed a copy of Marcus and Jennifer's book, Tribe of Hackersthe other day and so far it's been an enjoyable and extremely insightful read. 

First, let me say that I like the idea that Marcus found something that impacted him while reading another book (Tribe of Mentors) and wanted to replicate that himself.  I did something similar in my book, Windows Forensics and Incident Recovery; in chapter 6, I tried to replicate the methodology for developing and building a process, based on The Defense of Duffers Drift, originally written by MajGen Swinton in 1904.  This book was required reading during my initial training as an officer in the United States military, and I still remembered the approach years later when I wrote my book.  I mention this because this is something Marcus states on the first page of the introduction to the book; as such, it's one of the first things I read, and it's the first thing that really resonated with me.  So here, I feel as if I already have a connection with Marcus, in that 15 years later, his approach validates my thought process.

Before I continue, there's something I wanted to get out of the way.  Yes, I read more than the introduction (much more), and as such, I recommend that not only do you read this book, but that you also strongly consider taking the time to answer the questions posed yourself, and perhaps even take a step beyond that and share your responses.  You can do this through a blog post, or take it one question at a time on LinkedIn, or simply use whichever medium with which you're comfortable.  I'm positive that not only will you find something in this book that resonates with you, someone with whom you connect, but if you share your responses to the questions posed in the book, you'll connect with someone else, as well.

Next, I found the book well-formatted and well-structured.  Yes, the approach is one of structured repetition, but in some ways, I think that's a good thing.  It gives a format to the approach, rather than just a free-form flow of disparate ideas.  I've seen what happens in the community, particularly at security conferences, when there's no structure and "famous" people are given a time slot and an open mic.  Hint: it doesn't go well.  The format used in the book lets the reader do something of an "apples-to-apples" comparison between respondents, as they each answer the same questions, albeit in their own way.

The book does not contain technical content, per se.  It's content is the views, opinions, experiences, reflections, and back-stories of those who responded.  If you're somewhat experienced in the information security field (say, 5 years, or more), you'll find a good bit of validation in what you've been thinking in this book. If you're new to the field, I really think that this will open a door for you.  The first thing most people will really see when they flip through this book is the pictures.  The idea of adding pictures of the respondents humanizes their words; pretty much anyone who picks up this book is going to see someone who looks like them.  This then gets them to take a step further and read the words; given the breadth of respondents, you're more than likely going to find someone in the book with whom you share a common background.

I don't recognize most of the 70 names in the table of contents; of those I do recognize, I've never met them in person, face-to-face.  We may have seen each other at a conference, in passing, but beyond that, I do not profess to "know" any of those who shared their background and insight.  But that doesn't mean that I don't find value in their words. 

This book can also presents challenges for those new to the industry; in several instances, the recommendations include "keeping up on the latest things in the industry".  In this day and age, that's almost impossible.  Looking at the backgrounds of many of the respondents, someone new to the industry, or looking to move into this sort of work, may find it intimidating.  Remember, many of the respondents have been around for a while, and they had to start somewhere.  Many, like me, started well before there was classes or courses of instruction available in any of their areas of expertise.  Some may have seen a need and moved to fill it, while others picked a direction and began the process of building knowledge in that particular area.  In short, they all started somewhere, so don't let that intimidate you.  Don't look at what they've achieved and think, "oh, I'll never be as good, as smart, or as capable as they are..."; instead, take the first step.  Don't look at where they are now as the story, consider where and how they started out and consider the journey. 

At this point, I have not read every chapter of the book; I'm still working through it.  Sometimes I'll open the PDF and read for a while, other times I'll pick out a name and just read their responses.  However, I wanted to share my thoughts on the book now, because I knew that if I forced myself to wait until I finished the book, I might never write my thoughts down. 

Interestingly enough, with all of the different backgrounds and beginnings described in the book, so far, there's one common theme I've picked up on...people.  In short, if you isolate yourself in this industry, you're obviating your ability to grow and progress, regardless of where you want to go.  However, if you actively engage and develop those "soft skills" that are referred to more than once throughout the book, that's the key to growth and progression.  This is not a purely technical profession; at some point, you're going to have to engage with someone, be they a team member, manager, or customer.  In many cases, you're going to have to harness all of your technical capabilities and communicate with someone who's not technical at all, be it through reporting, a presentation, or just talking. 

This theme continues to manifest itself, even from a technical perspective.  If you're into pen testing or web app testing, "the Googles" are only going to get you so far.  However, actively engaging with others is a force multiplier; more often than not, I know I've come away from a conversation with even just one person where we've actively engaged and come up with something much greater than we each could have on our own.  And we see this repeated time and again throughout the book.  Many (and when I finish reading all 70 chapters, I'm sure I'll be saying "all"...) of chapters include testimonies where active engagement with others has made the difference.

What does this book get me that I couldn't get someplace else?
This book provides something of an inside view into the considered thoughts of others in the industry, those who have gone before and in some cases, laid the groundwork and foundations for where we are today.  You only get so much from presentations or media sound bites; this book provides a deep dive into the minds of some who are not in the industry for the media presence or notoriety. 

Kudos to Marcus and Jennifer, and to all of those who were involved in this book.  Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into it.  Interestingly enough, I see this as just the first edition; in as short a time as two years, there could be another 70 or 100 respondents, and then at five years, another 100 more; by then, many of the respondents will be including, "...when I read the first edition..." in their words.  Great work, folks!

Monday, February 04, 2019

Data Points And Analysis

In DFIR and "threat intel" analysis, very often individual data points are dismissed out of hand, as they are thought to be easily mutable.  We see it all the time, don't we? We find a data point, and instead of just adding it to our picture of the incident, instead, we ask, "Hey, what about this...?".  Very often, we hear in response, "...hackers change that all the time...", so we drop it.

Why do we do this?  Why do we not include "easily mutable" artifacts in our analysis?

A common example of this is the PE compile time, a time stamp value added to an executable file during the compilation process.  I'm not an expert in compilers or linkers, but this time stamp value is understood throughout the DFIR community to be easily mutable; that is, it doesn't "cost" an adversary much to change this value.  Many of us have seen where the PE compile time value, when converted, indicates that file was compiled in 1980, or possibly even a date in the future.  This value is thought to be easily mutable precisely because many of us have either seen it changed, or have actually changed it ourselves.  A consequence of this is that when someone brings up, "...hey, this time stamp value says...", we may be immediately met with the value itself being dismissed out of hand.

However, there may be considerable value in including these values in our corpus of viable, relevant data points. What I mean is, just because a value is understood to be easily mutable, what if it wasn't changed?  Why are we not including these values in our analysis because they could be changed, without checking to see if they had been changed?

Consider the FireEye blog post from Nov 2018 regarding the APT29/Cozy Bear phishing campaign; table 1 of the article illustrates an "operational timeline", which is a great idea.  The fourth row in the table illustrates the time at which the LNK file is thought to have been weaponized; this is a time stamp stored in a shell item, as an MS-DOS date/time value.  The specific value is the last modification time of the "system32" folder, and if you know enough about the format of LNK files, it's not hard at all to modify this time value, so it could be considered "easily mutable".  For example, open the file in binary mode, go to the location/offset with in the file, and overwrite the 16-bit value with 0's.  Boom.  You don't even have to mess with issues of endianness, just write 0's and be done with it.

However, in this case, the FireEye folks included the value in their corpus, and found that it had significant value.

Something else you'll hear very often is, "...yeah, we see that all the time...".  Okay, great...so why dismiss it?  Sure, you see it all the time, but in what context?  When you say that you "see it all the time", does that mean you're seeing the same data points across disparate campaigns?

Let's consider Windows shortcut/LNK files again.  Let's say we retrieve the machine ID from the LNK file metadata, and we see "user-pc" again, and again, and again.  We also see the same node ID (or "MAC address") and the same volume serial number across different campaigns.  Are these campaigns all related to the same threat actor group, or different adversaries?  Either way, this would tell us something, wouldn't it?

The same can be said for other file and document metadata, including that found in phishing campaign lure documents, particularly the OLE format documents.  You see the same metadata across different campaigns?  Great.  Are the campaigns attributed to the same actors?

What about the embedded macros?  Are they obfuscated?  I've seen macros with no obfuscation at all, and I've seen macros with four or five levels of obfuscation, each level being completely different (i.e., base64 encoding, character encoding, differences in string concatenation, etc.).

All of these can be useful pieces of information to build out the threat intel picture.  Threat intel analysts need to know what's available, so that they can ask for it if it's not present, and then utilize it and track it.  DFIR analysts need to understand that there's more to answering the IR questions, and a small amount of additional work can yield significant dividends down the road, particularly when shared with analysts from other disciplines.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019


I recently tweeted that, as far as I'm aware, Nuix's Workstation/Investigator product is the only commercial product that incorporates RegRipper, or RegRipper-like functionality.

Brian responded to the tweet that both OSForensics and OpenText include the capability as well. The OSForensics page states that the guide was written using RegRipper version 2.02, from May, 2011, making it really quite old. For OpenText, the page states that the EnScript for launching RegRipper had been downloaded 4955 times, but is no longer supported.  Also, the reference to RegRipper, at the old Wordpress site, tells us that it's pretty dated.

As such, that leaves us right were we started...Nuix Workstation is the only commercial product that incorporates the use of RegRipper, or some similar functionality.  Here's the fact sheet that talks about the extension, and here's where you can get the extension itself, for free.  Finally, here's a Nuix blog post that describes not only the RegRipper extension, but the Yara extension (also free), as well.

Okay, full disclosure time...while I was employed at Nuix, I helped direct the creation of the RegRipper extension, as well as updating the Yara extension.  I didn't do the programming...that was something provided by Daniel Berry's team.  The "two Jasons" did a fantastic job of taking my guidance and turning it into reality.  Shoutz and mad props to the Juicy Dragon and his partner in crime, and their boss (Dan).

The RegRipper extension looks at each Windows evidence item, and "knows" where to go to get the Registry hives.  This includes knowing, based on the version of Windows, where the NTUSER.DAT and USRCLASS.DAT files are located. It will also get the AmCache.hve file (if it's in that version of Windows), the NTUSER.DAT hives in the Service Profiles subfolders, as well as the Default hive file within the system32\config folder.  Automatically.

And it will run the appropriate RegRipper profiles against the hives. Automatically.

And it will incorporate the output from RegRipper, based on the evidence item and file parsed, right back into the Nuix case as a separate evidence item.  Automatically.

Let's say you have multiple images of Windows systems, all different versions.  Run the RegRipper extension against the case, and then run your keyword searches.  This can be extremely critical, as there is data within the Registry that is ROT-13 encoded, as well as ASCII strings that are encoded as hexadecimal character streams that various RegRipper plugins will decode, making the data available to be included in your searches.

The Yara extension is equally as powerful.  You select the path you want scanned, whether you want descendants (yes, please!) and the rule file(s) you want included, and let it go.  All of the findings are included as tagged items directly back into your case.

Want to give it a shot?  Go here, and download the image from challenge #1, the web server case.  Add the image file as an evidence item to a Nuix case, and then run the RegRipper extension.  Then, use the Yara extension to run Yara rule files that look for web shells across the web server folder and all descendants.  In this case, the web server folder is not C:\inetpub.

RegRipper was released almost 11 yrs ago. I've been told time and time again that a lot of people "use" it.  I have no stats, nor any real insight into this, but what it means to me is that a lot of people download it, and run it "as is" without getting the full benefit from the tool.

I guess I'm really amazed that in all this time, there hasn't been a concerted effort to incorporate RegRipper, or a RegRipper-like capability, directly into a commercial tool.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Just For Fun...

OS/2Warp running in VirtualBox
When I started graduate school in June 1994, I showed up having used Win3.1 and AOL for dial-up.  While in grad school, I began using Sparc systems running SunOS (web browser was Netscape), which is what was available in the curriculum I was in.  I also got to interact and engage with a lot of other now-historical stuff, and over time, I've had passing feelings of sentimentality and nostalgia.

After I arrived in CA, I was shown PPP/SLIP dial-up for Windows systems, and was fascinated with the configuration and use, mostly because now, I was one of the cool kids.  For a while, I dabbled with the idea of a dual degree (EE/CS, never committed to it) and came in pretty close contact with folks from the CS department.  As it turned out, there were more than a few folks in the CS department who were interested in OS/2, including one of the professors who had a program that would sort and optimize the boot-up sequence for OS/2 so that it would load and run faster.

Also, it didn't hurt that I attended grad school was not far from Silicon Valley, the center of the universe for tech coolness at the time.  In fact, the EE curriculum had a class each summer called "hot chips" where we studied the latest in microprocessor technology, and corresponded with the "Hot Chips" conference in San Jose.  The class was taught by Prof. F. Terman, the son of the other Fred Terman.

While I was in grad school, I was eventually introduced to OS/2.  I purchased a copy of OS/2 2.1 at Frye's Electronics (in SunnyVale, next to Weird Stuff), specifically because the box came with a sticker/coupon for $15 off of OS/2 Warp 3.0.  I enjoyed working with OS/2 at the time; I could dial into my local ISP (Garlique.com at the time), connect to the school systems, and run multiple instances of MatLab programs I'd written as part of a course.  I could then either connect later and collect the output, or simply have it available when I arrived at the school. 

I had no idea at the time, but for the first four months or so that I was at NPS, I walked by Gary Kildall's office almost every day.  I never did get to see CP/M in action, but anyone who's ever used MS-DOS has interacted with a shadow of what CP/M once was and was intended to be.

While I was in grad school, I had two courses in assembly language programming, both based on the Motorola 68000, the microprocessor used in Amiga systems.  I never owned an Amiga as a kid, but while I was in grad school, there was someone in a nearby town who ran a BBS based on Amiga, and after grad school, I did see an Amiga system at a church yard sale. 

While I was in the Monterey/Carmel area of California, I also became peripherally aware of such oddities of the tech world as BeOS and NeXT.

Looking back on all this, I was active duty military at the time, and could not have afforded to pull together the various bits and pieces to lay the foundation for a future museum.  Also, for anyone familiar with the system the military uses to move service members between duty stations, this likely would not have survived (ah, the stories...).  However, thanks to virtualization systems such as VirtualBox, you can now pull together a museum-on-a-hard-drive, by either downloading the virtual images, or collecting the necessary materials and installing them yourself.  As you can see from the image in this post, I found an OS/2Warp VB image available online.  I don't do much with it, but I do remember that the web browser was the first one I encountered that would let you select an image in a web page and drag it to your desktop.  At the time, that was some pretty cool stuff!

Resources (links to instructions, not all include images or ISO files)
VirtualBox BeOS R5
VirtualBox Haiku (inspired by BeOS) images (there's also a Plan 9 image...just sayin'...)
NeXT in VirtualBox: NeXTSTEP, stuffjasondoes
Virtually Fun - CPM/86
VirtualBox Amiga

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A Tale of Two Analyses

I recently shared my findings from an analysis challenge that Ali posted, and after publishing my post, found out that Adam had also shared his findings.  Looking at both posts, it's clear that there are two different approaches, and as I read through Adam's findings, it occurred to me that this is an excellent example of what I've seen time and time again in the industry. 

Adam and I have never met, and I know nothing at all about his background.  I only know that Adam's blog has (at the time of this writing) a single post, from 2 Jan 2019.  On the other hand, my blogging goes back to 2004, and I've been in the industry for over 21 years, with several years of service prior to that.  All this is intended to point out is that Adam and I each come to the table with a different perspective, and given the same data, will likely approach it differently.

A good deal of my experience is in the consulting arena, meaning that engagements usually start with a phone call, and in most cases, it's very likely that the folks I work with weren't the first to be called, and won't be the last.  Yes, I'm saying that in some cases, consumers of digital analysis services shop around.  This isn't a bad thing, it's simply meant to indicate that they're looking for the "best deal".  As such, cases are "spec'd out" based on a number of hours...not necessarily the number of hours it will take to complete the work, but more so the number of hours a customer is willing to purchase for the work they want done.  The nature outcome of this is that once the customer's questions have been established, the analyst assigned the work needs to focus on answering the questions.  Otherwise, time spent pursuing off-topic issues or "rabbit holes" increases the time it takes to complete the work, which isn't billed to the customer.  As such, the hourly rate drops, and it can drop to the point where the company looses money on the work.

All of this is meant to say that without an almost pedantic focus on the questions at hand, an analyst is going to find themselves not making friends; reports won't be delivered on time, additional analysts will need to be assigned to actually complete the work, and someone may have their approved vacation rescinded (I've actually seen this happen...) in order to get the work done.

When I read the challenge, my focus was on the text that the admin saw and reported.  As such, my analysis goal, before even downloading the challenge image, was to determine the location of the file on the system, and then determine how it got there.

However, I approached Ali's first question of how the system was hacked a little differently; I've dealt with a lot of customers in two decades who've asked how something was "hacked", and I've had to keep in mind that their use of the term is different from mine.  For me, "hacked" refers to exploiting a vulnerability to gain access to a system, escalate privileges, and/or essentially take actions for which the system and data were never intended.  I didn't go into the analysis assuming that the system was "hacked"...I approached my analysis from the perspective that the focus of main effort for my analysis was the message that the admin had reported, and any "hacking" of the system would be within some modicum of temporal proximity to that file being created and/or modified.  As such, a timeline was in order, and this approach helped me with question #2, regarding "evidence".  In fact, creating micro-timelines or "overlays" allowed me to target my analysis.  At one point, I created a timeline of just logon events from the Security Event Log.  In order to prove that the Administrator account was used to create the target readme.txt file, I created micro-timelines for both user profiles, using just web browser and Registry (specifically, shellbags and RecentDocs) data.

From my overall timeline, I found when the "C:\Tools\readme.txt" file had been created, and I then used that as a pivot point for my analysis.  This is how I arrived at the finding that the Administrator account had been used to create the file.

From my perspective, the existence of additional text files (i.e., within a folder on the "master" profile desktop), who created them and when, the modification to magnify.exe, and the system time change all fell into the same bucket for question #4 (i.e., "anything you would like to add").  All of these things fell out of the timeline rather easily, but I purposely did not pursue further analysis of things such as the execution of magnify.exe, net.exe, and net1.exe, as I had already achieved my analysis goal.

Again, in my experience as a consultant, completing analysis work within a suitable time frame (one that allows the business to achieve it's margins) hinges upon a focus on the stated analysis goals. 

I've seen this throughout my career...a number of years ago, I was reviewing a ransomware case as part of an incident tracking effort, and noticed in the data that the same vulnerability used to compromise the system prior to ransomware being deployed had been used previously to access the system and install a bitcoin miner.  As the customer's questions specifically focused on the ransomware, analysis of the bitcoin miner incident hadn't been pursued.  This wasn't an issue...the analyst hadn't "missed" anything.  In fact, the recommendations in the report that applied to the ransomware issue applied equally well to the bitcoin miner incident.

A Different Perspective
It would seem, from my reading (and interpretation) of Adam's findings that his focus was more on the "hack".  Early on in his post, Adam's statement of his analysis goals corresponded very closely to my understanding of the challenge:

We are tasked with performing an IR investigation from a user who reported they've found a suspicious note on their system. We are given only the contents of the message (seen below) without its file path, and also no time at which the note was left.


Since we can understand that this note was of concern to the user, it is very important to start developing a time frame of before the note was created to understand what led to this point. This will allow the investigator to find the root cause efficiently.

Adam went on to describe analyzing shellbags artifacts, but there was no indication in his write-up that he'd done a side-by-side mapping of date/time stamps, with respect to the readme.txt file to the shellbag artifacts.  Shortly after that, the focus shifted to magnify.exe, and away from the text file in question.

Adam continued with a perspective that you don't often see in write-ups or reports; not only did he look up the hash of the file on VT, but he demonstrated his hypothesis regarding how magnify.exe might have been used, in a virtual machine.

In the end, however, I could not find where the question of how the "C:\Tools\readme.txt" file came to be on the system was clearly and directly addressed.  It may be there; I just couldn't find it.

Final Words
I did engage with the challenge author early this morning (9 Jan), and he shared with me the specifics of how different files (the files in a folder on one user's desktop) were created on the system.  I think that one of the major comments I shared with Ali was that not only was this challenge representative of what I've seen in the industry, but so are the shared findings.  No two analysts come to the table with the exact same experience and perspectives, and left to their own devices, no two analysts will approach and solve the same analysis (or challenge) the same way.  But this is where documentation and sharing is most valuable; by working challenges such as these, either separately or together, and then sharing our findings publicly, we can all find a way to improve every aspect of what we do.