Researchers with Dell SecureWorks' Counter Threat Unit (CTU) this week detailed the kind of Spy-vs.-Spy countermeasures malware authors come up with to evade detection in a new report on a little-known malware family it calls Stegoloader. Targeting organizations in healthcare, education, and manufacturing, Stegoloader uses digital steganography to hide malicious code inside a PNG image file downloaded from a legitimate website.
A longtime spycraft technique, digital steganography is a method of concealing secret information within seemingly non-descript, non-secret files. Malware authors may be taking a shine to it because it is a relatively simple but effective way to circumvent tools like intrusion detection and prevention systems. Last year, CTU researchers unveiled at BlackHat evidence that the Lurk downloader was one of the first families of malware to use true digital steganography as a countermeasure.
"At the end of 2014, CTU researchers also observed the Neverquest version of the Gozi trojan using this technology to hide information on its backup command and control (C2) server," CTU researchers wrote.
Now with the discovery of Stegoloader, they're wondering if this may be the early signs of a trend toward digital steganography as a malware countermeasure.
"Stegoloader is the third malware family that CTU researchers have observed using digital steganography," the researchers said. "This technique might be a new trend because malware authors need to adapt to improved detection mechanisms."
Of course, the use of steganography is just one of the techniques used by this malware to evade detection. Stegoloader's authors wrote it with a modular design.
"Stegoloader's modular design allows its operator to deploy modules as necessary, limiting the exposure of the malware capabilities during investigations and reverse engineering analysis," the researchers wrote. "This limited exposure makes it difficult to fully assess the threat actors' intent."
Some of the modules used are a geographic localization module to gather information on the compromised system's IP address, browsing history module, password-stealing module, and even a module designed to steal instances of IDA software used by malware analysts and reverse engineers to analyze malicious software if Stegoloader detects it on the compromised system. Additionally, the main module of the malware is not persistent, and before deploying other modules, it performs checks for indication that it is running in an analysis environment.
"For example, the deployment module monitors mouse cursor movements by making multiple calls to the GetCursorPos function," the report said. "If the mouse always changes position, or if it does not change position, the malware terminates without exhibiting any malicious activity."
As of now, the malware looks to be an opportunistic information-stealer and hasn't been observed using exploits or spearphishing, so the researchers say it's more likely a mass-market commodity malware family than one used in targeted attacks.
Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading. View Full Bio