Modern adversaries know the strategies organizations use to try to block their attacks, and they’re crafting increasingly sophisticated, targeted malware to evade defenses. It’s a race against time, as the most effective hacking techniques are usually the newest ones. What’s been effective lately? Fileless malware—it’s malware that uses legitimate programs, does not rely on files, and leaves no footprint.
Fileless malware emerged in 2017 as a mainstream type of attack, but many of these attack methods have been around for a while. Frodo, Number of the Beast, and The Dark Avenger were all early examples of this type of malware. More recent, high-profile fileless attacks include the hack of the Democratic National Committee and the Equifax breach.
What makes fileless infections so insidious is also what makes them so effective. There are claims that fileless malware is “undetectable.” This isn’t literally true, it just means that fileless attacks are often undetectable by antivirus, whitelisting, and other traditional endpoint security solutions. In fact, the Ponemon Institute claims that fileless attacks are 10 times more likely to succeed than file-based attacks.
How does a fileless attack happen?
Fileless attacks fall into the broader category of low-observable characteristics (LOC) attacks, a type of stealth attack that evades detection by most security solutions and frustrates forensic analysis efforts. While not considered a traditional virus, fileless malware does work in a similar way—it operates in memory. Without being stored in a file or installed directly on a machine, fileless infections go straight into memory and the malicious content never touches the hard drive. Many LOC attacks take advantage of Microsoft Windows PowerShell, a legitimate and useful tool used by administrators for task automation and configuration management. PowerShell consists of a command-line shell and associated scripting language, providing adversaries with access to just about everything and anything in Windows.
Figure 1. Example of a fileless attack kill chain.
The figure above illustrates how a fileless attack can happen. Like most advanced attacks today, fileless attacks often use social engineering to get users to click on a link or an attachment in a phishing email. Fileless attacks are typically used for lateral movement, meaning they make their way from one device to the next with the objective of gaining access rights to valuable data across the enterprise network. To avoid suspicion, fileless malware gets into the inner recesses of trusted, whitelisted applications (like PowerShell and Windows script host executables such as wscript.exe and cscript.exe) or the operating system to initiate malicious processes. These attacks abuse the trust model used by security applications to not monitor whitelisted programs.
What is important to notice in the above scenario is that the hacker did not have to figure out how to sneak a malicious program past antivirus and malware defense. Most automated sensors cannot detect command line alterations. A trained analyst can identify these scripts, but often doesn’t know where to look in the first place.
How can you defend against fileless attacks?
As the cybersecurity industry gets more sophisticated in closing off exploits, the lifespan of fileless attacks gets shorter and shorter. One way to defend against fileless infections is simply keeping your software up to date. This especially includes Microsoft applications, and the launch of the Microsoft 365 suite includes enhanced security measures. Microsoft has also upgraded its Windows Defender package to detect irregular activity from PowerShell.
The real key to successfully counteracting fileless attacks is an integrated approach that addresses the entire threat lifecycle. By having a multi-layered defense, you gain an advantage over attackers by being able to investigate every phase of a campaign before, during, and after an attack.
Two things are especially important:
- The ability to see and measure what’s happening: discovering the techniques used by the attack, monitoring activities in PowerShell or other scripting engines, accessing aggregated threat data, and gaining visibility into user activities.
- The ability to control the state of the targeted system: halting arbitrary processes, remediating processes that are part of the attack, and isolating infected devices.
Successfully interrupting fileless attacks requires a holistic approach that can scale up and rapidly cascade appropriate actions where and when they are called for.
McAfee offers advanced protection for the most sophisticated attacks
McAfee provides security solutions that protect data and stop threats from device to cloud using an open, proactive, and intelligence-driven approach. Our latest McAfee Endpoint Security integrates threat prevention, web control, and a firewall, along with machine learning and advanced threat containment and correction, to stop the spread of both file-based and fileless malware.
Forward-thinking security vendors like McAfee are in a better position than most operating system providers to offer robust checks and balances that can improve your overall security posture. We help our customers build a resilient security architecture that is equipped to address fileless attacks. This includes:
- Endpoint hardening: Since fileless attacks originate at the endpoint, it’s important to have an advanced endpoint security solution like McAfee Endpoint Security that provides essential defenses like vulnerability assessment, exploit/memory protection, desktop firewall, and URL filtering.
- Machine learning: McAfee has fully embraced security analytic solutions using advanced, adaptive, and state-of-the-art machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence techniques.
- Application containment: McAfee Application Control is a whitelisting solution that blocks unauthorized applications and code from running on servers, desktops, and fixed-function devices.
- Behavior monitoring: Understanding user behavior analytics (UBA) helps you identify threats hidden among your data, allowing you to increase security operations accuracy while shortening investigation timelines. Rather than focusing exclusively on users or entities, McAfee Enterprise Security Manager uses a combination of anomaly detection and customized rules, along with other intelligent and advanced correlation models.
- Interactive threat hunting: McAfee Active Response offers an endpoint detection and response (EDR) tool that automatically and proactively investigates and responds to abnormal behavior on endpoints and searches for fileless attack footholds.
- Single-console centralized management: McAfee ePolicy Orchestrator streamlines security management through a unified platform that provides control, visibility, reporting, and actionable dashboards across hundreds and even thousands of nodes enterprise-wide.
- Integration with partner technologies: The McAfee Security Innovation Alliance (SIA) facilitates tight integration with third-party partners who offer additional advanced technologies, helping you gain the advantage over adversaries. The more broad-based and coordinated your security ecosystem is overall, the greater your ability to counteract fileless attacks.
Because we firmly believe security is a team sport, McAfee is dedicated to offering our customers an open integration fabric that helps organizations detect, protect, and correct across the continuum—from device to cloud—for even the most advanced attacks, whether they are file-based or fileless.
Wanting protection against specific types of fileless threats?
Our McAfee threat research teams include over 250 researchers around the world who analyze suspicious objects and behaviors for malicious threats and develop tools that directly block different variants of fileless threats. We’ve released several signatures that block different variants of fileless threats. These include:
Fileless threat: Reflective self injection
Reflective loading refers to loading a portable executable (PE) from memory rather than from disk. A crafted function/script can reflectively load portable executable without getting registered as a loaded module in the process and hence can perform actions without leaving footprints. PowerShell is one of the most widely used applications to execute these crafted scripts. This event indicates a fileless attack where a PowerShell script tries to inject a PE into the PowerShell process itself.
Fileless threat: Reflective EXE self injection
Reflective loading refers to loading a PE from memory rather than from disk. A crafted function/script can reflectively load an executable (EXE) without getting registered as a loaded module in the process and hence can perform actions without leaving footprints. PowerShell is one of the most widely used applications to execute these crafted scripts. This event indicates a fileless attack where a PowerShell script tries to inject an EXE into the PowerShell process itself.
Fileless threat: Reflective DLL remote injection
Reflective loading refers to loading a PE from memory rather than from disk. A crafted function/script can reflectively load a DLL without getting registered as a loaded module in the process and hence can perform actions without leaving footprints. PowerShell is one of the most widely used applications to execute these crafted scripts. This event indicates a fileless attack where a PowerShell script tried to inject a DLL into a remote process.
Fileless threat: Malicious code execution using DotNetToJScript technique
This event indicates an attempt to execute malicious shellcode using the DotNetToJScript technique, which is used by prevalent fileless attacks like CACTUSTORCH. DotNetToJScript attack vectors allow loading and execution of malicious .NET assembly (DLL, EXE, etc.) straight from memory with the help of .NET libraries exposed via COM. Just like any other typical fileless attack technique, DotNetToJScript does not write any part of the malicious .NET DLL or EXE in the computer's hard drive.
Fileless malware resources