Tag Archives: Applocker

How to defend against file-less malware?

15 July 2019

Stories on file-less malware are constantly appearing in the news. Zeljka Zorz’s post “A file-less campaign is dropping the Astaroth info-stealer” (1), published on 9 July 2019 in Help Net Security, gives a great introduction into the techniques used in file-less attacks.

Andrea Lelli’s technical analysis (2) shows that the malware downloads some DLLs and injects them into the userinit.exe process after becoming persistent. So, no big development since the first report on a file-less malware, Poweliks (3), published in 2014.

Pattern based anti-malware solutions are still no effective means to protect against file-less malware because the malware uses the hacker’s favorite toolkit, the Windows OS, for installation of the malicious payload.

But there is no reason to panic. The Windows OS is part of the problem; the Windows OS is also part of the solution.

First things first.

Don’t work with permanent administrative privileges!

It cannot be repeated often enough! Userinit.exe is part of the Windows OS. Admin privileges are required to load a DLL into the userinit.exe process. So, no admin rights, no DLL injection.

Now the big change.

We need change!

We need change!

In a Windows environment, Microsoft AppLocker does the job. AppLocker is an efficient solution; it is part of the Windows OS and it can be configured centrally by group policies. AppLocker is an effective solution; all kind of dropper malware is blocked, and with DLL rules enforced, DLL injection is no longer possible. Thus, AppLocker is the perfect solution for SMBs to overcome the shortcomings of pattern based anti-malware solutions. For a brief overview on AppLocker see my post (4).

If AppLocker does not fit into your computing environment, for example in production, look at the application whitelisting solutions from the big anti-malware solution providers. Application whitelisting provides additional features, e.g. the lockdown of systems, which is of interest especially in production because of the much longer solution lifecycles.

Application whitelisting is the long overdue change in the strategic approach to cyber security. Give it a try. Once you locked down your systems you can take care of the really important issues. Like supporting your business in digitalization initiatives.

Have a great week.


  1. Zorz Z. A fileless campaign is dropping the Astaroth info-stealer [Internet]. Help Net Security. 2019 [zitiert 15. Juli 2019]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.helpnetsecurity.com/2019/07/09/astaroth-fileless-malware/
  2. Lelli A. Dismantling a fileless campaign: Microsoft Defender ATP next-gen protection exposes Astaroth attack [Internet]. Microsoft Security. 2019 [zitiert 15. Juli 2019]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/2019/07/08/dismantling-a-fileless-campaign-microsoft-defender-atp-next-gen-protection-exposes-astaroth-attack/
  3. Jochem K. Review – ‘Poweliks’ malware variant employs new antivirus evasion techniques [Internet]. IT Security Matters. 2014 [zitiert 15. Juli 2019]. Verfügbar unter: https://klausjochem.me/2014/08/09/poweliks-malware-variant-employs-new-antivirus-evasion-techniques/
  4. Jochem K. Windows Applocker – The almost forgotten IT security workbench [Internet]. IT Security Matters. 2019 [zitiert 15. Juli 2019]. Verfügbar unter: https://klausjochem.me/2019/01/05/windows-applocker-the-almost-forgotten-it-security-workbench/

Windows Applocker – The almost forgotten IT security workbench

5 January 2019

Dridex[1], Emotet[2], Locky[3], Destover[4], Petya[5], NotPetya, etc. share one feature: They are droppers[6]. A dropper installs malware to a target system and executes it then.

Droppers are delivered mainly by e-mail through phishing or spear phishing attacks. Since they are continuously refined to undergo malware detection the fight against droppers never stops.

The Achilles heel of droppers is that they are executed in the context of the current user during delivery. With this the dropped malware can only be stored in locations where the user has modify privileges, e.g. the user’s home directory.

Seven Phases Cyber Kill Chain

Seven Phases Cyber Kill Chain

If we can prevent the execution of objects from e.g. the user’s home directory the dropper can never execute the installed malware. With this we can block the malware during the delivery / exploitation phase of the Cyber Kill Chain, before the attacker becomes persistent in our network.

That is the idea behind Windows Applocker[7]. The Applocker default rules allow the execution of programs, scripts and dlls only from trusted directory systems, e.g. c:\Program Files, C:\Progam Files (X86), or c:\Windows. If activated, Applocker stops the execution of programs and scripts outside these trusted directories and thus Dridex, Emotet, Locky, Destover, etc.

But Applocker does more than blocking droppers. DLL injection is prevented if DLL rules are enforced. I strongly recommend to enforce the DLL rules from the start. Drive-by downloads, PuA, PuP  and Adware are blocked. Even the exploitation of zero-days like the latest Adobe pdf security flaw, CVE-2018-16011[8], can be mitigated. The entire network becomes more resilient against cyber attacks.

Applocker is perfectly suited to enhance the resilience against cyber attacks in production networks and critical infrastructures. In particular in GxP regulated industries Applocker is worth to be looked at. Since Applocker is integrated in the Windows OS a validation of a third party white-listing application is not required.

Applocker can be enforced on Windows Enterprise Edition installations (starting with Windows 7) with local group policies. To lower the administrative effort it is recommended to join the computers to a domain and enforce the Applocker rules through group policies.

Unfortunately, Microsoft compromises the Applocker approach by tools like Teams and OneDrive. Both are installed in user context, thus will be blocked by Applocker. Since  Applocker allows the definition of exceptions and their roll out with group policies such applications can be handled with manageable effort.

Besides modern applications at least two cyber security sins reduce the effectiveness of Applocker.

  • Users work with permanent admin privileges.

In this case the dropper can install the malware in trusted directories. Working with permanent admin privileges is one of the IT security deadly sins, thus should be avoided anyway.

  • Users have modify access to trusted directories and files.

Check trusted directories and files with AccessEnum. If objects can be modified by users either change the ACLs or define an Applocker exception for them.

Applocker provides great capabilities to enhance the resilience of organizations against cyber attacks. Just give it a try in 2019.

Have a great weekend.


  1. Proofpoint Threat Insight. High-Volume Dridex Banking Trojan Campaigns Return [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2018 Dec 29]. Available from: https://www.proofpoint.com/us/threat-insight/post/high-volume-dridex-campaigns-return
  2. Villaroman BC. Spoofed Banking Emails Arrive with EMOTET Malware [Internet]. TrendMicro Threat Encyclopedia. 2018 [cited 2019 Jan 4]. Available from: http://www.trendmicro.tw/vinfo/tr/threat-encyclopedia/spam/677/spoofed-banking-emails-arrive-with-emotet-malware
  3. Avast Threat Intelligence Team. A closer look at the Locky ransomware [Internet]. Avast Blog. 2016 [cited 2018 Dec 29]. Available from: https://blog.avast.com/a-closer-look-at-the-locky-ransomware
  4. Gallagher S. Inside the “wiper” malware that brought Sony Pictures to its knees [Update] [Internet]. Ars Technica. 2014 [cited 2018 Dec 29]. Available from: https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/12/inside-the-wiper-malware-that-brought-sony-pictures-to-its-knees/
  5. Malwarebytes Labs. Keeping up with the Petyas: Demystifying the malware family [Internet]. Malwarebytes Labs. 2017 [cited 2018 Dec 29]. Available from: https://blog.malwarebytes.com/cybercrime/2017/07/keeping-up-with-the-petyas-demystifying-the-malware-family/
  6. Rouse M. What is dropper? – Definition from WhatIs.com [Internet]. WhatIs.com. 2015 [cited 2019 Jan 5]. Available from: https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/dropper
  7. Lich B, Poggemeyer L, Justinha. AppLocker (Windows 10) [Internet]. WIidows IT Pro Center. 2017 [cited 2019 Jan 5]. Available from: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/security/threat-protection/windows-defender-application-control/applocker/applocker-overview
  8. The Hacker News. Adobe Issues Emergency Patches for Two Critical Flaws in Acrobat and Reader [Internet]. Vulners Database. 2019 [cited 2019 Jan 4]. Available from: https://vulners.com/thn/THN:ADE75E1067458A6BD1C6FB7BD78E697D/