How EDR systems detect malicious activity

Endpoint detection and response tools help SOCs separate benign events from malicious activity. Learn how this EDR function works.

Detecting malicious activity and mitigating the damage it causes are a full-time job. Security teams have a variety of tools to help them with the task, including the popular endpoint detection and response. EDR systems are integral to keeping organizations safe, but not everyone who uses one understands how it functions.

To help security teams and key stakeholders learn how EDR tools work, Matt Hand, author and principal security engineer at cybersecurity vendor Prelude, wrote Evading EDR: The Definitive Guide to Defeating Endpoint Detection Systems. He wrote the book after realizing that, while many security practitioners understand what EDR tools do, many don't know exactly how they work.

"I took all the major components I knew about and observed to summarize how EDRs worked," Hand said. After understanding how they work, he added, security teams "can start making informed decisions about how to either attack them or improve them."

Evading EDR provides security operations center (SOC) analysts and red teams the information they need to identify gaps in their current cybersecurity strategy and tools.

In the following excerpt from Chapter 1, learn more about malicious activity detection and how EDR tools provide event alerts and context for SOCs, enabling them to decide whether to investigate further or let it be if an alert is benign.

From the author of Evading EDR: The Definitive Guide to Defeating Endpoint Detection Systems

Read an interview with Hand about common EDR bypass attacks, the difficultly of tricking EDR tools and how security practitioners can improve their EDR system for their organization's needs.

The Challenges of EDR Evasion

Many adversaries rely on bypasses described anecdotally or in public proofs of concept to avoid detection on a target's systems. This approach can be problematic for a number of reasons.

First, those public bypasses only work if an EDR's capabilities stay the same over time and across different organizations. This isn't a huge issue for internal red teams, which likely encounter the same product deployed across their entire environment. For consultants and malicious threat actors, however, the evolution of EDR products poses a significant headache, as each environment's software has its own configuration, heuristics, and alert logic. For example, an EDR might not scrutinize the execution of PsExec, a Windows remote-administration tool, in one organization if its use there is commonplace. But another organization might rarely use the tool, so its execution might indicate malicious activity.

Screenshot of 'Evading EDR' book cover by Matt HandClick to learn more about
Evading EDR: The
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Second, these public evasion tools, blog posts, and papers often use the term bypass loosely. In many cases, their authors haven't determined whether the EDR merely allowed some action to occur or didn't detect it at all. Sometimes, rather than automatically blocking an action, an EDR triggers alerts that require human interaction, introducing a delay to the response. (Imagine that the alert fired at 3 am on a Saturday, allowing the attacker to continue moving through the environment.) Most attackers hope to completely evade detection, as a mature security operations center (SOC) can efficiently hunt down the source of any malicious activity once an EDR detects it. This can be catastrophic to an attacker's mission.

Third, researchers who disclose new techniques typically don't name the products they tested, for a number of reasons. For instance, they might have signed a nondisclosure agreement with a client or worry that the affected vendor will threaten legal action. Consequentially, those researchers may think that some technique can bypass all EDRs instead of only a certain product and configuration. For example, a technique might evade user-mode function hooking in one product because the product happens not to monitor the targeted function, but another product might implement a hook that would detect the malicious API call.

Finally, researchers might not clarify which component of the EDR their technique evades. Modern EDRs are complex pieces of software with many sensor components, each of which can be bypassed in its own way. For example, an EDR might track suspicious parent–child process relationships by obtaining data from a kernel-mode driver, Event Tracing for Windows (ETW), function hooks, and a number of other sources. If an evasion technique targets an EDR agent that relies on ETW to collect its data, it may not work against a product that leverages its driver for the same purpose.

To effectively evade EDR, then, adversaries need a detailed understanding of how these tools work. The rest of this chapter dives into their components and structure.

Identifying Malicious Activity

To build successful detections, an engineer must understand more than the latest attacker tactics; they must also know how a business operates and what an attacker's objectives might be. Then they must take the distinct and potentially unrelated datapoints gleaned from an EDR's sensors and identify clusters of activity that could indicate something malicious happening on the system. This is much easier said than done.

For example, does the creation of a new service indicate that an adversary has installed malware persistently on the system? Potentially, but it's more likely that the user installed new software for legitimate reasons. What if the service was installed at 3 am? Suspicious, but maybe the user is burning the midnight oil on a big project. How about if rundll32.exe, the native Windows application for executing DLLs, is the process responsible for installing the service? Your gut reaction may be to say, "Aha! We've got you now!" Still, the functionality could be part of a legitimate but poorly implemented installer. Deriving intent from actions can be extremely difficult.

Considering Context

The best way to make informed decisions is to consider the context of the actions in question. Compare them with user and environmental norms, known adversary tradecraft and artifacts, and other actions that the affected user performed in some timeframe. Table 1-1 provides an example of how this may work.

Table showing different events an EDR system cataloged and whether each is suspicious or benign
Table 1-1: Evaluating a series of events on the system

This contrived example shows the ambiguity involved in determining intent based on the actions taken on a system. Remember that the overwhelming majority of activities on a system are benign, assuming that something horrible hasn't happened. Engineers must determine how sensitive an EDR's detections should be (in other words, how much they should skew toward saying something is malicious) based on how many false negatives the customer can tolerate.

One way that a product can meet its customers' needs is by using a combination of so-called brittle and robust detections.

Applying Brittle vs. Robust Detections

Brittle detections are those designed to detect a specific artifact, such as a simple string or hash-based signature commonly associated with known malware. Robust detections aim to detect behaviors and could be backed by machine-learning models trained for the environment. Both detection types have a place in modern scanning engines, as they help balance false positives and false negatives.

For example, a detection built around the hash of a malicious file will very effectively detect a specific version of that one file, but any slight variation to the file will change its hash, causing the detection rule to fail. This is why we call such rules "brittle." They are extremely specific, often targeting a single artifact. This means that the likelihood of a false positive is almost nonexistent while the likelihood of a false negative is very high.

Despite their flaws, these detections offer distinct benefits to security teams. They are easy to develop and maintain, so engineers can change them rapidly as the organization's needs evolve. They can also effectively detect some common attacks. For example, a single rule for detecting an unmodified version of the exploitation tool Mimikatz brings tremendous value, as its false-positive rate is nearly zero and the likelihood of the tool being used maliciously is high.

Even so, the detection engineer must carefully consider what data to use when creating their brittle detections. If an attacker can trivially modify the indicator, the detection becomes much easier to evade. For example, say that a detection checks for the filename mimikatz.exe; an adversary could simply change the filename to mimidogz.exe and bypass the detection logic. For this reason, the best brittle detections target attributes that are either immutable or at least difficult to modify.

On the other end of the spectrum, a robust ruleset backed by a machine-learning model might flag the modified file as suspicious because it is unique to the environment or contains some attribute that the classification algorithm weighted highly. Most robust detections are simply rules that more broadly try to target a technique. These types of detections exchange their specificity for the ability to detect an attack more generally, reducing the likelihood of false negatives by increasing the likelihood of false positives.

While the industry tends to favor robust detections, they have their own drawbacks. Compared to brittle signatures, these rules can be much harder to develop due to their complexity. Additionally, the detection engineer must consider an organization's false-positive tolerance. If their detection has a very low false-negative rate but a high false-positive rate, the EDR will behave like the boy who cried wolf. If they go too far in their attempts to reduce false positives, they may also increase the rate of false negatives, allowing an attack to go unnoticed.

Because of this, most EDRs employ a hybrid approach, using brittle signatures to catch obvious threats and robust detections to detect attacker techniques more generally.

Exploring Elastic Detection Rules

One of the only EDR vendors to publicly release its detection rules is Elastic, which publishes its SIEM rules in a GitHub repository. Let's take a peek behind the curtain, as these rules contain great examples of both brittle and robust detections.

For example, consider Elastic's rule for detecting Kerberoasting attempts that use Bifrost, a macOS tool for interacting with Kerberos, shown in Listing 1-1. Kerberoasting is the technique of retrieving Kerberos tickets and cracking them to uncover service account credentials.

query = '''
  event.category:process and event.type:start and
 process.args:("-action" and ("-kerberoast" or askhash or asktgs or asktgt or s4u or ("-ticket" and ptt) or (dump and (tickets or keytab))))

Listing 1-1: Elastic's rule for detecting Kerberoasting based on command line arguments

This rule checks for the presence of certain command line arguments that Bifrost supports. An attacker could trivially bypass this detection by renaming the arguments in the source code (for example, changing -action to -dothis) and then recompiling the tool. Additionally, a false positive could occur if an unrelated tool supports the arguments listed in the rule.

For these reasons, the rule might seem like a bad detection. But remember that not all adversaries operate at the same level. Many threat groups continue to use off-the-shelf tooling. This detection serves to catch those who are using the basic version of Bifrost and nothing more.

Because of the rule's narrow focus, Elastic should supplement it with a more robust detection that covers these gaps. Thankfully, the vendor published a complementary rule, shown in Listing 1-2.

query = '''
network where event.type == "start" and network.direction == "outgoing" and
 destination.port == 88 and source.port >= 49152 and
 process.executable != "C:\\Windows\\System32\\lsass.exe" and destination.address !=""
 and destination.address !="::1" and
 /* insert False Positives here */
 not in ("swi_fc.exe", "fsIPcam.exe", "IPCamera.exe", "MicrosoftEdgeCP.exe",
 "MicrosoftEdge.exe", "iexplore.exe", "chrome.exe", "msedge.exe", "opera.exe", "firefox.exe")

Listing 1-2: Elastic's rule for detecting atypical processes communicating over TCP port 88

This rule targets atypical processes that make outbound connections to TCP port 88, the standard Kerberos port. While this rule contains some gaps to address false positives, it's generally more robust than the brittle detection for Bifrost. Even if the adversary were to rename parameters and recompile the tool, the network behavior inherent to Kerberoasting would cause this rule to fire.

To evade detection, the adversary could take advantage of the exemption list included at the bottom of the rule, perhaps changing Bifrost's name to match one of those files, such as opera.exe. If the adversary also modified the tool's command line arguments, they would evade both the brittle and robust detections covered here.

Most EDR agents strive for a balance between brittle and robust detections but do so in an opaque way, so an organization might find it very difficult to ensure coverage, especially in agents that don't support the introduction of custom rules. For this reason, a team's detection engineers should test and validate detections using tooling such as Red Canary's Atomic Test Harnesses.

Kyle Johnson is technology editor for TechTarget Security.

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