POW-HOW: An enduring timing side-channel to evade online malware sandboxes [article]

Antonio Nappa, Panagiotis Papadopoulos, Matteo Varvello, Daniel Aceituno Gomez, Juan Tapiador, Andrea Lanzi
2021 arXiv   pre-print
Online malware scanners are one of the best weapons in the arsenal of cybersecurity companies and researchers. A fundamental part of such systems is the sandbox that provides an instrumented and isolated environment (virtualized or emulated) for any user to upload and run unknown artifacts and identify potentially malicious behaviors. The provided API and the wealth of information inthe reports produced by these services have also helped attackers test the efficacy of numerous techniques to
more » ... malware hard to detect.The most common technique used by malware for evading the analysis system is to monitor the execution environment, detect the presence of any debugging artifacts, and hide its malicious behavior if needed. This is usually achieved by looking for signals suggesting that the execution environment does not belong to a the native machine, such as specific memory patterns or behavioral traits of certain CPU instructions. In this paper, we show how an attacker can evade detection on such online services by incorporating a Proof-of-Work (PoW) algorithm into a malware sample. Specifically, we leverage the asymptotic behavior of the computational cost of PoW algorithms when they run on some classes of hardware platforms to effectively detect a non bare-metal environment of the malware sandbox analyzer. To prove the validity of this intuition, we design and implement the POW-HOW framework, a tool to automatically implement sandbox detection strategies and embed a test evasion program into an arbitrary malware sample. Our empirical evaluation shows that the proposed evasion technique is durable, hard to fingerprint, and reduces existing malware detection rate by a factor of 10. Moreover, we show how bare-metal environments cannot scale with actual malware submissions rates for consumer services.
arXiv:2109.02979v2 fatcat:2pgzanyjtrdjbmz7pqhz7qmcdi