Improving Your Malware Forensics Skills

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 Posted by Corey Harrell
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

~ Benjamin Franklin

In many ways preparation is key to success. Look at any sporting event and the team who usually comes out on top are the ones who are better prepared. I'm not just referring to game day; I'm also talking about the coaching schemes and building a roster. Preparation is a significant factor to one's success in the Digital Forensic and Incident Response field. This applies to the entire field and not just malware forensics, which is the focus of this post. When you are confronted with a system potentially impacted with malware your ability to investigate the system successfully depends on your knowledge, experience, and toolset.  This is where there is a conundrum. There is a tendency for people not to do malware cases (either through being hired or within an organization) due to a lack of knowledge and experience but people are unable to gain knowledge and experience without working malware cases. The solution is through careful preparation one can acquire knowledge, experience, and toolset that can eventual lead to working malware cases. This post outlines the process I used and currently use to improve my malware forensics skills.

The process described in this post helped me to develop the skills I have today. I even use a similar process to create test systems to help develop malware forensic skills in others (if you read this blog then you have already seen the benefits of doing this). With that said, what I am describing is a very time consuming process. However, if you decide to replicate the path I took it will be worth it and along the way you'll improve your malware forensic skills. This post is specifically directed at those wanting to take this step using their own resources and time. Those wanting to lose themselves in the DFIR music.

Process, Process, Process

Malware forensics is the process of examining a system to: find malicious code, determine how it got there, and what changes it caused on system. The first place to start for improving one's skills is by exploring the process one should use. The purpose of starting with the process is twofold. First and foremost it is to understand the techniques, examination steps, and knowing what to look for. The second reason is to explore the various tools to use to carry out the process. There are only a few resources available specific to this craft such as: Malware Forensics Field Guide for Windows Systems and Windows Forensic Analysis Toolkit, Fourth Edition. In addition, this has been an area on my radar to add one more book to the discussion but in the meantime my jIIr methodology page outlines my process and links to various posts. My suggestion is to first review the methodology I put together which is further explained in the posts: Overall DF Investigation Process and End to End Digital Investigation. Afterwards, review one or two of the books I mentioned. As you work your way through this material pay attention to the malware forensic process the author uses or references.

When it is all said and done and you completed reviewing what you set out to then document a malware forensic process you want to use. If this sounds familiar then you either started reading jIIr from the beginning or you are one of my early followers. This is exactly what I described in my second and third posts Where to start? and Initial Examination Steps & First Challenge that I wrote almost four years ago. However, a lot of time has passed since I wrote those posts and I improved my process as outlined below:

     - Examine the master boot record
     - Obtain information about the operating system and its configuration
     - Examine the volatile data
     - Examine the files on the system that were identified in volatile data
     - Hash the files on the system
     - Examine the programs ran on the system
     - Examine the auto-start locations
     - Examine the host-based logs
     - Examine file system artifacts
     - Malware searches
     - Perform a timeline analysis
     - Examine web browsing history
     - Examine specific artifacts
     - Perform a keyword search
     - Examine suspected malicious files

Tools, Tools, Tools

After the process you want to use is documented then the next step is to identify the tools you will use in each examination step. There are numerous tools you can use; the tools mentioned by the authors in the reference material, tools talked about the bloggers in my blog roll, or tools you already have experience with. To be honest, what tools someone should use depends. It really depends on what you prefer and are comfortable with. The tools I started out with are not the same ones I use today; the important thing is each tool helped me learn and grow. Pick any tools you want as a starting point and over time you will start to see the pros and cons of various tools.

Testing Environment

With your process and tools selected, now it is finally time to stop the researching/documenting and to actually use the process you documented and tools you selected. To do this you first have to set up a testing environment. There is an inherit risk to using virtualization for the testing environment; the malware may be virtualization aware and behave differently than on real computer. However, despite this risk I highly recommend to use virtualization as your testing environment. It's a lot faster to create multiple test systems (by copying virtual machines) and the snapshot feature makes it easier to revert mistakes. There are various virtualization options available with great documentation such as VirtualBox and VMware. Pick a virtualization platform and install it using the provided instructions.

Creating your VMs

Another decision you'll need to make is what operating systems to perform your testing on. This not only includes the operating system versions (i.e. Windows 7 vs Windows 8) but what processor to use as well (32 bit vs 64 bit). I ended up selecting VMware for the virtualization software and Windows 7 32 bit as the testing platform. You will need to create your first VM by installing the operating system of your choice. After the installation try to make things easier for the system to be compromised.

First disabled security features. This includes the built-in firewall and the user account control. Next make sure the account you are using has administrative privileges. Next you will want to make your test system a very juicy target. To do this you'll need to install vulnerable client-side applications including: Adobe flash, Adobe Reader, Java, Silverlight, Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, and a non-patched operating system. One place to grab these applications is Old Apps and to determine what versions to install pick the ones targeted by exploit kits. At a minimum, make sure you don't patch the OS and install Java, Silverlight, Adobe reader, and Adobe flash. This will make your VM a very juicy target.

After the VM is created and configured then you'll want to make multiple copies of it. Using copies makes things easier during analysis without having to deal with snapshots.

Manually Infecting Systems

The first approach to improving your skills is a manual method to help show the basics. The purpose is to familiarize yourself with the artifacts associated with malware executing in the operating system you picked. These artifacts are key to be successful in performing malware forensics on a compromise system. The manual method involves you infecting your test VM and then analyzing it to identify the artifacts. The manual method consists of two parts: using known and unknown samples.

However, before proceeding there is very important configuration change. The virtual machine's network configuration needs to be isolated to prevent the malware from calling home or attacking other systems.

Using Known (to you) Samples

Starting out it is better to practice with a sample that is known. By known I mean documented so that you can reference the documentation in order to help determine what the malware did. Again, we are trying to improve our ability to investigate a system potentially impacted with malware and not trying to reverse the malware. The documentation is just to help you account for what the malware did to make it easier to spot the other artifacts associated with the malware running in the operating system.

The way to find known samples really depends. You could find them using information on antivirus websites since they list reports using their malware naming convention. For example, Symantec's Threat Listing, Symantec's Response blog, Microsoft's Threat Reports, or Microsoft's Malware Encyclopedia to name a few. These are only a few but there are a lot more out there; just look at antivirus websites. The key is to find malware with a specific name that you can search on such as Microsoft's Backdoor:Win32/Bergat.B. Once you find one you like then review the technical information to see the changes the malware makes.

I suggested finding known malware by names first because there are more options to do this. A better route if you can find it is to use a hash of a known malware sample. Some websites share the hash of the sample they are discussing but this doesn't occur frequently. A few examples are: Contagio Malware Dump,, or MxLab blog. Another option is to look at the public sandboxes for samples that people submitted such as Joe Sandbox or one listed on Lenny Zelster's automated malware analysis services list.

After you pick a malware name or hash to use then the next step is to actually find the malware. Lenny Zelster has another great list outlining different malware sample sources for researchers. Anyone one of these could be used; it just needs the ability to search by detection name or hash. I had great success using: VirusShare, Open Malware, Contagio Malware Dump, and

Remember the purpose of going through all of this is to improve your malware forensic skills and not your malware analysis skills. We are trying to find malware and determine how the infection happened; not reversing malware to determine its functionality. Now that you have your sample just infect your virtual machine (VM) with it and then power it down. If the VM  has any snapshots then delete them to make it easier.

Now that you have an infected image (i.e. the vmdk file) you can analyze it using the process you outlined and the tools you selected. At this point you are making sure the process and tools work for you. You are also looking to explore the artifacts created during the infection. You know the behavior of the known malware so don't focus on this. Malware is different and so will be their artifacts. Focus on the artifacts created by a program executing in the operating system you selected. Artifacts such as program execution, logs, and file system.

Using Unknown (to you) Samples

Using a known sample is helpful to get your feet wet but it gets old pretty quick. After you used a few different known samples it is not as challenging to find the artifacts. This is where you take the next step by using an unknown (to you) sample. Just download a random sample from one of the sources listed at malware sample sources for researchers.  Infect your virtual machine (VM) with it and then power it down. If the VM  has any snapshots then delete them to make it easier.

Now you can start your examination using the same process and tools you used with a known malware sample. This method makes it a little more challenging because you don't know what the malware did to the operating system.

Automatically Infecting Systems

The manual method is an excellent way to explore the malware forensic process. It allows you to get familiar with an examination process, tools, and artifacts associated with an infection. One important aspect about performing malware forensics is to identify the initial infection vector which was used to compromise the system in the first place. The manual method infections always trace back to you executing malware samples so you need to use a different method. This method is automatically infecting systems to simulate how real infections appear.

Before proceeding there is a very important configuration change. The virtual machine's network configuration needs to be connected to the Internet. This can be done through the NAT or bridged configuration but you will want to be in a controlled environment (aka not your company's production network). There are some risks with doing this so you will need to take that into consideration. Personally, I accept this risk since improving my skills to help protect organizations is worth the trade off.

Using Known Websites Serving Malware

In the automatically infecting systems approach the first method is to use a known website serving malware. There are different ways to identify these websites. I typically start by referring to (FYI, site hates Internet Explorer), Malc0de database, and the Malware Domain List. In both instances I look for URLs that point to a malicious binary. Other sources you can use are the ones listed by Lenny Zelster on his Blocklists of Suspected Malicious IPs and URLs page. Again, you are trying to find a URL to a site hosting a malicious binary. Another, source you shouldn't overlook is your email SPAM/Junk folder. I have found some nice emails with either malicious attachments or malicious links. Lastly, if you pay attention to the current trends being used to spread malware then you can found malicious sites leveraging what you read and Google. This is a bit harder to pull off but it's worth it since you see a technique currently being used in attacks.

Inside your VM open a web browser, enter in the URL you identified, and if necessary click any required buttons to execute the binary. Wait a minute or two for the malware to run and then power it down. If the VM  has any snapshots then delete them to make it easier.

Now you can start your examination using the same process and tools you used with the manual approach. The purpose is to find the malware, artifacts associated with the infection, and the initial infection vector. Infecting a VM in this manner simulates a social engineering attack where a user is tricked into infecting themselves. If a SPAM email was used then it simulates a email based attack.

To see how beneficial this method is for creating test images to analyze you can check out my posts Examining IRS Notification Letter SPAM and Coming To A System Near You. The first post simulates a phishing email while the later simulates social engineering through Google image search.

Using Potentially Malicious Websites

The second method in the automatically infecting systems approach is to use potentially malicious websites. This method tries to infect the VM through software vulnerabilities present in either the operating system or installed client-side applications. This is the most time consuming out of all of the methods I described in this post. It's pretty hard to infect a VM on purpose so you will end up going through numerous URLs before hitting one that works. This is where you may need to use the VM snapshot feature.

To find potentially malicious URLs you can look at the Malware Domain List. Look for any URLs from the current or previous day that are described as exploit or exploit kit as shown below. You can ignore the older URLs since they are most likely no longer active.

Another option I recently discovered but haven't tried yet is using information posted at The site doesn't obfuscate websites used so you may be able to use it to find active websites serving up exploits. The last option I'm sharing is the one I use the most; the URLs others are submitting to Just keep in mind, there are certain things that can't be unseen and there are some really screwed up people submitting stuff to URLQuery. When reviewing the submitted URLs you want to pay attention to those that have detections as shown below:

After you see a URL with detections then you'll need to examine it closer by reviewing the URLQuery report. To save yourself time, focus on any URLs whose reports mention: malicious iframes, exploits, exploit kits, or names of exploit kits. These are the better candidates to infect your VM. The pictures below show what I am referring to.

Before proceeding make sure your VM is powered on and you created a snapshot. The snapshot comes in handy when you want to start with a clean slate after visiting numerous URLs with no infection. An easy way to determine if an infection occurred is to monitor the program execution artifacts. One way I do this is by opening the C:\Windows\Prefetch folder with the items sorted by last modification time. If an infection occurs then prefetch files are modified which lets me know. Now you can open a web browser inside your VM, enter in the URL you identified, and monitor the program execution artifacts (i.e. prefetch files). If nothing happens then move on to the next URL. Continue going through URLs until one successfully exploits your VM. Upon infection wait a minute or two for the malware to run and then power it down. Make sure you delete any snapshots to make it easier.

Now you can start your examination using the same process and tools you have been using. The purpose is to find the malware, artifacts associated with the infection, and the initial infection vector. The initial infection vector will be a bit of a challenge since your VM has various vulnerable programs. Infecting a VM in this manner simulates a drive-by which is a common attack vector used to load malware onto a system. To see how beneficial this method is for creating test images you can check out my post Mr Silverlight Drive-by Meet Volatility Timelines (FYI, I suspended the VM to capture the vmem file in addition instead to powering it down to get the disk image).


Benjamin Franklin said "by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." To be successful when confronted with a system potentially impacted with malware we should be preparing for this moment now. Taking the time to improve our malware forensic skills including our process, tools, and knowledge of artifacts. Making the right preparations so when game day approaches we will come out on top. The process I use to improve my malware forensic skills and the one I described in this post is not for everyone. It takes time and a lot of work; I've spent countless days working through it. However, working your way through this process you will attain something that can't be bought with money. There is no book, training, college course, or workshop that can replicate or replace the skills, knowledge, and experience you gain through careful preparation by training yourself.

  1. Anonymous

    Excellent! I have been interested in forensics analysis for some time, and been wondering how to safely setup a test environment for some hands-on learning. I did complete a post-grad diploma which provided great theory, but was light-on with the actual processes.

  2. Great post, as always, Corey. I particularly like how you start with process...this is so often overlooked, or simply not even considered.

    Also, documentation is critical, particularly in this endeavor. Documenting what you've done allows others to replicate your findings, and also means that your findings are recorded. This way, you can develop and improve your process.

  3. I'll have to try out the second method you mentioned about visiting malicious websites and utilizing my spam email. I've been hesitant doing that for obvious reasons but it seems to be a good trade-off with having more realistic simulations. Really informative post. Thanks.

  4. @Harlan

    I always found it easier to start with the process so I can see the big picture. I know a lot of people who start and end with the tools one uses instead of how those tools fit into an overall process. Good point about documentation.

  5. @James

    Getting the experience from realistic simulations is really worth it. There are some things you can't replicate in a completely controlled environment.

  6. @Corey,

    Good plan. If you have a process and documentation, you can always go back and improve your process with new information. Something I've seen time and time again is that if an analyst doesn't have a process that they can add to, they keep doing the same thing over and over...

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