In the past few months, the Tor anonymity service as been in the news for various reasons. Perhaps most infamously, it was used by the now-shuttered Silk Road underground marketplace. We delved into the topic of the Deep Web in a white paper titled Deepweb and Cybercrime. In our 2014 predictions, we noted that cybercriminals would go deeper underground – and part of that would be using Tor in greater numbers.
Cybercriminals are clearly not blind to the potential of Tor, and network administrators have to consider that Tor-using malware might show up on their network. How should they react to this development?
What’s Tor, anyway?
Tor is designed to solve a fairly specific problem: to stop a man-in-the-middle (such as network administrators, ISPs, or even countries) from determining or blocking the sites that a user visits. How does it do this?
Previously known as “The Onion Router”, Tor is an implementation of the concept of onion routing, where a number of nodes located on the Internet that serve as relays for Internet traffic. A user who wants to use the Tor network would install a client on their machine.
This client would contact a Tor directory server, where it gets a list of nodes. The user’s Tor client would select a path for the network traffic via the various Tor nodes to the destination server. This path is meant to be difficult to follow. In addition, all traffic between nodes is encrypted. (More details about Tor may be found at the official website of the Tor project.)
In effect, this hides your identity (or at least, IP address) from the site you visited, as well as any potential attackers inspecting your network traffic along the way. This is quite useful if you’re a visitor who wants to cover your tracks or if, for some reason, the server that you’re trying to connect to denies connections from your IP address.
This can be done for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons. Unfortunately, this means that it can and has already been used for malicious purposes.
How can it be used maliciously?
Malware can just as easily use Tor as anyone else. In the second half of 2013, we saw more malware making use of it to hide their network traffic. In September, we blogged about the Mevade malware that downloaded a Tor component for backup command and control (C&C) communication. In October 2013, Dutch police arrested four persons behind the TorRAT malware, a malware family which also used Tor for its C&C communication. This malware family targeted the bank accounts of Dutch users, and investigation was difficult because of the use of underground crypting services to evade detection and the use of cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin).
In the last weeks of 2013, we saw some ransomware variants that called itself Cryptorbit that explicitly asked the victim to use the Tor Browser (a browser bundle pre-configured for Tor) when paying the ransom. (The name may have been inspired by the notorious CryptoLocker malware, which uses similar behavior.)
Figure 1. Warning from Tor-using ransomware
Earlier this month, we discussed several ZBOT samples that in addition to using Tor for its C&C connection, also embeds its 64-bit version “inside” the normal, 32-bit version.
Figure 2. Running 64-bit ZBOT malware
This particular malware runs perfectly in a 64-bit environment and is injected into the running svchost.exe process, as is typically the case with injected malware.
This increase in Tor-using malware means that network administrators may want to consider additional steps to be aware of Tor, how to spot its usage, and (if necessary) prevent its use. Illegitimate usage of Tor could result in various problems, ranging from circumvented IT policies to exfiltrated confidential information.
We will discuss these potential steps in a succeeding blog post.