Category Archives: Sqwarq
Earlier this year, Digita Security’s Patrick Wardle took apart a cross-platform backdoor trojan he nicknamed ”ColdRoot’. Wardle was retro-hunting possible malware by searching for apps on VirusTotal that access Apple’s TCC privacy database.
For those unfamiliar, TCC.db is the database that backs the System Preferences > Security & Privacy | Accessibility preferences pane and which controls, among other things, whether applications are allowed access to the Mac’s Accessibility features. Of interest from a security angle is that one of the permissions an app with access to Accessibility can gain is the ability to simulate user clicks, such as clicking “OK” and similar buttons in authorisation dialogs.
One particular comment in Wardle’s article caught my eye:
there is no legitimate or benign reason why non-Apple code should ever reference [the TCC.db] file!
While in general that is probably true, there is at least one good reason I can think of why a legitimate app might reference that file: reading the TCC.db used to be the easiest way to programmatically retrieve the list of apps that are allowed Accessibility privileges, and one reason why a piece of software might well want to do that is if it’s a piece of security software like DetectX Swift.
If your aim is to inform unsuspecting users of any changes or oddities in the list (such as adware, malware or just sneaky apps that want to backdoor you for their own ends), then reading TCC.db directly is the best way to get that information.
Just call me ‘root’
Since Apple put TCC.db under SIP protection subsequent to my reports on Dropbox’s user-unfriendly behaviour, apps are no longer able to write to the database via SQL injection. An app with elevated privileges can, however, still read the database. A sufficiently privileged app (or user) can output the current list with:
sudo sqlite3 /Library/Application\ Support/com.apple.TCC/TCC.db 'select * from access'
On my machine, this indicates that there are twelve applications in the System Preferences’ Privacy pane, all of which are enabled save for two, namely LaunchBar and Safari:
We can see from the output that LaunchBar and Safari both have the ‘allowed’ integer set to ‘0’ (the middle of the three values in “0|0|1”) , whereas all the other apps have it set to ‘1’ (“0|1|1”).
It’s not clear to me why reading the database should require privileges. Certainly, Apple have provided APIs by which developers can test to see if their own apps are included in the database or not. The AXIsProcessTrusted() global function, for example, will return whether a calling process is a trusted accessibility client (see AXUIElement.h for related functions):
However, there remains a case (as I will demonstrate shortly) where developers may well need to know whether apps other than their own are, or are not, in the list. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious vulnerability in allowing read access to that data, just so long as the write protection remains, as it does, in place.
The use case for being able to read the TCC.db database is clearly demonstrated by apps like DetectX Swift: security apps that conform to the principle of least privilege, always a good maxim to follow whenever practical. Asking users to grant elevated privileges just to check which apps are in Accessibility is akin to opening the bank vault in order to do an employee head count. Surely, it would be more secure to be able to determine who, if anyone, is in the vault without having to actually take the risk of unlocking the door.
Did they put a CCTV in there?
Without direct access to TCC.db, we might wonder whether there are any other less obvious ways by which we can determine which apps are able to access Accessibility features. There are three possibilities for keeping an eye on bad actors trying to exploit Accessibility without acquiring elevated privileges ourselves, each of which has some drawbacks.
1. Authorisation dialogs
The first is that we can read the property list that records all invocations of the Accessibility authorisation dialog, without admin rights:
defaults read ~/Library/Preferences/com.apple.universalaccessAuthWarning.plist
That gives us a list of all the apps that macOS has ever thrown the ‘some.app would like permission to control your computer’ dialog alert for, along with an indication of the user’s response (1= they opened sys prefs, 0= they hit Deny).
This list could prove useful for identifying adware installers that try to trick users into allowing them into Accessibility (looking at you, PDFPronto and friends), but it’s main drawback is that the list is historical and doesn’t indicate the current denizens of Accessibility. It doesn’t tell us whether the apps in the list are currently approved or not, only that each app listed once presented the user with the option of opening System Preferences and what the user chose to do about it at that time.
2. Distributed Notifications
The second option is that developers can register their apps to receive notifications when any other application gets added or removed from the list with code similar to this:
DistributedNotificationCenter.default().addObserver(self, selector: #selector(self.accessibilityChanged), name: NSNotification.Name.init("com.apple.accessibility.api"), object: nil)
This ability was in fact added to DetectX Swift in version 1.04.
However, Apple hasn’t made this API particularly useful. Although we don’t need elevated privileges to call it, the NSNotification returned doesn’t contain a userInfo dictionary – the part in Apple’s notification class that provides specific information about a notification event. All that the notification provides is news that some change occurred, but whether that was an addition or a deletion, and which app it refers to, is not revealed:
Even so, notification of the change is at least something we can present to the user. Alas, this is only useful if the app that’s receiving the notification is actually running at the time the change occurs. For an on-demand search tool like DetectX Swift, which is only active when the user launches it, the notification is quite likely to be missed.
It would be nice, at least, if Apple would provide a more useful notification or an API for developers wishing to keep their users safe and informed. The lack of a userInfo dictionary in the notification was apparently reported as a bug to Apple several years back, but I suppose it could always use a dupe.
3. AppleScript – everyone’s favourite ‘Swiss Army Knife’
There is, as it turns out, a third way to reliably get exactly all the info we need about who has access to Accessibility. We can use AppleScript to return a complete list of apps in Accessibility that are enabled. Note that the output of this unprivileged script, shown here in the results pane of Script Debugger, returns a more readable version of the same list of apps we obtained from the privileged sqlite3 query of TCC.db, minus Safari and LaunchBar, which as we previously noted were not enabled:
Fantastic! There’s just one problem. While this AppleScript does not require blanket elevated privileges to run – in short, it doesn’t require an administrator password – it does need to be run by an app that is itself already in the list of Accessibility apps. If you have a script runner like Apple’s Script Editor, or third-party tools like Script Debugger or FastScripts, already approved in Accessibility, then you can run it without authorisation. It’s also worth noting that the script relies on launching and quitting System Preferences, which it attempts to do as quietly as possible.
As for DetectX Swift, I may consider adding something like this to a future version as an option for users who are happy to add DetectX to the list of apps in Accessibility.
Have your own tips about accessing TCC.db? Let us know in the Comments!
Featured pic: Can’t STOP Me by smilejustbcuz
If you’re a regular user of DetectX Swift (DTXS), you’ll be familiar with the Folder Observer function. Although DetectX has always been and will remain an on-demand search tool in principle (i.e., it doesn’t do anything unless you launch it), the Folder Observer adds the capability to alert you and optionally launch DTXS if any items are added or removed from your Launch folders.
This is a useful feature which removes the need, for example, to set Folder Actions or other scripting solutions on the folders which are most likely to be written to in the event of an adware or malware attack. However, as some users (and even myself!) have noticed, the Folder Observer can, at times, be a little irritating.
For example, here at sqwarq I have Little Snitch installed, which puts daemons and agents in both of the local domain Launch folders. The annoyance occurs whenever Little Snitch requires an update. When that happens, the daemon and agents will get written to, and DTXS will dutifully throw me an alert:
Great, except that I don’t really want alerts for software I already trust. I only really want to know about stuff that I don’t know is already in those folders. Of course, I can uncheck the preference for the Folder Observer entirely to stop all alerts, but that then deprives me of the security of being warned of things that I do want to be informed about.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution that will allow you to tame DTXS and customise the alerts to your personal needs.
1. Go to DetectX Swift > Preferences and click the ‘Observer’ tab.
2. Click the ‘Ignore Keywords’ checkbox (you need to be a registered or licensed user).
3. Click the ‘Edit’ button, and add the launch label of each item you want to ignore in a comma-separated list.
4. Click the ‘OK’ button to finish.
You can get the launch label either by reading it from each of the property lists that you want to ignore, or directly from DetectX Swift’s Profiler. The linked video shows one way you can do that.
EvilOSX is a malware project hosted on GitHub that offers attackers a highly customisable and extensible attack tool that will work on both past and present versions of macOS. The project can be downloaded by anyone and, should that person choose, be used to compromise the Macs of others.
What particularly interested me about this project was how the customisation afforded to the attacker (i.e., anyone who downloads and builds the project, then deploys it against someone else) makes it difficult for security software like my own DetectX Swift to accurately track it down when it’s installed on a victim’s machine.
In this post we’ll explore EvilOSX’s capabilities, customisations, and detection signatures. We’ll see that our ability to effectively detect EvilOSX will depend very much on the skill of the attacker and the determination of the defender.
For low-skilled attackers, we can predict a reasonably high success rate. However, attacker’s with more advanced programming skills that are able to customise EvilOSX’s source code to avoid detection are going to present a bigger problem. Specifically, they’re going to put defenders in an awkward position where they will have to balance successful detection rates against the risk of increasing false positives.
We’ll conclude the discussion by looking at ways that individuals can choose for themselves how to balance that particular scale.
What is it?
EvilOSX is best described as a RAT. The appropriately named acronym stands for remote access trojan, which in human language means a program that can be used to spy on a computer user by accessing things like the computer’s webcam, microphone, and screenshot utility, and by downloading personal files without the victim’s knowledge. It may or may not have the ability to acquire the user’s password, but in general it can be assumed that a RAT will have at least the same access to files on the machine as the login user that has been compromised.
Whether EvilOSX is intentionally malicious or ‘an educational tool’ is very much a matter of perspective. Genuine malware authors are primarily in the business of making money, and the fact that EvilOSX (the name is a bit of a giveaway) is there for anyone to use (or abuse) without obvious financial benefit to the author is arguably a strong argument for the latter. What isn’t in doubt, however, is that the software can be readily used for malicious purposes. Irresponsible to publish such code? Maybe. Malicious? Like all weapons, that depends on who’s wielding it. And as I intimated in the opening section, exactly how damaging this software can be will very much depend on the intentions and skills of the person ‘behind the wheel’.
How does it work?
When an attacker decides to use EvilOSX, they basically build a new executable on their own system from the downloaded project, and then find a way – through social engineering or exploiting some other vulnerability – to run that executable on the target’s system.
There is no ‘zero-day’ here, and out of the box EvilOSX doesn’t provide a dropper to infect a user’s machine. That means everybody already has a first line of defence against a malicious attacker with this tool: Prudent browsing and careful analysis of anything you download, especially in terms of investigating what a downloaded item installs when you run it (DetectX’s History function is specifically designed to help you with this).
EvilOSX doesn’t need to be run with elevated privileges, however, nor does the attacker need to compromise the user’s password. As intimated earlier, it’ll run with whatever privileges the current user has (but, alas, that is often Admin for many Mac users). All the attacker needs to do is to convince the victim to download something that looks innocuous and run it.
Once run, the malicious file will set up the malware’s persistence mechanism (by default, a user Launch Agent) and executable (the default is in the user’s ~/Library/Containers folder) and then delete itself, thus making it harder to discover after the fact how the infection occurred.
After successful installation, the attacker can now remotely connect to the infected machine whenever both the client (i.e., victim) and server (i.e., attacker) are online.
Once the attacker has surreptitiously connected to the client, there are a number of options, including webcam, screenshots, and downloading and exfiltrating browser history.
In my tests, some of the modules shown in the above image didn’t work, but the webcam, screenshots, browser history and the ability to download files from the victim’s machine were all fully functional.
By default, EvilOSX will offer the attacker the option of making a LaunchAgent with a custom name – literally, anything the attacker wants to invent, or to use the default com.apple.EvilOSX.
That in itself isn’t a problem for DetectX Swift, which examines all Launch Agents and their program arguments regardless of the actual filename. The malware also offers the option to not install a Launch Agent at all. Again, DetectX Swift will still look for the malware even if there’s no Launch Agent, but more on this in the final sections below.
If configured, the malware installs the Launch Agent and, by default, points it to run a binary located at ~/Library/Containers/.EvilOSX. There’s no option for changing this in the set up routine itself, but the path to the program argument is easily modified if the attacker is willing to do some basic editing of the source code.
Making matters even more difficult is that with a little know-how, the attacker could easily adapt EvilOSX to not use a Launch Agent at all and to use one of a variety of other persistence methods available on OSX like cron jobs, at jobs and one or two others that are not widely known. I’ll forego giving a complete rundown of them all here, but for those interested in learning more about it, try Jason Bradley’s OS X Incident Response: Scripting and Analysis for a good intro.
String pattern detection
Faced with unknown file names in unknown locations, how does an on-demand security tool like DetectX Swift go about ensuring this kind of threat doesn’t get past its detector search? Let’s start to answer that by looking at the attack code that runs on the victim’s machine.
We can see what the attack code is going to look like before it’s built from examining this part of the source code:
As the image above shows, the structure and contents of the file are determined by the output_file.write commands. Before exploring those, lets just take a look at what the finished file looks like. Here’s the start of the file:
and here’s the final lines:
Notice how the first four lines of the executable match up with the first four output_file.write commands. There’s a little leeway here for an attacker to make some customisations. The first line is required because, as noted by the developer, changing that will effectively nullify the ability of the Launch Agent to run the attack code. Line 4, or some version of it, is also pretty indispensable, as the malware is going to need functions from Python’s
os module in order to run a lot of its own commands. Line 3, however, is more easily customised. Note in particular that the output_file.write instruction defines how long the random key shall be: between 10 and 69 (inclusive) characters long. One doesn’t have to be much of an expert to see how easy it would be to change those values.
Line 5 in the executable is where things get really interesting, both for attacker and defender. As it is, that line contains the entire attack code, encrypted into gibberish by first encoding the raw python code in base64 and then encrypting it with AES256. That will be random for each build, based on the random key written at Line 3. We can see this in the next image, which shows the encrypted code from three different builds. Everything from the highlighted box onwards to the last 100 or so characters of the script are random.
However, as one of my favourite 80s pop songs goes, some things change, some stay the same. The first thing that we can note, as defenders, is that when this code is running on a victim’s machine, we’re going to see it in the output of
ps. If you want to try it on your own machine, run this from the command line (aka in the Terminal.app):
ps -axo ppid,pid,command | grep python | grep -v python
That will return anything running on your Mac with
python in the command or command arguments.
Of course, the victim (and yourself!) may well have legitimate Python programs running. To limit our hits, we can run the
file command on each result from
ps and see what it returns. Our attack code, being a single, heavily encrypted and extremely long line in the region of 30,000 characters, will return this indicator:
file: Python script text executable, ASCII text, with very long lines
That still isn’t going to be unique, but the test will futher narrow down our list of candidates. We can then use string pattern detection on the remaining suspects to see which contain the following plain text items,
-md sha256 | base64 --decode")
We could arguably even include this:
which occurs immediately after
echo, but for reasons I’m about to explain, that might not be a good idea. Still, from the default source code provided by the developer, if we find all of those indicators in the same file, we can be reasonably certain of a match (in truth, there’s a couple of other indicators that I haven’t mentioned here in order to keep DetectX Swift one-step ahead of the attackers).
Unfortunately for defenders, the attacker has a few workarounds available to them for defeating string pattern detection. To begin with, the attacker could adapt the code to use something other than
base64, or indeed nothing at all. Similary,
AES256 isn’t the only option for encryption. For these reasons,we can’t assume that we’ll find something like
U2FsdGVkX1 in the malicious file. Then, there’s the original source code’s use of the long-deprecated os.popen. That is an odd choice to start with, and someone with a bit of experience in Python would be able to rewrite that line to avoid the telling indicators.
Skill level and customisation options
Advanced detection options
At this point you may be feeling that the attacker holds all the cards, and to a certain extent that is true, but there are some positive takeaways. First, we can be fairly sure of catching the neophyte hackers (aka “script kiddies”) with little to no programming experience who are trying to hack their friends, school or random strangers on the internet. The motivation to adapt the code is probably not going to be there for a large number of people just doing it 4 the lulz.
Secondly, depending on your tolerance for investigating false positives, and as I’ll explain how below, if you needed to be super vigilant, you could simply check on every python executable running on your Mac which
file identifies as having ‘very long lines’. For sure, there are legitimate programs doing that, but the number still isn’t going to be that high on any given machine, and the paths to those legit programs are going to be readily identifiable. If security is of overriding importance, then it’s not much inconvenience, and time well spent.
By default, DetectX Swift will find instances of EvilOSX running on a mac when it’s used out of the box, and when its used with a modified launch agent and executable path. It will also still find it when the attacker has made certain alterations to the source code. However, a determined attacker who chooses to rewrite the source code specifically to avoid string pattern detection is always going to be one-step ahead of our heuristics.
We are not out of options though. You can still use DetectX Swift combined with the Terminal.app as a means to making custom detections as mentioned above. Here’s how:
- Launch DetectX Swift and allow it to search for the variations of EvilOSX it knows about. If nothing is returned, go into the Profile view.
- Click inside the dynamic profiler view, and press Command-F and type python into the search field.
- If there are no hits in the Running Processes section, you don’t have EvilOSX running on your machine.
- If there are any hits within the Running Processes section, make a note of each one’s command file path by selecting it in the view and pressing Command-C to copy it.
- Switch to the Terminal app, type
file(with a space) and Command-V to paste. If the path has any spaces in it, surround it in single quotes. Then press return.
- If the path doesn’t come back with ‘very long lines’, the file isn’t EvilOSX.
- If it does, hit the up arrow on the keyboard to put the previous command back at the prompt, use Control-A to move the cursor to the beginning of the line, and replace the word
cat(if you’re familiar with
Vior similar command line text editors use one of those instead). Hit return.
- Does the file end with
- Use command and the up arrow to go back up to the beginning of the file. How close does the file look to matching what you’ve seen here? Look for variations like
import * from osand
- Consider the path that you pasted in. Is it something that looks like it belongs to a genuine program, or is it a completely unfamiliar? Anything that points to ~/Library and isn’t contained within a recognized application named folder should warrant further investigation.
Inspect the output from
cat with the following in mind:
You’ll need to consider carefully the answers to 8, 9, & 10, with an emphasis on the latter, for each python file you tested to make an assessment. If you’re in any doubt, contact us here at Sqwarq and we’ll be glad to take a look at it and confirm one way or the other.
EvilOSX is just one of an increasing number of Python RAT projects that are appearing on the internet. It’s not particularly sophisticated, and this is both a strength and a weakness. With modest programming skills, an attacker can modify the source code to increase the chances of evading automated detections. However, vigilant users can still identify EvilOSX if they know what to look for, as explained in the preceding sections of this post, or by contacting Sqwarq support for free advice.
Stay safe, folks! 🙂
I’ve been wondering for a while now why we see so much adware persisting with nothing much other than easily detected Launch Agents when there’s a variety of other methods available on macOS. Some of those require privileges, like this little known one, but others do not.
Thanks to a DetectX user’s quick reporting, I was able to spot a known offender making good use of the venerable old crontab routine. Set to run on the 4th minute, every second hour, the job fires an executable lurking in the user’s Application Support folder.
A quick look on Google’s VirusTotal confirms what we expected:
Although cron jobs are easy to spot if you go looking for them, this one would probably have stayed hidden away for a while longer if it hadn’t been for the speedy reporting of the user.
DetectX will now find this particular miscreant in its normal search routine, but if you want to check for others, run the
Report a Problem to Sqwarq Support function in the Help menu. We’re happy to look through the logs that creates on your Desktop for you, or if you like delving into this kind of thing, check out the
DetectX_Swift.Processes.txt file in the logs and search down for where it says ‘User Crontab’ as indicated in the screenshot at the top of this post. If you find anything there that you didn’t put in yourself, it warrants further investigation. Feel free to contact us at Sqwarq support if you need help with that.
Stay safe, folks! 🙂
Since releasing DetectX Swift back in January, a lot of people have been asking me how the new ‘Swift’ version differs from the older one, aside from requiring 10.11 or higher (the original will run on 10.7 or higher).
Well sure, it’s written in Swift — and it’s much swifter, literally, but of course there’s a lot more to it than that.
I’ve finally had a spare moment to enumerate the feature list and create a comparison chart. Although the image above is essentially the same as the one you’ll see at the link address at the moment, there’s still a bunch of features to be added as we go through development of version 1. Thus, be sure to check the latest version of the chart to get the most up-to-date info.
We’ll try to get keys to you within 24 hours of receiving your correct answer, but bear in mind, it is Xmas, so delays may be possible while we digest our roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots!
MyCouponize is an aggressive adware infection that simultaneously installs itself in Safari, Chrome and Firefox, It hijacks the user’s search and page loads, redirecting them to multiple web sites that advertise scamware and other unwanted junk.
1. Run the search in DetectX.
2. Click on the [X] button.
You’ll find this button just above the results table to the right, between the search count and the tick (whitelist) button. It will turn red when you hover over it. When it does so, click it.
Then hit ‘Delete’ to remove all the associated items.
You’ll need to enter a password as some of the items are outside of your user folder.
esc key or click the ‘Cancel’ button on any pop up dialogs that appear.
3. Go to the Profiler
Here we’ll unload the launchd processes that belong to MyCouponize.
Navigate to the user launchd processes section and move the cursor over the item
Click the ‘Remove x’ button that appears when the line is highlighted.
Wait for the profiler to refresh and then go back to the same section and remove the second process called
4. Quit the mediaDownloader.app
This item has already been deleted in step 1, but its process may still be running in memory. If its icon appears in the Dock, right click on it and choose ‘Quit’ from the menu.
4. Finally, go to Safari Preferences’ Extensions tab
Click the uninstall button to remove the MyCouponize extension.
After that, Safari should be in good working order. If you have Chrome, Firefox or possibly other browsers installed, make sure you remove the extensions or Add Ons from those, too.
Spoofing or phishing – presenting a user with fake authentication requests – is a common email tactic, but it’s not the only vector where you need to be on your guard. Every version of macOS is vulnerable to a very simple phishing attack right on your desktop that doesn’t require admin privileges to run, would not be detected by GateKeeper or XProtect, and which could easily be placed on your mac by any of the nefarious malware / adware installer scripts that come with some less reputable software downloads.
This attack isn’t new, but it’s not often talked about. The easiest way to see how it works is in this quick 4-minute demo:
As you can see, it’s easy to grab the icon of any Application and put it in the script; it doesn’t even have to be the icon of an app that’s running. The simple demo I gave above could easily launch iTunes first to increase the coherence of the attack, or it could use a completely different icon, including the icon of security programs you may have running on your mac.
How can you check?
If you were presented with a password request like this and wanted to check whether it’s legitimate or not, an easy way would be to use my free utility DetectX Swift’s Profiler. Click the Profiler function, and search for ‘osascript’ within the Running Processes section. Note how DetectX Swift shows you the text of the script being run, confirming that this dialog is up to no good:
It’s been unusually quiet on Applehelpwriter these past few months, and the reason is that I’ve been devoting all my time and efforts to the new version of DetectX. The new version is called DetectX Swift because (yeah, you guessed it) I wrote it in Swift and because it’s considerably faster than its older sibling.
DetectX Swift’s got a new interface, but there’s far more going on under the hood. The Search uses some fancy heuristics as well as hard-coded and live update search definitions to ensure it provides the very best in security threat scanning.
The new Profile view employs some super cool dynamic highlighting and lets you inspect the contents not only of directories but also of scripts, plists and other files that could execute troublesome code on your mac.
There’s changes in the History view, too, both in the display and functions. One of the coolest things I like about the new History function is that you can run a diff on any previous run against the latest run, immediately seeing how they differ.
There’s tons more to DetectX Swift, but the best way to find out about it is just to try it. The beta version is free to use for both Home and Commercial users, so just head off over to its home page and grab yourself a copy!
Don’t forget to keep us informed of how it goes. The beta is still in an early stage and more features are slated as it develops, but feel free to tell us about anything that you feel could be done better or things that you’d like to see added.
Share and enjoy! 🙂