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SolarWinds Attacks: Stealthy Attackers Attempted To Evade Detection

In the first of a series of follow-up analysis on the SolarWinds attacks, we take a look at how the attackers disabled security software and avoided detection

As we continue our analysis on the tools used in the SolarWinds attacks, one of the most striking aspects we’ve noticed is how careful the attackers were to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Software supply chain attacks are relatively stealthy to begin with, since signed software from a trusted source is less likely to raise red flags. However, the attackers weren’t content to rely on the cover this provided and also took several other steps to avoid detection.

To begin with, the Sunburst backdoor (Backdoor.Sunburst), which was delivered using a Trojanized update to SolarWinds Orion, sets a delay time of up to 14 days before execution. In other words, no malicious activity will begin until this period has elapsed.

The length of time selected is most likely to increase the likelihood that the log entries of the initial malicious activity have been deleted before any subsequent post-breach activity is initiated, thereby making it difficult to correlate the two sets of malicious events. Many organizations, including even managed security services providers (MSSPs), will often purge their security logs after seven days to minimize storage costs and make searching them easier.

Sunburst will also check the current Windows domain the machine belongs to. If the domain contains the string 'test' or one of 13 additional specific domains that appear related to lab systems such as “swdev.local” and “apac.lab”, the threat will cease to execute.  A full list is in Appendix A.

Avoiding Security Software and Researchers

Attacks begin with a Trojanized version of SolarWinds’ Orion software. The attackers modified Orion in order to deliver the Sunburst backdoor to the computer. Sunburst is first stage malware, designed to perform reconnaissance on the infected computer, perform checks for security tools, and deliver a second stage payload, if required.

The main Sunburst code is contained in a class named SolarWindows.Orion.Core.BusinessLayer that, when first instantiated, calls a member function called Update. The function name is a ruse, as the code does not perform any update, but instead is designed to disable security software, avoid security researcher systems, and possibly avoid running on systems not of interest to the attackers. The function contains three lists – a list of process names, a list of driver filenames, and a list of processes and service name pairs. These names are all obfuscated in the code by hashing them using the FNV1A algorithm and using variable names that masquerade as timestamps.

The function will:

  • Get a list of running processes.
  • Check if the process names match items on the process list
  • Get a list of all installed drivers
  • Check if the driver names match items on the drivers list
  • If a match is found, the malicious code does not perform further actions and returns

This process and driver list contains tools that commonly run on security researcher systems and thus, this functionality appears to be designed not to run on such systems in order to avoid discovery. The full list of security tools can be found in Appendix A. Furthermore, the lists also contained names related to a variety of security software programs including:

  • Security software process names
    • Panda
    • Kaspersky
    • Tanium
  • Driver names
    • CyberArk - cybkerneltracker.sys
    • Altiris Symantec - atrsdfw.sys (Ghost Pre-installation boot environment driver)
    • Raytheon Cyber Solutions - eaw.sys
    • CJSC Returnil Software - rvsavd.sys
    • Verasys Digital Guardian - dgdmk.sys
    • Sentinel One – sentinelmonitor.sys
    • Hexis Cyber Solutions - hexisfsmonitor.sys
    • Dell SecureWorks - groundling32.sys, groundling64.sys
    • SAFE-Cyberdefense - safe-agent.sys
    • Cybereason – crexecprev.sys
    • Absolute - psepfilter.sys, cve.sys
    • Bromium - brfilter.sys, brcow_x_x_x_x.sys
    • LogRhythm - lragentmf.sys
    • OESIS OPSwat - libwamf.sys

The security vendors on this list have most likely been chosen as the attacker has determined that their products are unlikely be installed at organizations of interest to the attackers. Given the indiscriminate nature of supply chain as a vector, with an estimated 18,000 SolarWinds customers affected, the attackers probably wanted to avoid any risk of detection in organizations that weren’t of interest to them.

Interestingly, the process solarwindsdiagnostics is also blacklisted. Presumably this is included to avoid detection during any SolarWinds testing or troubleshooting.

Disabling security software

Sunburst also attempts to specifically disable some software security services via the registry. This allows Sunburst to perform its malicious actions completely undetected. If the attackers worked quickly and restored the services afterwards, a security administrator would potentially have no record of the activity, nor have even noticed the temporary lack of protection.

Figure 1. Example of how Sunburst disables security software. In this case it checks if the CrowdStrike processes csfalconservice or csfalconcontainer are running, and if so, it sets the csagent, csfalconservice, and csdevicecontrol services to be disabled.

This function will:

  • Get a list of running processes
  • Check if the process names match items on the process/services name pair list
  • Disable the security software by modifying its service registry entry
  • After the software has been confirmed to be disabled, usually after a reboot, the malicious code will then contact the command and control (C&C) server and potentially perform further malicious actions

To disable the security software, Sunburst will simply set the products’ service start setting to Disabled. In Windows, this is done by setting the registry keys:

  • HKLM\ SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\services\<service name>\Start = 4

This will cause the security software not to load at the next reboot.

It should be noted that the attackers do not attempt to disable any Symantec products. Presumably this is because of an anti-tampering feature in Symantec software, which prevents its own service from being disabled.

The process and services pair list include software from the following vendors:

  • CrowdStrike
  • Carbon Black
  • FireEye
  • ESET
  • F-Secure

Interestingly, the list also included Microsoft Defender, but only the service key permissions are changed.  Currently, this has an unknown effect. In addition, some other unknown products are also included, but were effectively commented out. The attackers may have discovered this technique was ineffective for these products.

Finally, Sunburst will check if resolves to a valid address before continuing.

Low profile threat

The SolarWinds attacks are among the best-planned and adept attacks we have seen in recent years. The attackers have gone to great lengths to both find an effective path into their targeted organizations and, once inside their networks, maintain a low profile. Our analysis of these tools is ongoing and we plan to publish further blogs in the coming weeks.


Tools associated with these attacks will be detected and blocked on machines running Symantec Endpoint products.

File-based protection:

  • Backdoor.Sunburst
  • Backdoor.Sunburst!gen1
  • Backdoor.SuperNova
  • Backdoor.Teardrop

Network-based protection:

  • System Infected: Sunburst Malware Activity

Appendix A

Drivers Avoided

DriverFNV1A HashDescription
ybkerneltracker.sys 17097380490166623672
atrsdfw.sys 15194901817027173566 Altiris Symantec (Ghost Preinstallion boot environment driver)
eaw.sys 12718416789200275332 Raytheon Cyber Solutions
rvsavd.sys 18392881921099771407 CJSC Returnil Software
dgdmk.sys 3626142665768487764 Verdasys
sentinelmonitor.sys 12343334044036541897 Sentinel
hexisfsmonitor.sys 397780960855462669 Sentinel One
groundling32.sys 6943102301517884811 Dell SecureWorks
groundling64.sys 13544031715334011032 Dell SecureWorks
safe-agent.sys 11801746708619571308 SAFE-Cyberdefense
crexecprev.sys 18159703063075866524 Absolute (Palisade Systems)
psepfilter.sys 835151375515278827 Absolute
cve.sys 16570804352575357627 Absolute
brfilter.sys 1614465773938842903 Bromium
brcow_x_x_x_x.sys 12679195163651834776 Bromium
lragentmf.sys 2717025511528702475 LogRhythm
libwamf.sys 17984632978012874803 OESIS OPSwat

Security Tools Avoided

ToolFNV1A Hash
apimonitor-x64 2597124982561782591
apimonitor-x86 2600364143812063535
autopsy64 13464308873961738403
autopsy 4821863173800309721
autoruns64 12969190449276002545
autoruns 3320026265773918739
autorunsc64 12094027092655598256
autorunsc 10657751674541025650
binaryninja 11913842725949116895
blacklight 5449730069165757263
cff explorer 292198192373389586
cutter 12790084614253405985
de4dot 5219431737322569038
debugview 15535773470978271326
diskmon 7810436520414958497
dnsd 13316211011159594063
dnspy 13825071784440082496
dotpeek32 14480775929210717493
dotpeek64 14482658293117931546
dumpcap 8473756179280619170
evidence center 3778500091710709090
exeinfope 8799118153397725683
fakedns 12027963942392743532
fakenet 576626207276463000
ffdec 7412338704062093516
fiddler 682250828679635420
fileinsight 13014156621614176974
floss 18150909006539876521
gdb 10336842116636872171
hiew32 13260224381505715848
unknown 17956969551821596225
hiew32demo 12785322942775634499
idaq64 8709004393777297355
idaq 14256853800858727521
idr 8129411991672431889
ildasm 15997665423159927228
ilspy 10829648878147112121
jd-gui 9149947745824492274
lordpe 3656637464651387014
officemalscanner 3575761800716667678
ollydbg 4501656691368064027
pdfstreamdumper 10296494671777307979
pe-bear 14630721578341374856
pebrowse64 4088976323439621041
peid 9531326785919727076
pe-sieve32 6461429591783621719
pe-sieve64 6508141243778577344
pestudio 10235971842993272939
peview 2478231962306073784
pexplorer 9903758755917170407
ppee 14710585101020280896
procdump64 13611814135072561278
procdump 2810460305047003196
processhacker 2032008861530788751
procexp64 27407921587843457
procexp 6491986958834001955
procmon 2128122064571842954
prodiscoverbasic 10484659978517092504
py2exedecompiler 8478833628889826985
r2agent 10463926208560207521
rabin2 7080175711202577138
radare2 8697424601205169055
ramcapture64 7775177810774851294
ramcapture 16130138450758310172
reflector 506634811745884560
regmon 18294908219222222902
resourcehacker 3588624367609827560
retdec-ar-extractor 9555688264681862794
retdec-bin2llvmir 5415426428750045503
retdec-bin2pat 3642525650883269872
retdec-config 13135068273077306806
retdec-fileinfo 3769837838875367802
retdec-getsig 191060519014405309
retdec-idr2pat 1682585410644922036
retdec-llvmir2hll 7878537243757499832
retdec-macho-extractor 13799353263187722717
retdec-pat2yara 1367627386496056834
retdec-stacofin 12574535824074203265
retdec-unpacker 16990567851129491937
retdec-yarac 8994091295115840290
rundotnetdll 13876356431472225791
sbiesvc 14968320160131875803
scdbg 14868920869169964081
scylla_x64 106672141413120087
scylla_x86 79089792725215063
shellcode_launcher 5614586596107908838
solarwindsdiagnostics 3869935012404164040
sysmon64 3538022140597504361
sysmon 14111374107076822891
task explorer 7982848972385914508
task explorer-x64 8760312338504300643
tcpdump 17351543633914244545
tcpvcon 7516148236133302073
tcpview 15114163911481793350
vboxservice 15457732070353984570
win32_remote 16292685861617888592
win64_remotex64 10374841591685794123
windbg 3045986759481489935
windump 17109238199226571972
winhex64 6827032273910657891
winhex 5945487981219695001
winobj 8052533790968282297
wireshark 17574002783607647274
x32dbg 3341747963119755850
x64dbg 14193859431895170587
xwforensics 17683972236092287897
xwforensics64 17439059603042731363

Security Software Avoided

VendorProcessFNV1A Hash
Panda psanhost 2532538262737333146
psuaservice 4454255944391929578
psuamain 6088115528707848728
Kaspersky avp 13611051401579634621
avpui 18147627057830191163
ksde 17633734304611248415
ksdeui 13581776705111912829
Tanium tanium 7175363135479931834
taniumclient 3178468437029279937
taniumdetectengine 13599785766252827703
taniumendpointindex 6180361713414290679
taniumtracecli 8612208440357175863
taniumtracewebsocketclient64 8408095252303317471
AVG/AVAST aswidsagent 2934149816356927366
aswidsagenta 13029357933491444455
aswengsrv 6195833633417633900
avastavwrapper 2760663353550280147
avgsvc 3660705254426876796
avgui 12709986806548166638
avgsvca 3890794756780010537
avgidsagent 2797129108883749491
avgsvcx 3890769468012566366
avgwdsvcx 14095938998438966337
avgadminclientservice 11109294216876344399
afwserv 1368907909245890092
avastui 11818825521849580123
avastsvc 8146185202538899243
bccavsvc 16423314183614230717

Domains Avoided

DomainFNV1A Hash
swdev.local 1109067043404435916
swdev.dmz 15267980678929160412
lab.local 8381292265993977266 3796405623695665524
emea.sales 8727477769544302060
cork.lab 10734127004244879770
dev.local 11073283311104541690
dmz.local 4030236413975199654
pci.local 7701683279824397773
saas.swi 5132256620104998637 5942282052525294911
lab.brno 4578480846255629462
apac.lab 16858955978146406642

Service Disablement List

VendorProcess NamesService Names
Carbon Black cavp carbonblack
cb carbonblackk
CrowdStrike csfalconservice csagent
csfalconcontainer csdevicecontrol
FireEye xagt xagt
xagtnotif fe_avk
3320767229281015341 (unknown)
ESET ekrn eamonm
eguiproxy eelam
egui ehdrv
2589926981877829912 (unknown)
F-Secure fsgk32st 17624147599670377042 (unknown)
fswebuid 16066651430762394116 (unknown)
fsgk32 13655261125244647696 (unknown)
fsma32 fsaua
fssm32 fsma
fnrb32 3425260965299690882 (unknown)
fsaua fsbts
fsorsp fsni
fsav32 fsvista
13783346438774742614 (unknown)
2380224015317016190 (unknown)
14243671177281069512 (unknown)
16112751343173365533 (unknown)

About the Author

Threat Hunter Team


The Threat Hunter Team is a group of security experts within Symantec whose mission is to investigate targeted attacks, drive enhanced protection in Symantec products, and offer analysis that helps customers respond to attacks.

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