Malware Engineering Part 0x2— Finding shelter for parasite

Abhinav Thakur
Nov 14, 2019 · 13 min read

A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism ×_×

That’s how Wikipedia defines a biological virus in a nutshell. Holding on the analogy, a computer virus comes under the category of a malware that infects host binaries (even memory) via some parasitic code injection technique. Parasite here is the code that gets injected, residing in the host binary to takeover the hijacked code flow of the host program. After infection, the host binary is trojanized to achieve further goals. Trojan is a software that has malicious intent but disguise to be a legitimate program. The basic idea of a virus is to hijack the code flow of the program and hand it over to the parasite code, which (after execution of its malicious code) silently transfers control to the host binary resuming the intended code execution. In this article we’ll be discussing an approach towards virus design and the algorithm used for infection process.

NOTE : This article is the continuation of — That magical ELF malware engineering series where we kept our first foot into the world of ELF binaries.


  • Understanding of ELF file format is mandatory.
  • A decent amount of C programming skills along with system programming concepts (linked for a quick learning) under Linux will greatly help in understanding the article to the fullest.
  • Further, we’ll be using data structures defined in elf.h (present in /usr/include/ directory of your local Linux filesystem) to programmatically access and manipulate parts of the host binary. Therefore, I encourage the reader to go through the structures . Alternatively, these data structures can be referenced from page 5 of the Linux manual — $ man 5 elf.

In the world of snipers and hand grenades, what do we intend to make?

A dagger, perhaps. What we’re going to design is a silent weapon (infector program) with some poison(parasite) which could be used after the exploitation phase of the cyber kill-chain to stealthily maintain persistence over the victim machine via some commonly executed trojans.

In memory, a program is laid out in the form of segments (each segment constituting one or more sections). Let’s look at Program Header Table (PHT) of the /bin/ls utility (which lists the content of the current directory) -

Above, we see that there are 2 loadable segments (marked as type LOAD) with segment permissions R-E (Read-Execute) and RW- (Read-Write). Looking at the section to segment mappings, it’s safe to infer that they are the CODE/TEXT and DATA segment respectively.

Abstract memory view of a program

After an innocent program is loaded into memory, segments are page-aligned but the sections (comprising segments) rarely align with the page boundary, thereby leaving space in between current and the adjacent segment. This space is padded by the zero bytes when the binary is loaded into memory. In the above picture, the padding is represented by a series of P which causes alignment in segments. We’ll use this padding to provide residence to the parasite as it seems to be a nice comfy shelter. There are however cases where the padding area is smaller than the parasite size in which case this method of infection (a.k.a segment padding infection in UNIX world and code caving in windows world) would not be able to infect that binary. Bellow is the algorithm for infection mechanism.

-x-x- Load parasite from file on-disk into memory                       
1. Get parasite_size and parasite_code address (location in allocated memory)

-x-x- Find the padding_size (unused space) between CODE segment and the NEXT segment after CODE segment(usually data segment)
2. In the CODE segment PHT entry, increase the following-
-> p_filesz (by parasite size)
-> p_memsz (by parasite size)
Get and Set respectively,
-> padding_size = (offset of next segment (after CODE segment)) - (end of CODE segment)
-> parasite_offset = (end of CODE segment) or (end of last section of CODE segment)
-> parasite_load_address = virtual address (vaddr) + sizeof CODE segment (filesz)
-x-x- PATCH Host entry point
3. Save the original_entry_point of host binary.
4. Alter the host entry to point to the location parasite_offset/parasite_load_address (i.e. the location where parasite is to be injected into the host binary)

5. Find the last section in CODE Segment and increase -
-> sh_size (by parasite size)

-x-x- PATCH Parasite offset
6. Find and replace Parasite jmp-on-exit address/offset placeholder with original_entry_point 0x????????????????

-x-x- Inject Parasite to Host (mapped @ host_mapping)
7. Inject parasite code @ (host_mapping + parasite_offset), i.e. to the end of the last section (among all other sections in CODE segment)
8. Write the infection to disk ×_×

NOTE : There’s a drawback to this infection point. Since the CODE segment is not having write permissions, a self-modifying parasite code won’t work.

Let the CODE speak for itself ×_×

With all the knowledge equipped about ELF’s and our black hoodies on, its time to dive into actual implementation of infection algorithm in C programming language. I’ll walk through the source code of Kaal Bhairav’s infection module.


First, let’s declare some variables. I hope the comments above would suffice as a lucid understanding of what a variable stores.

Ingredients for spell

ElfParser() accepts a parameter named filepath (path to host binary) and follows each step of infection algorithm by coordinating with other utility functions.

And that’s how an evil ELF was born
  • (Line 84) Abstracts the use of mmap() to map the host binary into memory for further modification. First byte of the host is mapped @ location specified by host_mapping.
  • (Line 8690) It gets Elf header of the host binary into host_header (struct Elf64_Ehdr type specified in elf.h). It parses ET_EXEC and ET_DYN (executable and shared objects) type of class 64-bit binaries skipping ET_REL (relocatable), ET_CORE (core) or binaries of class ELFCLASS32 (32 bit binaries). Here ET_EXEC, ET_DYN, ET_REL, ET_CORE are macros defined in elf.h.
  • (Line 9394) Calls LoadParasite() to get parasite into memory preparing it for injection into the host. Crafting parasite code (which is different for both the LSB executable and shared object type) will be explained in the next article.
  • (Line 96101) Calls GetPaddingSize() which gets the padding size (shelter size) and checks if the host can accommodate the parasite into the padding.
  • (Line 103107) Saves the original_entry_point of the host binary and modifies the host entry point by location where the parasite is to be injected (parasite_offset and parasite_load_address set up by GetPaddingSize()). Parasite location will be different for both executable and shared object binaries. In an ET_EXEC host, entry point is specified by an address whereas in shared objects(ET_DYN), entry point is specified by an offset since it contains PIC (Position Independent Code).
LSB executable and LSB shared object
  • (Line 109115) PatchSHT() is our utility function that performs modification on Section Header Table to accommodate the parasite. Then we use FindAndReplace() to patch the jmp-on-exit address/offset of parasite code with original_entry_point of host binary, after which we inject the parasite into host via memcpy() and use munmap() to unmap the binary and write infected host mapping onto the disk.

mmapFile() — Keeping the host at a one-arm distance

mapping the host

The function mmapFile() accepts path to host as parameter, maps the host into current process address space and returns a pointer to first byte of the mapped host binary.

  • (Line 317321) Opens the host binary in Read-Write mode
  • (Line 323328) lstat() to get the information about the host, specifically size of host binary (on-disk size) to be used by mmap(). Read $ man stat.
  • (Line 330334) mmap() maps the host binary into virtual address space of calling process (Kaal Bhairav in this case). The host is mapped at an address chosen by the kernel (specified by NULL as first parameter to mmap). PROT_WRITE here describes the memory protection of the mapping, i.e. pages in the mapping may be written. MAP_SHARED flag specifies that updates to the mapping will be reflected to file on disk as soon as any modification to mapping is performed (additionally, use of msync() is preffered). Read $ man mmap.
  • (Line 336337) Finally close() the host binary and return the address to first byte of mapped host binary.

LoadParasite() — Poison in memory

Loading poison pill

The idea is to inject the parasite into host mapping (which has MAP_SHARED flag set). To do this, the parasite code needs to be somewhere into the process address space so that it is directly accessible when the time is right. LoadParasite()which takes path to file containing parasite code () as parameter and gets the parasite into memory defining the parasite_size and parasite_code global variables (which stores the size and location of parasite code in memory). It does so by -

  • (Line 270282) Opens the file containing parasite code in Read-Only mode and uses lstat()(previously used in mmapFile()) to get the properties of the parasite file.
  • (Line 284290) The code gets the size of parasite into parasite_size and allocates parasite_size bytes on heap segment via malloc() which returns the location of the allocated space to parasite_code. The address returned by malloc() is stored into parasite_code which is of type int8_t *(pointer to a byte value).
  • (Line 292296) Finally we perform read() syscall to read parasite_size bytes from parasite_fd (parasite file descriptor returned by open()).

NOTE : We rely on heap segment to load parasite code, since it remains accessible until the end of program execution. If we load parasite code into an array (space for which gets allocated on the stack segment), it will get destroyed along with stack frame of LoadParasite() as soon as the function returns (during function epilogue).

GetPaddingSize() — That comfy shelter !

Parsing PHT

Till the point, we have mapped the host binary into process address space and we have our parasite code chilling out on the heap segment. Next, we need to find out an accommodation into mapping of the host binary where our parasite code could sit and execute silently. The function GetPaddingSize()parses Program Header Table (PHT) (of the host mapped @ host_mapping) to find the padding size between CODE segment and the NEXT segment after CODE segment (usually DATA segment) and returns size of padding (which lets us know whether or not the host is able to accommodate the parasite).

  • (Line 211213) Gets the elf_header from host_mapping (which always starts from the 0th offset of the binary). From elf header, it gets and stores the offset of PHT into variable named pht_offset and the number of program headers (in PHT) into a variable named pht_entry_count.
  • (Line 216) Sets a variable named phdr_entry to point to the first entry in PHT which is @ (host_mapping + pht_offset)
  • (Line 217219) Sets CODE_SEGMENT_FOUND to 0 which describes whether the CODE segment is found or not. Then, we start iterating through the entries of PHT starting from 0th program header.
  • (Line 221225) Checks if the CODE_SEGMENT_FOUND is 0 (i.e. CODE segment is not found yet) and the segment type (specified by p_type attribute of struct Elf64_Phdrdefined in elf.h) is PT_LOAD (i.e. one of the LOAD segments of binary) and p_flags (permission flags attribute of program header) is set to bitwise OR of PF_R (Read) and PF_X (Execute bit) Read-Execute (R-X). If all three conditions are true, the segment is marked as CODE seg Patch parasite code to silently transfer control to original codement by setting CODE_SEGMENT_FOUND to 1.
  • (Line 227229) Here the phdr_entry points to the current program header and the end of the segment is given by adding the p_filesz (size of segment on disk) to the p_offset (offset of current segment). Since we want to place parasite code at the end of CODE segment itself, we set parasite_offset to code_segment_end_offset. For LSB executables, we set parasite_load_address (i.e. location at which the parasite will be found during execution of host binary) to (p_vaddr + p_filesz) of CODE segment.
  • (Line 231232) As per the 2nd step of infection algorithm, we increase the filesz (size of segment on disk) and memsz (size of segment in memory) attributes of current program header by parasite_size. This is done to accommodate parasite both on disk and in memory.
  • (Line 235240) It is the block for DATA segment which executes if the CODE_SEGMENT_FOUND is set to 1 (i.e. CODE segment is already parsed and modified by above code) and segment type (p_type attribute of struct Elf64_Phdrdefined in elf.h)is set to PT_LOAD (i.e. loadable segment) and segment permissions are set to Read-Write (RW-). It returns the padding_size which is calculated by subtracting offset to end of
    CODE segment from offset to DATA segment (i.e. p_offset (of DATA segment) code_segment_end_offset).
  • (Line 242245) It then increments phdr_entry to point to next program header entry. If the loop iterates through all the entries and code flow somehow reaches line number 245, it means that we didn’t get into if block of DATA segment and therefore returns 0 which marks as no space for parasite code.

NOTE : Here PF_R, PF_W and PF_X are macros which describe the access permissions of a segment and are defined in /usr/include/elf.h. PF_X is (1<<0), PF_W is (1<<1) and PF_R is (1<<2). We can use these flags by performing a bitwise OR on these macros as described in $ man 5 elf.

PatchSHT() — Long live our parasite !

Parsing PHT

We found a room for parasite inside host but how do we remove its insecurity about not getting thrown out of the shelter we found. There exist tools possessive to binaries (like strip) that don’t like complementary content (i.e. anything other than what is necessary for program execution) to stay inside a binary. Strip discard symbols, debugging information and parts of the binary that doesn’t contribute to the execution of a program. Tools like strip is often used by software developers to reduce the size of binary (before releasing it for production) and also to make life harder for reverse engineers. Along with this, it removes any code/data that doesn’t fall into any section, which seems scary to our parasite. To make our future trojanized host strip-safe, we’ll have to parse the Section Header Table (SHT) of the binary and increase the size of the last section of CODE segment by parasite_size to deceive strip into believing that the parasite is a part of a section.

  • (Line 145150) It sets the sht_offset (offset to Section Header Table) and sht_entry_count (number of entries in SHT) from the elf header of the host binary. Defines section_entry (which is of type Elf64_Shdr *defined in elf.h) to 1st entry of SHT.
  • (Line 153162) Iterating over the SHT, we check if the offset to end current section (current_section_end_offset) is equal to the offset to end of code segment (code_segment_end_offset). If it is the last section of CODE segment, then increase its sh_size to accommodate parasite code. Later, increment the section_entry pointer to point to next entry in SHT.

FindAndReplace() — Patching the parasite


When an attacker infects a binary, he intends to hijack the code flow of the binary to make it do things which it was not intended to do (stunts performed by the parasite). The hijacking part of the process can be done via different methods of infection, depending on the infection point used by the malware author. It can be done prior to execution of main() (by entry point modification technique or by hijacking constructors), in between main()’s execution (by hijacking library functions — GOT poisoning or PLT/GOT redirection, infection via function trampolines) and also can be done after main() executes (hijacking destructors). Here, we’ve focused on the first of these techniques, i.e. entry point modification to hijack code flow of the host binary.

After we hijack the code flow and transfer code flow to the parasite, it is the responsibility of the parasite to silently transfer code flow back to the intended code execution of the host binary such that code is silently executed without creating any noise. To do this we need to somehow let the parasite know where it needs to transfer code flow after execution. Our utility function — FindAndReplace() performs this task for us. It replaces a placeholder value (inside parasite code) with the original_entry_point of host binary. Calling it - FindAndReplace(parasite_code, 0xAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, original_entry_point);.

  • (Line 125128) Initializes a pointer uint8_t *ptr to parasite and loops through each byte of parasite code.
  • (Line 130135) On x86–64 bit architectures, a memory address takes 8 bytes of space in memory. Keeping this in mind the current_QWORD is a long type variable which stores a 8-byte value. The if statement compares the values by XORing the find_value and current_QWORD (1 XOR 1 is 0) such that it overwrites 8 bytes of placeholder with replace_value and returns (i.e. original_entry_point)

ElfParser : Inject parasite code & unmap the binary


In ElfParser(), memcpy(), copies parasite_size bytes from location parasite_code (in heap segment) to (host_mapping + parasite_offset) which is the accommodation for parasite. munmap() unmaps the host binary from the process address space of Kaal Bhairav and infection is written to disk.

My beloved binary is sick

Sick enough to show up an abrupt behavior (at least). Infection process isn’t complete until we learn to craft parasites. Parasite is what completes the infection by defining what good or evil happens after we hijack the code flow of the host. In the next article, we’ll discuss parasite design which is different for both ET_EXEC and ET_DYN type binaries (i.e. for both LSB executable and shared objects).
The entire source code for the elf infector can be found here.

Abhinav Thakur
(a.k.a compilepeace)

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Abhinav Thakur

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