The History of Fileless Malware – Looking Beyond the Buzzword

What's the deal with "fileless malware"? Though many security professionals cringe when they hear this term, lots of articles and product brochures mention fileless malware in the context of threats that are difficult to resist and investigate. Below is my attempt to look beyond the buzzword, tracing the origins of this term and outlining the malware samples that influenced how we use it today.

Frenzy for Fileless

The notion of fileless malware has been gaining a lot of attention at industry events, private meetings and online discussions. This might be because this threat highlights some of the deficiencies in old-school endpoint security methods and gives new approaches an opportunity to highlight their strengths.

Indeed, according to Google Trends, people's interest in this term blipped in 2012 and 2014, began building up toward 2015 and spiked in 2017.

This pattern corresponds to the publicly-discussed malware that exhibited "fileless" capabilities in the recent years, and with the burst of research and marketing publications that appeared in 2017.

What is Fileless Malware?

Let's get this out of the way: Fileless malware sometimes has files. Most people today seem to be using the term fileless malware in a manner consistent with the following definition:

Fileless malware is malware that operates without placing malicious executables on the file system.

This definition accommodates situations where the infection began with a malicious script or even a benign executable on the file system. It also matches the scenarios where the specimen stored artifacts in the registry, even though Windows keeps registry contents on disk. It applies regardless of the way in which the infection occurred, be it an exploit of a vulnerability, a social engineering trick, or a misuse of some feature.

Though initially fileless malware referred to malicious code that remained solely in memory without even implementing a persistence mechanism, the term evolved to encompass malware that relies on some aspects of the file system for activation or presence. Let's review some of the malicious programs that influenced how we use this term today.

2001-2003: Code Red and SQL Slammer

The notion of malicious code that resides solely in memory certainly existed prior to the 21st century. Yet, it wasn't until the highly-prolific Code Red worm left its mark on the Internet in 2001, did the term fileless malware enter the general parlance. The earliest public reference I could find dates to summer 2001, when Kaspersky Labs published an announcement that quoted none other than Eugene Kaspersky:

"We predict that in the very near future, such 'fileless' worms as Code Red will become one of the most widespread forms of malicious programs, and an anti-virus' ineffectiveness in the face of such a threat simply invites danger."

Code Red exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft IIS web servers, remaining solely in memory of the infected host, as explained by the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis.

A year and a half later another worm—SQL Slammer—spread like wildfire by exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft SQL servers. Robert Vamosi, writing for ZDNet in 2003, described this malware as "file-less" and mentioned that it resided "only in memory, much as Code Red."

I came across another early mention of this term in the 2003 patent filing by the venerable Peter Szor, who worked at Symantec at the time. Titled signature extraction system and method, the patent defines fileless malware as:

"Malicious code that is not file based but exists in memory only... More particularly, fileless malicious code ... appends itself to an active process in memory..."

The original definition of fileless malware was close to the English meaning of the words that describe malware that remains active without leaving any files.

2012: A Bot That Installed the Lurk Trojan

The next fileless malware reference I could locate appeared nearly a decade after Code Red and SQL Slammer worms. In 2012, Sergey Golovanov at Kaspersky Labs presented his analysis of a bot that didn't save any files to the hard drive, explaining that:

"We are dealing with a very rare kind of malware — the so-called fileless malicious programs that do not exist as files on the hard drive but operate only in the infected computers RAM."

The unnamed specimen exploited a client-side Java vulnerability and operated solely in memory of the affected javaw.exe process. Sergey mentioned that the bot was capable of installing the Lurk banker trojan.

Earlier that year, Amit Malik at SecurityXploded published an educational write-up, explaining how to achieve "in-memory or file-less execution" of a Windows program without saving it to disk after downloading it from the Internet.

2014: Powerliks, Angler, Phase Bot

The malicious programs outlined above stayed purely memory-resident without leaving any direct footprints on the file systems. As the result of this volatility, they disappeared once the system was rebooted. In contrast, 2014 brought us Poweliks malware, which G Data's Paul Rascagnères described as "persistent malware without a file." This specimen found its way onto the system by exploiting a Microsoft Word vulnerability. It used PowerShell and JavaScript along with shellcode to jumpstart its in-memory execution.  Kevin Gossett at Symantec described its persistence mechanism like this:

"Normally, malware will place an entry in the Run subkey that points to a malicious executable which is then executed. Poweliks makes the Run subkey call rundll32.exe, a legitimate Windows executable used to load DLLs, and passes in several parameters. These parameters include JavaScript code that eventually results in Poweliks being loaded into memory and executed."

A month later, security researcher Kafeine documented an Angler exploit kit infection that exhibited fileless characteristics. The attack targeted a client-side Java vulnerability and operated solely in memory of the affected javaw.exe process. In a related future occurrence, Angler began installing Bedep downloader in 2016 that, according to Palo Alto's Brad Duncan, "is installed without creating any files because it is loaded directly into memory by the exploit shellcode."

Closer to the end of 2014, security researcher Marcus Hutchins documented a fileless rootkit named Phase Bot. According to its advertisement, the specimen achieved stealth "by installing on windows systems without dropping any files to disk and not having it's own process. [...] Phase hids it's relocatable code encrypted in the registry and uses powershell to read and execute this position independent code into memory." Like Powerliks, this malware maintained persistence by launching rundll32.exe from an autorun registry key to execute JavaScript.

2014-2015: Duqu 2.0, Kovter

In mid-2015, Kaspersky Labs published details about an advanced adversary that operated in 2014-2015 using a sophisticated malware platform that the vendor called Duqu 2.0. The attack utilized a Windows vulnerability to install stealthy malware that remained solely in memory of the infected host. It did not implement a persistence mechanism. Instead, the researchers explained, the attackers targeted servers with high uptime and then re-infected the systems that got "disinfected by reboots."

Another fileless malware specimen that gained attention in 2015 was Kovter. In that incarnation, the Kovter's infection technique closely resembled that of Powerliks. Even when starting the infection with a malicious Windows executable, the specimen removed that file after storing obfuscated or encrypted artifacts in the registry. At least one of its variations maintained persistence by using a shortcut file that executed JavaScript. As outlined by Andrew Dove at Airbus, this script launched PowerShell, which executed shellcode, which launched a non-malicious application after injecting malicious code into it.

2016: PowerSniff, PowerWare, August

In mid-2016, Josh Grunzweig and Brandon Levene at Palo Alto Networks documented a malicious program they dubbed PowerSniff. The infection began with a Microsoft Word document that contained a malicious macro. The in-memory mechanics of this specimen resembled some aspects of Kovter and involved a PowerShell script that executed shellcode, which decoded and executed additional malicious payload, operating solely in memory. PowerSniff had the ability to temporarily save a malicious DLL to the file system.

A couple of weeks later, Mike Sconzo and Rico Valdez at Carbon Black described a ransomware specimen they called PowerWare. Like PowerSniff, PowerWare began its infection with a Microsoft Office document that contained a malicious macro, which ultimately launched PowerShell that continued the infection process without placing malicious executables on the file system.

Another fileless malware sample that utilized Microsoft Word macros and PowerShell was documented later in the year by Proofpoint. It was named August. According to the researchers, the specimen downloaded a portion of a payload "from the remote site as a PowerShell byte array," executing it in memory without saving it to the file system.

2017: POSHSPY, etc.

In early 2017, Kaspersky Labs described an unnamed incident where adversaries stored Meterpreter-based malicious code solely in memory. The only file system artifacts were legitimate Windows utilities such as sc (to install a malicious service that ran PowerShell) and netsh (to tunnel malicious network traffic).

Several months later, Matthew Dunwoody at Mandiant described another sophisticated attack that involved fileless malicious code. Named POSHSPY, the specimen used Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) capabilities of the OS to maintain persistence and relied on PowerShell for its payload. The specimen had the ability to download executable files, which it would save to the file system. Matthew concluded that:

By "living off the land," this adversary implemented "an extremely discrete backdoor that they can deploy alongside their more conventional and noisier backdoor families, in order to help ensure persistence even after remediation."

The incidents above highlighted the powerful capabilities available to intruders even when they rely solely on built-in benign programs to execute malicious payload on the infected systems.

Alternatives to Saying "Fileless Malware"

Sergey Golovanov's 2012 article mentioned above originally used the term fileless malware. Interestingly, it has been revised and now uses the term bodiless malware instead. Kaspersky Labs experimented with saying bodiless malware as late as 2016, but it seems to have returned to fileless malware in other writeups in 2017.

Speaking of the terms that didn't take off... The notion of Advanced Volatile Threat (AVT) gained some buzz in 2013 after, according to Wikipedia, being coined by John Prisco of Triumfant Inc. The short-lived AVT moniker popped up in Byron Acohido's USA Today article in 2013 in reference to a backdoored version of Apache software. According to Pierre-Marc Bureau, who was at ESET at that time, the backdoor left "no traces of compromised hosts on the hard drive other than its modified" web server binary.

In contrast, a reasonable alternative to the term fileless malware was introduced by Carbon Black in its 2016 Threat Report. The report used the phrase non-malware attacks. Writing on the company's blog a few months later, Michael Viscuso explained the meaning of this term like this:

"A non-malware attack is one in which an attacker uses existing software, allowed applications and authorized protocols to carry out malicious activities. Non-malware attacks are capable of gaining control of computers without downloading any malicious files, hence the name. Non-malware attacks are also referred to as fileless, memory-based or 'living-off-the-land' attacks."

Gartner used the term "non-malware attack" in a 2017 report that highlighted Carbon Black. However, another Gartner report published a month later used "fileless attacks" instead.

Why Does It Matter?

I like the idea of saying "non-malware attacks" for incidents that rely solely on legitimate system administration tools and other non-malicious software. This is the scenario that some people describe as living-off-the-land. In contrast, I might prefer to say "memory-only malware" if I need to point out that malicious code is never saved to disk, perhaps because it was injected into another process. I'm even OK with saying "fileless malware" when bringing focus on persistence mechanisms that avoid placing traditional executables on the file system.

Unfortunately, nowadays the terminology has been commingled, and we're probably stuck with the term "fileless malware" to describe the various scenarios outlined above, despite the term's ambiguity. Alas, human language is imprecise and always-evolving. (If we all spoke C#, perhaps the world would be a better place.)

I care about this terminology because I'm trying to avoid buzzwords and empty phrases when describing the capabilities of the anti-malware product for which I'm responsible at Minerva. It runs alongside other endpoint security tools and blocks all sorts of sneaky malware, regardless whether its payload touches disk. I'm often asked how we handle fileless malware; I decided to perform the research above to better understand how and when I should use this term.


About the Author

I transform ideas into successful outcomes, building on my 25 years of experience in cybersecurity. As the CISO at Axonius, I lead the security program to earn customers' trust. I'm also a Faculty Fellow at SANS Institute, where I author and deliver training for incident responders. My expertise, which spans cybersecurity, IT, and leadership, allows me to create practical security solutions that drive business growth.

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