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Security Research

Zloader: No Longer Silent in the Night

SANTIAGO VICENTE, ISMAEL GARCIA PEREZ
January 19, 2024 - 8 min read

Introduction

Zloader (aka Terdot, DELoader, or Silent Night), is a modular trojan born from the leaked Zeus source code. It surfaced publicly in 2016 during a targeted campaign against German banks1, but its malicious activity traces back to at least August 2015. Zloader’s first run persisted until the beginning of 2018 when its activities abruptly ceased. Its resurgence at the end of 2019, marketed in underground forums as “Silent Night”, came with substantial alterations. The evolution of Zloader progressed steadily, leading to the development of version 2.0.0.0 around September 2021. Similar to Qakbot, the threat actors using Zloader also pivoted from conducting banking fraud to ransomware. In April 2022, security researchers executed a takedown operation2 to dismantle the botnet leading to an extended period of inactivity.

After an almost two-year hiatus, Zloader reemerged with a new iteration that appears to have started development in September 2023. These new changes include new obfuscation techniques, an updated domain generation algorithm (DGA), RSA encryption for network communications, and the loader now has native support for 64-bit versions of Windows. Initially, this new version was labeled with the old version number 2.0.0.0. However, over the past several months, they released version 2.1.6.0 and 2.1.7.0. In this blog, we will explore these new updates to Zloader.

Key Takeaways

  • Zloader dates back to 2015 and has been advertised in underground cybercriminal forums under the name “Silent Night” since the end of 2019.
  • Zloader has returned after an almost two-year hiatus after being taken down in April 2022 by security researchers.
  • The new version of Zloader made significant changes to the loader module, which added RSA encryption, updated the domain generation algorithm, and is now compiled for 64-bit Windows operating systems for the first time.
  • Zloader continues to use junk code for obfuscation, as well as API import hashing and string encryption in an attempt to hinder malware analysis.

Technical Analysis

In the following sections, we dive into the technical details surrounding Zloader’s new updates to their anti-analysis techniques, embedded configuration, DGA, and network encryption.

Anti-analysis techniques

Zloader uses a combination of API import hashing, junk code, a filename check, and string obfuscation. The following sections analyze each technique.

Imports and API resolution

The newest Zloader samples only import a few functions from the kernel32 library. The remaining imports are resolved at runtime using checksums to obfuscate the functions that are used. This technique, already present in older versions, changes its implementation, adding an XOR constant which changes between samples. Python code that replicates the API hashing algorithm is shown below.

API hashing

Code sample available on GitHub.


Junk code 

Similar to previous versions, Zloader uses custom obfuscation. The new version of Zloader adds junk code that consists of various arithmetic operations, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Example Zloader 2.1 junk code

Figure 1. Example Zloader 2.1 junk code

In Figure 1, the instructions inside the red box are the junk code.

Anti-sandbox

Each Zloader sample expects to be executed with a specific filename. If the filename does not match what the sample expects, it will not execute further. This could evade malware sandboxes that rename sample files. Figure 2 shows an example of a Zloader sample that expects its filename to be CodeForge.exe.

Figure 2. Example of Zloader’s anti-analysis filename check

Figure 2. Example of Zloader’s anti-analysis filename check

ThreatLabz has observed Zloader use the following filenames:

  • CodeForge.exe
  • CyberMesh.exe
  • EpsilonApp.exe
  • FusionBeacon.exe
  • FusionEcho.exe
  • IonBeacon.dll
  • IonPulse.exe
  • KineticaSurge.dll
  • QuantumDraw.exe
  • SpectraKinetic.exe
  • UltraApp.exe


String obfuscation

Similar to prior versions, Zloader implements a string obfuscation algorithm for some of the malware’s important strings such as registry paths, DLL names, and the DGA’s top-level domain (TLD) using XOR with a hardcoded key. Python code that replicates the string obfuscation algorithm is shown below:

String decryption

Code sample available on GitHub

The encryption key differs between samples and is also hardcoded in the .rdata section as shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Example string obfuscation key used by Zloader

Figure 3. Example string obfuscation key used by Zloader

A list of Zloader’s obfuscated strings is shown in the Appendix.

Static configuration encryption and structure

The Zloader static configuration is still encrypted using RC4 with a hardcoded alphanumeric key, but the structure is slightly different. The botnet ID, campaign name, and command-and-control servers (C2s) are set at fixed offsets, in addition to an RSA public key that replaces the old RC4 key that was used for network encryption. ThreatLabz has observed 15 unique new Zloader samples and all of them have the same RSA public key, likely indicating there is currently only a single threat actor using the malware.

An example Zloader static configuration is shown below.

Zloader static configuration


Domain generation algorithm

When the primary C2 server is not available, Zloader reverts to a DGA. The DGA algorithm has changed in the latest version and no longer contains a different seed per botnet. Python code that replicates Zloader’s new DGA algorithm is shown below.

Domain generation algorithm

Code sample available on GitHub.

The code generates 32 domains per day by using the local system time at midnight (converted to UTC) as a seed. Each of the DGA domains have a length of 20 characters followed by the “.com” TLD.

Network communications

Zloader continues to use HTTP POST requests to communicate with its C2 server. However, the network encryption is now using 1,024-bit RSA with RC4 and the Zeus “visual encryption” algorithms. Zloader uses the custom Zeus BinStorage format where the first 128 bytes are the RSA encrypted RC4 key (32 random bytes) and, the remaining bytes are encrypted with the RC4 key and visual encryption as shown in Figure 4:

Figure 5. Zloader BinStorage object for a hello message (prior to encryption)

Figure 4. Zloader BinStorage object for a hello message (prior to encryption)

The Zeus BinStorage structure uses an ID integer value to represent the information stored, followed by the length and data. The BinStorage ID values in this example are shown in Table 1.

Value (Decimal)Value (Hexadecimal)Description
100020x2712Botnet ID
100250x2729Campaign ID
100010x2711Bot ID
100030x2713Malware version
100060x2716Unknown flag (set to 0x1)

Table 1. Zloader BinStorage hello message fields

ThreatLabz has observed samples containing the following botnet IDs:

  • Bing_Mod2
  • Bing_Mod3
  • Bing_Mod4
  • Bing_Mod5

All of the campaign IDs have been set to the value M1.

Conclusion

Zloader was a significant threat for many years and its comeback will likely result in new ransomware attacks. The operational takedown temporarily stopped the activity, but not the threat group behind it. Returning after almost two years, Zloader has brought notable improvements to the loader module such as RSA encryption, an updated DGA, and enhanced obfuscation techniques, with more junk code, API import hashing, and string encryption to thwart malware analysis. 

Zscaler ThreatLabz continues to track this threat and add detections to protect our customers.

Zscaler Coverage

Zscaler sandbox coverage

In addition to sandbox detections, Zscaler’s multilayered cloud security platform detects indicators related to Zloader at various levels with the following threat names:

Indicators Of Compromise (IOCs)

SHA256Description
038487af6226adef21a29f3d31baf3c809140fcb408191da8bc457b6721e3a55Zloader sample
16af920dd49010cf297b03a732749bb99cc34996f090cb1e4f16285f5b69ee7dZloader sample
25c8f98b79cf0bfc00221a33d714fac51490d840d13ab9ba4f6751a58d55c78dZloader sample
2cdb78330f90b9fb20b8fb1ef9179e2d9edfbbd144d522f541083b08f84cc456Zloader sample
83deff18d50843ee70ca9bfa8d473521fd6af885a6c925b56f63391aad3ee0f3Zloader sample
98dccaaa3d1efd240d201446373c6de09c06781c5c71d0f01f86b7192ec42eb2Zloader sample
adbd0c7096a7373be82dd03df1aae61cb39e0a155c00bbb9c67abc01d48718aaZloader sample
b206695fb128857012fe280555a32bd389502a1b47c8974f4b405ab19921ac93Zloader sample
b47e4b62b956730815518c691fcd16c48d352fca14c711a8403308de9b7c1378Zloader sample
d92286543a9e04b70525b72885e2983381c6f3c68c5fc64ec1e9695567fb090dZloader sample
eb4b412b4fc58ce2f134cac7ec30bd5694a3093939d129935fe5c65f27ce9499Zloader sample
f03b9dce7b701d874ba95293c9274782fceb85d55b276fd28a67b9e419114fdbZloader sample
f6d8306522f26544cd8f73c649e03cce0268466be27fe6cc45c67cc1a4bdc1b8Zloader sample
fa4b2019d7bf5560b88ae9ab3b3deb96162037c2ed8b9e17ea008b0c97611616Zloader sample
fbd60fffb5d161e051daa3e7d65c0ad5f589687e92e43329c5c4c950f58fbb75Zloader sample

 

URLDescription
https://adslstickerhi[.]worldZloader C2
https://adslstickerni[.]worldZloader C2
https://dem.businessdeep[.]comZloader C2
 
 

Appendix

Tools

The code snippets in this blog have also been uploaded to our GitHub tools repository here.

Decoded strings

user32.dll

nbsp;

%s

reg add HKCU\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run /f /t REG_SZ /v %s /d "%s"

wininet.dll

td

tr

br

Software\Microsoft\

h3

Local\

hr

POST

gdiplus.dll

NtWriteVirtualMemory

https://

*

\??\

ntdll.dll

ws2_32.dll

_alldiv

NtProtectVirtualMemory

NtGetContextThread

shell32.dll

%s %s

psapi.dll

crypt32.dll

S-1-15

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz0123456789+/

_aulldiv

\"%s\"

samlib.dll

S:(ML;CIOI;NRNWNX;;;LW)

NtCreateThreadEx

regsvr32.exe /s \"%s\"

NtResumeThread

bcrypt.dll

netapi32.dll

RtlGetVersion

strtoul

winsta.dll

wldap32.dll

NtReadVirtualMemory

Basic

0:0

version.dll

h2

InstallDate

h5

NtAllocateVirtualMemory

.com

cabinet.dll

S:(ML;;NRNWNX;;;LW)

li

kernel32.dll

%s\tmp_%08x

h6

aeiouy

div

rpcrt4.dll

{%08X-%04X-%04X-%08X%08X}

iphlpapi.dll

mpr.dll

C:\Windows\System32\ntdll.dll

Connection: close

gdi32.dll

C:\Windows\System32\msiexec.exe

 

Global\

wtsapi32.dll

NtCreateUserProcess

shlwapi.dll

RtlUserThreadStart

%s

NtOpenProcess

HTTP/1.1

ncrypt.dll

INVALID_BOT_ID

_aullrem

Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run

dnsapi.dll

ole32.dll

.dll

C:\Windows\SysWOW64\msiexec.exe

bcdfghklmnpqrstvwxz

ftllib.dll

User metrics

ThreadStart

MSIMG32.dll

\*

JKLMNOPQRSTUVW$$$$$$XYZ[\]^_`abcdefghijklmnopq

h1

NtSetContextThread

*/*

GET

userenv.dll

urlmon.dll

Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion

_ThreadStart@4

dxgi.dll

NtOpenSection

script

/post.php

advapi32.dll

h4

secur32.dll

imagehlp.dll

 

%s_%s_%X

winscard.dll

 

 
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