Obfuscated Files or Information

Adversaries may attempt to make an executable or file difficult to discover or analyze by encrypting, encoding, or otherwise obfuscating its contents on the system or in transit. This is common behavior that can be used across different platforms and the network to evade defenses.

Payloads may be compressed, archived, or encrypted in order to avoid detection. These payloads may be used during Initial Access or later to mitigate detection. Sometimes a user's action may be required to open and Deobfuscate/Decode Files or Information for User Execution. The user may also be required to input a password to open a password protected compressed/encrypted file that was provided by the adversary. [1] Adversaries may also used compressed or archived scripts, such as Javascript.

Portions of files can also be encoded to hide the plain-text strings that would otherwise help defenders with discovery. [2] Payloads may also be split into separate, seemingly benign files that only reveal malicious functionality when reassembled. [3]

Adversaries may also obfuscate commands executed from payloads or directly via a Command-Line Interface. Environment variables, aliases, characters, and other platform/language specific semantics can be used to evade signature based detections and whitelisting mechanisms. [4] [5] [6]

Another example of obfuscation is through the use of steganography, a technique of hiding messages or code in images, audio tracks, video clips, or text files. One of the first known and reported adversaries that used steganography activity surrounding Invoke-PSImage. The Duqu malware encrypted the gathered information from a victim's system and hid it into an image followed by exfiltrating the image to a C2 server. [7] By the end of 2017, an adversary group used Invoke-PSImage to hide PowerShell commands in an image file (png) and execute the code on a victim's system. In this particular case the PowerShell code downloaded another obfuscated script to gather intelligence from the victim's machine and communicate it back to the adversary. [8]

ID: T1027

Tactic: Defense Evasion

Platform:  Linux, macOS, Windows

Data Sources:  Network protocol analysis, Process use of network, File monitoring, Malware reverse engineering, Binary file metadata, Process command-line parameters, Environment variable, Process monitoring, Windows event logs, Network intrusion detection system, Email gateway, SSL/TLS inspection

Defense Bypassed:  Host forensic analysis, Signature-based detection, Host intrusion prevention systems, Application whitelisting, Process whitelisting, Log analysis, Whitelisting by file name or path

Contributors:  Red Canary; Christiaan Beek, @ChristiaanBeek

Version: 1.0



Most of the strings in ADVSTORESHELL are encrypted with an XOR-based algorithm; some strings are also encrypted with 3DES and reversed. API function names are also reversed, presumably to avoid detection in memory.[9][10]

Agent Tesla

Agent Tesla obfuscates its code in an apparent attempt to make analysis difficult.[11]


APT18 obfuscates strings in the payload.[12]


APT19 used Base64 to obfuscate commands and the payload.[13]


APT28 encrypted a .dll payload using RTL and a custom encryption algorithm. APT28 has also obfuscated payloads with base64, XOR, and RC4.[10][14][15][16]


APT29 uses PowerShell to use Base64 for obfuscation.[17]


APT3 obfuscates files or information to help evade defensive measures.[18]


APT32 uses the Invoke-Obfuscation framework to obfuscate their PowerShell and also performs other code obfuscation. APT32 has also encoded payloads using Base64 and a framework called "Dont-Kill-My-Cat (DKMC). APT32 also encrypts the library used for network exfiltration with AES-256 in CBC mode in their macOS backdoor.[19][20][21][22][23][24][25]


APT33 has used base64 to encode payloads.[26]


APT37 sends images to users that are embedded with shellcode and obfuscates strings and payloads.[27]


Astaroth obfuscates its JScript code.[28]


AuditCred encrypts the configuration.[29]


Bisonal's DLL file and non-malicious decoy file are encrypted with RC4.[30]


BlackOasis's first stage shellcode contains a NOP sled with alternative instructions that was likely designed to bypass antivirus tools.[31]


Carbanak encrypts strings to make analysis more difficult.[32]


Carbon encrypts configuration files and tasks for the malware to complete using CAST-128 algorithm.[33]

Cardinal RAT

Cardinal RAT encodes many of its artifacts and is encrypted (AES-128) when downloaded. [34]

Cobalt Group

Cobalt Group obfuscated several scriptlets and code used on the victim’s machine, including through use of XOR and RC4.[35][36]


CoinTicker initially downloads a hidden encoded file.[37]


Comnie uses RC4 and Base64 to obfuscate strings.[38]


CORESHELL obfuscates strings using a custom stream cipher.[39]


The payload of CozyCar is encrypted with simple XOR with a rotating key. The CozyCar configuration file has been encrypted with RC4 keys.[40]

Dark Caracal

Dark Caracal has obfuscated strings in Bandook by base64 encoding, and then encrypting them.[41]


Darkhotel has obfuscated code used in an operation using RC4 and other methods.[42]


Daserf uses encrypted Windows APIs and also encrypts data using the alternative base64+RC4 or the Caesar cipher.[43]


Denis obfuscates its code and encrypts the API names. Denis also encodes its payload in Base64.[44][23]


DOGCALL is encrypted using single-byte XOR.[45]

Dust Storm

Dust Storm has encoded payloads with a single-byte XOR, both skipping the key itself and zeroing in an attempt to avoid exposing the key.[46]


The DustySky dropper uses a function to obfuscate the name of functions and other parts of the malware.[47]


Ebury has obfuscated its strings with a simple XOR encryption with a static key.[48]


Elderwood has encrypted documents and malicious executables.[49]


Elise encrypts several of its files, including configuration files.[50]


Variants of Emissary encrypt payloads using various XOR ciphers, as well as a custom algorithm that uses the "srand" and "rand" functions.[51][52]


Emotet has obfuscated macros within malicious documents to hide the URLs hosting the malware, CMD.exe arguments, and PowerShell scripts.[53][54][55][56]


Empire has the ability to obfuscate commands using Invoke-Obfuscation.[57]


Epic heavily obfuscates its code to make analysis more difficult.[58]


Exaramel uses RC4 for encrypting the configuration.[59]


FELIXROOT encrypts strings in the backdoor using a custom XOR algorithm.[60][61]


FIN7 has used fragmented strings, environment variables, standard input (stdin), and native character-replacement functionalities to obfuscate commands.[4][62]


FIN8 has used environment variables and standard input (stdin) to obfuscate command-line arguments. FIN8 also obfuscates malicious macros delivered as payloads.[4][63]


Final1stspy obfuscates strings with base64 encoding.[45]


FinFisher is heavily obfuscated in many ways, including through the use of spaghetti code in its functions in an effort to confuse disassembly programs. It also uses a custom XOR algorithm to obfuscate code.[64][65]


FruitFly executes and stores obfuscated Perl scripts.[66]


Gallmaker obfuscated shellcode used during execution.[67]


Gazer logs its actions into files that are encrypted with 3DES. It also uses RSA to encrypt resources.[68]


GravityRAT supports file encryption (AES with the key "lolomycin2017").[69]


GreyEnergy encrypts its configuration files with AES-256 and also encrypts its strings.[61]


Group5 disguised its malicious binaries with several layers of obfuscation, including encrypting the files.[70]


H1N1 uses multiple techniques to obfuscate strings, including XOR.[71]


The Helminth config file is encrypted with RC4.[72]


Hi-Zor uses various XOR techniques to obfuscate its components.[73]


Some strings in are obfuscated with XOR x56.[74]


Honeybee drops files with base64-encoded data.[75]


HTTPBrowser's code may be obfuscated through structured exception handling and return-oriented programming.[76]


Hydraq uses basic obfuscation in the form of spaghetti code.[49][77]


InnaputRAT uses an 8-byte XOR key to obfuscate API names and other strings contained in the payload.[78]


InvisiMole avoids analysis by encrypting all strings, internal files, configuration data.[79]


Invoke-PSImage can be used to embed a PowerShell script within the pixels of a PNG file.[80]


ISMInjector is obfuscated with the off-the-shelf SmartAssembly .NET obfuscator created by red-gate.com.[81]


Many strings in JHUHUGIT are obfuscated with a XOR algorithm.[82][83][16]


A JPIN uses a encrypted and compressed payload that is disguised as a bitmap within the resource section of the installer.[84]


jRAT’s Java payload is encrypted with AES. Additionally, backdoor files are encrypted using DES as a stream cipher. Later variants of jRAT also incorporated AV evasion methods such as Java bytecode obfuscation via the commercial Allatori obfuscation tool.[85][86]


Kazuar is obfuscated using the open source ConfuserEx protector. Kazuar also obfuscates the name of created files/folders/mutexes and encrypts debug messages written to log files using the Rijndael cipher.[87]


Kwampirs downloads additional files that are base64-encoded and encrypted with another cipher.[88]

Lazarus Group

Lazarus Group malware uses multiple types of encryption and encoding in its malware files, including AES, Caracachs, RC4, basic XOR with constant 0xA7, and other techniques.[89][90][91][92]


Leafminer obfuscated scripts that were used on victim machines.[93]


Leviathan has obfuscated code using base64 and gzip compression.[94]

Magic Hound

Magic Hound malware has used base64-encoded commands and files, and has also encrypted embedded strings with AES.[95]


Matroyshka obfuscates API function names using a substitute cipher combined with Base64 encoding.[96]


menuPass has encoded strings in its malware with base64 as well as with a simple, single-byte XOR obfuscation using key 0x40.[97][98]


Micropsia obfuscates the configuration with a custom Base64 and XOR.[99][100]


Mosquito’s installer is obfuscated with a custom crypter to obfuscate the installer.[101]


MuddyWater has used Daniel Bohannon’s Invoke-Obfuscation framework. The group has also used other obfuscation methods, including Base64 obfuscation of VBScripts and PowerShell commands.[102][20][102][103][104]


NanHaiShu encodes files in Base64.[105]


NanoCore’s plugins were obfuscated with Eazfuscater.NET 3.3.[106]

Night Dragon

A Night Dragon DLL included an XOR-encoded section.[107]


NOKKI uses Base64 encoding for strings.[108]


OilRig has encrypted and encoded data in its malware, including by using base64.[109][110][111][112][113]


OLDBAIT obfuscates internal strings and unpacks them at startup.[39]


OopsIE uses the Confuser protector to obfuscate an embedded .Net Framework assembly used for C2. OopsIE also encodes collected data in hexadecimal format before writing to files on disk and obfuscates strings.[114][115]


Some Orz strings are base64 encoded, such as the embedded DLL known as MockDll.[94]


OSX_OCEANLOTUS.D encrypts its strings in RSA256 and encodes them in a custom base64 scheme and XOR.[116]


Patchwork has obfuscated a script with Crypto Obfuscator.[117]


Pisloader obfuscates files by splitting strings into smaller sub-strings and including "garbage" strings that are never used. The malware also uses return-oriented programming (ROP) technique and single-byte XOR to obfuscate data.[118]


PoisonIvy hides any strings related to its own indicators of compromise.[119]


POSHSPY appends a file signature header (randomly selected from six file types) to encrypted data prior to upload or download.[120]


PowerDuke uses steganography to hide backdoors in PNG files, which are also encrypted using the Tiny Encryption Algorithm (TEA).[1]


PowerSploit contains a collection of ScriptModification modules that compress and encode scripts and payloads.[121][122]


POWERSTATS uses character replacement, PowerShell environment variables, and XOR encoding to obfuscate code. POWERSTATS's backdoor code is a multi-layer obfuscated, encoded, and compressed blob.[103][123]


Some resources in Prikormka are encrypted with a simple XOR operation or encoded with Base64.[124]


PUNCHTRACK is loaded and executed by a highly obfuscated launcher.[125]

Putter Panda

Droppers used by Putter Panda use RC4 or a 16-byte XOR key consisting of the bytes 0xA0 – 0xAF to obfuscate payloads.[126]


QUADAGENT was likely obfuscated using Invoke-Obfuscation.[110][20]


Reaver encrypts some of its files with XOR.[127]


A RedLeaves configuration file is encrypted with a simple XOR key, 0x53.[128]


Remcos uses RC4 and base64 to obfuscate data, including Registry entries and file paths.[129]


Remexi obfuscates its configuration data with XOR.[130]


Some data in Remsec is encrypted using RC5 in CBC mode, AES-CBC with a hardcoded key, RC4, or Salsa20. Some data is also base64-encoded.[131][132]


The PowerShell script with the RogueRobin payload was obfuscated using the COMPRESS technique in Invoke-Obfuscation.[133][20]


RTM strings, network data, configuration, and modules are encrypted with a modified RC4 algorithm.[134]


Sakula uses single-byte XOR obfuscation to obfuscate many of its files.[135]


SamSam has been seen using AES or DES to encrypt payloads and payload components.[136][137]


Seasalt obfuscates configuration data.[138]


Shamoon contains base64-encoded strings.[139]


SHOTPUT is obscured using XOR encoding and appended to a valid GIF file.[140][141]

Smoke Loader

Smoke Loader uses a simple one-byte XOR method to obfuscate values in the malware.[142][143]


SpeakUp encodes its second-stage payload with Base64.[144]


StreamEx obfuscates some commands by using statically programmed fragments of strings when starting a DLL. It also uses a one-byte xor against 0x91 to encode configuration data.[145]


SynAck payloads are obfuscated prior to compilation to inhibit analysis and/or reverse engineering.[146][147]

Threat Group-3390

A Threat Group-3390 tool can encrypt payloads using XOR. Threat Group-3390 malware is also obfuscated using Metasploit’s shikata_ga_nai encoder as well as compressed with LZNT1 compression.[148][149]


TINYTYPHON has used XOR with 0x90 to obfuscate its configuration file.[150]


TrickBot uses non-descriptive names to hide functionality and uses an AES CBC (256 bits) encryption algorithm for its loader and configuration files.[151]

Tropic Trooper

Tropic Trooper has encrypted configuration files.[152]


APIs and strings in some TYPEFRAME variants are RC4 encrypted. Another variant is encoded with XOR.[153]


UBoatRAT encrypts instructions in the payload using a simple XOR cipher.[154]


Most strings in USBStealer are encrypted using 3DES and XOR and reversed.[155]


VERMIN is obfuscated using the obfuscation tool called ConfuserEx.[156]


A Volgmer variant is encoded using a simple XOR cipher.[157]


A version of XTunnel introduced in July 2015 obfuscated the binary using opaque predicates and other techniques in a likely attempt to obfuscate it and bypass security products.[158]


ZeroT has encrypted its payload with RC4.[159]

Zeus Panda

Zeus Panda encrypts strings with XOR and obfuscates the macro code from the initial payload. Zeus Panda also encrypts all configuration and settings in AES and RC4.[160][161]


Ensure logging and detection mechanisms analyze commands after being processed/interpreted, rather than the raw input. Consider utilizing the Antimalware Scan Interface (AMSI) on Windows 10 for this functionality. [162]

Mitigation of compressed and encrypted files sent over the network and through email may not be advised since it may impact normal operations.


Detection of file obfuscation is difficult unless artifacts are left behind by the obfuscation process that are uniquely detectable with a signature. If detection of the obfuscation itself is not possible, it may be possible to detect the malicious activity that caused the obfuscated file (for example, the method that was used to write, read, or modify the file on the file system).

Flag and analyze commands containing indicators of obfuscation and known suspicious syntax such as uninterpreted escape characters like '''^''' and '''"'''. Windows' Sysmon and Event ID 4688 displays command-line arguments for processes. Deobfuscation tools can be used to detect these indicators in files/payloads. [163] [5] [164]

Obfuscation used in payloads for Initial Access can be detected at the network. Use network intrusion detection systems and email gateway filtering to identify compressed and encrypted attachments and scripts. Some email attachment detonation systems can open compressed and encrypted attachments. Payloads delivered over an encrypted connection from a website require encrypted network traffic inspection.


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