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FLARE Script Series: Recovering Stackstrings Using Emulation with ironstrings

This blog post continues our Script Series where the FireEye Labs
Advanced Reverse Engineering (FLARE) team shares tools to aid the
malware analysis community. Today, we release ironstrings: a new IDAPython script to recover
stackstrings from malware. The script leverages code emulation to
overcome this common string obfuscation technique. More precisely, it
makes use of our flare-emu tool, which combines IDA Pro and the
Unicorn emulation engine. In this blog post, I explain how our new
script uses flare-emu to recover
stackstrings from malware. In addition, I discuss flare-emu’s event hooks and how you can use them
to easily adapt the tool to your own analysis needs.


Analyzing strings in binary files is an important part of malware
analysis. Although simple, this reverse engineering technique can
provide valuable information about a program’s use and its
capabilities. This includes indicators of compromise like file paths
and domain names. Especially during advanced analysis, strings are
essential to understand a disassembled program’s functionality.
Malware authors know this, and string obfuscation is one of the most
common anti-analysis techniques reverse engineers encounter.

Due to the prevalence of obfuscated strings, the FLARE team has
already developed and shared various tools and techniques to deal with
them. In 2014 we published an IDA Pro plugin to automate
the recovery of constructed strings in malware
. In 2016, we
released FLOSS;
a standalone open-source
 to automatically identify and decode strings in malware.

Both solutions rely on vivisect, a
Python-based program analysis and emulation framework. Although
vivisect is a robust tool, it may fail to completely analyze an
executable file or emulate its code correctly. And just like any tool,
vivisect is susceptible to anti-analysis techniques. With missing,
incomplete, or erroneous processing by vivisect, dependent tools
cannot provide the best results. Moreover, vivisect does not provide
an easy-to-use graphical interface to interactively change and enhance
program analysis.

I encountered all these shortcomings recently, when I analyzed a
GandCrab ransomware sample (version 5.0.4, SHA256 hash:
72CB1061A10353051DA6241343A7479F73CB81044019EC9A9DB72C41D3B3A2C7). The
malware contains various anti-analysis techniques to hinder
disassembly and control-flow analysis. Before I could perform any
efficient reverse engineering in IDA Pro, I had to overcome these
hurdles. I used IDAPython to remove various anti-analysis instruction
patterns which then allowed the disassembler to successfully identify
all functions in the binary. Many of the recovered functions contained
obfuscated strings. Unfortunately, my changes did not propagate to
vivisect, because it performs its own independent analysis on the
original binary. Consequently, vivisect still failed to recognize most
functions correctly and I couldn’t use one of our existing solutions
to recover the obfuscated strings.

While I could have tried to feed my patches in IDA Pro back to
vivisect or to create a modified binary, I instead created a new
IDAPython script that does not depend on vivisect. Thus, circumventing
the mentioned shortcomings. It uses IDA Pro’s program analysis and
Unicorn’s emulation engine. The easy integration of these two tools is
powered by flare-emu.

Using IDA Pro instead of vivisect resolves multiple limitations of
our previous implementations. Now changes that users make in their IDB
file, e.g. by patching instructions to manually enhance analysis, are
immediately available during emulation. Moreover, the tool more
robustly supports different architectures including x86, AMD64, and ARM.

Stackstrings: An Example

The disassembly listing in Figure 1 shows an example string
obfuscation from the sample I analyzed. The malware creates a string
at run-time by moving each character into adjacent stack addresses
(gray highlights). Finally, the sample passes the string’s starting
offset as an argument to the InternetOpen API call (blue highlight).
Manually following these memory moves and restoring strings by hand is
a very cumbersome process. Especially if malware complicates value
assignments using additional instructions like illustrated below.

Figure 1: Disassembly listing showing
stackstring creation and usage

Because malware often uses stack memory to create such strings, Jay
Smith coined
the term stackstrings
 for this anti-analysis technique. Note
that malware can also construct strings in global memory. Our new
script handles both cases; strings constructed on the stack and in
global memory.

ironstrings: Stackstring Recovery Using flare-emu

The new IDAPython script is an evolution of our existing solutions.
It combines FLOSS’s stackstring recovery algorithm and functionality
from our IDA Pro plugin. The script relies on IDA Pro’s program
analysis and emulates code using Unicorn. The combination of both
tools is powered by flare-emuFe,
short for flare-emu, is the chemical symbol
for iron and hence the script is named ironstrings.

To recover stackstrings, ironstrings enumerates all disassembled functions
in a program except for library and thunk functions as identified by
IDA Pro. For each function, the script emulates various code paths
through the function and searches for stackstrings based on two heuristics:

  1. Before all call instructions in the function. As stackstrings
    are often constructed and then passed to other functions, i.e.
    Windows APIs like CreateFile or InternetOpenUrl.
  2. At the end of a basic
    block containing more than five memory writes. The number of memory
    writes is configurable. This heuristic is helpful if the same memory
    buffer is used multiple times in a function and if the string
    construction spans multiple basic blocks.

If any of these conditions apply, the script searches the function’s
current stack frame for printable ASCII and UTF-16 strings. To detect
strings in global memory, the script additionally searches for strings
in all memory locations that have been written to.

Using flare-emu Hooks to Recover Stackstrings

If you’re not already familiar with flare-emu, I recommend reading our previous
blog post
. It discusses some of the interfaces the tool
provides. Other helpful resources are the examples and the project
documentation available on the flare-emu GitHub.

The stackstrings script uses flare-emu’s iterateAllPaths API. The function iterates
multiple code paths through a function. It first finds possible paths
from function start to function end. The tool then forces the
emulation down all identified code paths independent from the actual
program state. This extensive code coverage allows ironstrings to recover strings constructed from
many different emulation runs.

A key feature of flare-emu are the various
hook functions that get triggered by different emulation events. These
hooks, or callbacks, enable the development of very powerful
automation tasks. The available hooks are a combination of Unicorn’s
standard hooks, e.g., to hook memory access events, and multiple
convenience hooks provided by flare-emu. The
following section briefly describes the available callbacks in flare-emu and illustrates how the ironstrings script uses them to recover obfuscated strings.

  • instructionHook: This Unicorn standard hook is triggered
    before an instruction is emulated. ironstrings uses this hook to initiate the
    stackstrings extraction if a basic block contained enough memory
    writes, for example.
  • memAccessHook: This Unicorn
    standard hook is triggered when memory read or write events occur
    during emulation. In the stackstrings script this function stores
    data about all memory writes.
  • callHook: This flare-emu hook is activated before each function
    call. The hook’s return value is ignored. In the stackstrings script
    this hook triggers the extraction of stackstrings.
  • preEmuCallback: This flare-emu hook is
    called before each emulation run. It is only available in the
    iterate and the iterateAllPaths functions. The hook’s return value
    is ignored. ironstrings does not use this
  • targetCallback: This flare-emu hook gets called whenever one of the
    specified target addresses is hit. It is only available in the
    iterate and the iterateAllPaths functions. The hook’s return value
    is ignored. The stackstrings script does not use this hook.

The code in Figure 2 shows the callback functions that flare-emu’s API currently supports, their
signatures, and examples of how to use them. All callbacks receive an
argument named hookData. This named dictionary allows the user to
provide application specific data to use before, during, and after
emulation. Often, this dictionary is named userData in the
user-defined callbacks, as in the examples below, due to its naming in
Unicorn. ironstrings uses this to access
function analysis data and store recovered strings across its various
hooks. The dictionary also provides access to the EmuHelper object and emulation meta data.

Figure 2: flare-emu example hook implementations


Download and install flare-emu as described at the GitHub
installation page
ironstrings is
available, along with our other IDA Pro plugins and scripts, at our ironstrings GitHub page.

Note that both flare-emu and ironstrings were written using the
new IDAPython API available in IDA Pro 7.0 and higher. They are not
backwards compatible with previous program versions.

Usage and Options

To run the script in IDA Pro, go to File – Script File… (ALT+F7)
and select The script runs
automatically on all functions, prints its results to IDA Pro’s output
window, and adds comments at the locations where it recovered
stackstrings. Figure 3 shows the script’s output of the recovered
stackstring locations from the GandCrab sample. Analysis of this
malware takes the script about 15 seconds.

Figure 3: Deobfuscated stackstrings and
locations where they were identified

Figure 4 shows the disassembly listing of the stackstring creation
example discussed at the beginning of this post after running ironstrings.

Figure 4: Commented stackstring after
running ironstrings

After analyzing a sample, the script provides a summary and a unique
listing of all recovered strings. The output for the ransomware sample
is shown in Figure 5. Here the tool failed to analyze two functions
due to invalid memory operations during Unicorn’s code emulation.

Figure 5: Script summary and unique
string listing

Note that you can modify various options to change the script’s
behavior. For example, you can configure the output format at the top
of the file. The script’s README file
explains the options in more detail.


This blog post explains how our new IDAPython script ironstrings works and how you can use it to
automatically recover stackstrings in IDA Pro. Overcoming
anti-analysis techniques is just one of many useful applications of
code emulation for malware analysis. This post shows that flare-emu provides the ideal base for this by
integrating IDA Pro and Unicorn. The detailed discussion of flare-emu’s hook functions will help you to write
your own powerful automation scripts. Please reach out to us with
questions, suggestions and feedback via the flare-emu and flare-ida GitHub issue trackers.