Just Another Geek

I am blogging about Information Security since 2003

06 Jan 2020

Engineering Yara rules

The problem

Unless you are an anti-virus vendor, @Neo23x0 or a passionated one-man shop malware researcher, the management of Yara rules quickly become messy in a team environment as everything becomes eventually inconsistent:

  • rule naming: MyBigCorp_Emotet, Emotet, Emotet_20, or Incident_SANDWICH?
  • use of tags: Should it be the malware family or a higher-level classification (RAT, Ransomware)?
  • use of namespaces
  • coding style": where should go the curly braces? Tab or spaces?
  • filenames: .yara or .yar ?
  • meta variables: What are the mandatory fields? Should the hash be a md5 or sha1? Should there be a score or a confidence level, numeric or appreciative?
  • use of modules: should we stick to the default Yara modules?
  • etc.

To this, add all the rules you can collect in OSINT, Virustotal, vendors leaks, etc.

Eventually, you get a folder of 500+ Yara files, that’s where your nightmare begins. End of 2017, we could not move anymore: some rules were crashing our engines, we had too many duplicated rules, too many inconsistent variables; In other words, our technical debt was too high: it was time to give some ❤️ to our tooling suite and level up.

At that time, on top of my memory, plyara was the only Yara parser available, it was written in Python using Ply and quite popular.

Remove duplicates

Our first application use case was to remove all duplicates from our ruleset. To do that, we needed to compute a kind of hash for each Yara rule, should be trivial right?

Yeah except that people were copying and pasting OSINT rules into their own repository while also changing line orders, fiddling with spaces here and there: a simple string comparison was not going to make it. For reasons I honestly don’t remember but something related to a design choice (so not fixable without breaking everything), plyara was not going to make it at that time (Today, plyara is 👍).

We ate the dust for a few months, even tried to see how hard would it be to implement one parser ourselves (answer: too hard for me) until @Northern-Lights released his yara parser in Go.

So we wrote something like what @Neo23x0 published recently in a gist (using plyara).

Enforcing a standard coding style

Consistent rules also benefit having a unified coding style, like gofmt, you will never have a debate about space or bracing position. It will also make your life much easier if you need to grep/sed/awk for a massive quick fix across your ruleset.

We chose again the yara-parser library because his author had already prepared a Serialize() method for each data structure. It was just missing a global Serialize() method, which was quickly implemented in PR #9.

Improve consistency

To channel the creativity of rules authors regarding their use of meta variables, tags or filename, we implemented Python tests (using plyara!) in our TravisCI environment. That way, consistency tests are ran for each push or pull request to our main Git repository.

They can also be set as an enforcing gate (i.e. if the tests fail, no merge) but we decided to not enable it as we like to be able to push to master.

The Python tests look like these ones:

class YaraTester(unittest.TestCase):

    def test_invalid_extension_filename(self):
        for fname in glob.glob('**/*'):
            if not os.path.isfile(fname):
            if not fname.endswith('yara'):
                self.fail('"%s"\'s filename does not comply: please only use .yara' % (fname))
    def test_unknown_meta(self):
        rules = self._parse_our_yarafiles()
        for rule in rules:
            for meta in rule.get('metadata', []):
                metaname = ''.join(meta.keys())
                if metaname not in ALLOWED_META_VAR:
                    self.fail('rule "%s" is using not allowed variable name: "%s"' % (rule['rule_name'], metaname))

    def test_insufficient_meta(self):
        rules = self._parse_our_yarafiles()
        for rule in rules:
            for meta in rule.get('metadata', []):
                metaname = ''.join(meta.keys())
            for mandatory in MANDATORY_VAR_NAMES:
                if mandatory not in varnames:
                    self.fail('rule "%s" misses mandatory meta "%s"' % (rule['rule_name'], mandatory))
            if not ('reference' in varnames or 'reference_hash' in varnames):
                    self.fail('rule "%s" misses a reference or a hash' % (rule['rule_name']))

    def test_valid_tags(self):
        rules = self._parse_our_yarafiles()
        for rule in rules:
            for tag in rule.get('tags', []):
                if tag not in ALLOWED_TAGS:
                    self.fail('rule "%s" uses non-whitelisted tag: "%s"' % (rule['rule_name'], tag))

Now, our rules are uniform and easier to manage. What are our next steps?

What’s next?

Improve our safety confidence

You can kill your detection sensor if your Yara rule is badly written (like with unbounded regexps). Today, it is kind of a big bet 🎲: you push your rule and 🤞 that it won’t clash with another rule.

@Neo23x0 and @wxs have continuously written a lot about Yara performances.

But for the moment, it not easily actionable:

  1. technically speaking, you have to be smart with the regexp parsing or write good enough regexp to match regexps.
  2. what is true today won’t necessarily be true tomorrow: as @wxs said, these optimization rules are constantly changing across libyara’s releases.

In the meantime, another approach would be to benchmark rules like Golang to see the impact of each rule addition.

Tagging for different usage

All Yara rules are not made equal:

  • Their usage may be various: low signal rules (base64 strings, embedded MZ) or high signal (Pirpi’s obfuscation algorithm, packing routine). Usually, this is addressed using a score meta variable.

  • Their scope may differ: some are designed for file categorization (like magic types), malware on-disk detection, forensics/artefacts discovery, live memory dump, sandbox, some for Linux, etc. Usually, this is dealt with tags.

Yet, I feel like we miss a high-level tool/process that do the shuffling automatically. Based on a catalog of Yara files, this tool would automatically create:

  • aggregated_sandbox_rules_detection.yara: All high signal detection rules actionable by sandboxes

  • aggregated_forensics.yara: Low and high signal rules for files.

While this is technically easy to do, it relies on correctly tagged rules and that’s where things are messy: How many rules are written (with their famous $mz at 0 condition) to only match files while they could also support process memory easily?

Moving to gyp

The VirusTotal team wrote an official Go library for parsing YARA rules, gyp, very similarly to yara-parser. Its killer feature is that parsed rules can be serialized as a Protocol Buffer, this facilitates massively its manipulation in other programming languages.

I guess we will eventually migrate to this library…

MISP integration

I wish to integrate more Yara to our MISP instance: we are currently pushing our malware samples to an instance and also storing some rules to it. Yet, we don’t link both: it would be neat that when you upload a sample, MISP scans it automatically by all stored Yara rules and same thing when you upload a new Yara rule.

I am sure everything is already available in MISP to make it happen, it just needs to be glued together…

Testing false-positives and true-positives

Everything is about Quality&Assurance: how to ensure that our rule with match real samples (true positives)? And how to ensure that it will not match anything (false positives)?

For true positives, it is “easy”: as we are enforcing at CI/CD level a reference_hash meta variable, we have for each rule one sample of reference, it is only a matter of getting it from MISP or VT and check. Doable!

For false positives, it is “only” a matter of having a good corpus of safe software and check if the new rule matches:

  • VirusTotal has done its part with retrohunt
  • It is quite easy to reproduce on premise the same thing (if you have a nice VirusTotal quota): you query VT once something like “download all samples tagged goodware” and then you do the yara check yourself.
  • Also, to help, as usual, @Neo23x0 nailed it again with yarGen

Well… That’s the plan for 2020.