Just Another Geek

I am blogging about Information Security since 2003

13 Mar 2023

Investigation scenario: New SQLServer on an AWS Webserver


Chris Sanders proposed on Twitter the following scenario:

One of your web servers hosted in the Amazon cloud launched a new process named sqlserver.exe. What do you look for to investigate whether an incident occurred?

Credit: https://twitter.com/chrissanders88/status/1628050893315899393

My investigation path

  • What is this executable?
  • Who dropped that executable?
  • How was this executable dropped?
  • Who is responsible for the execution of this file?
  • Any difference in handling with AWS context?

What is this executable?

When I read SQLServer, I think automatically of Microsoft SQL Server. However, the official binary name is SQLSERVR.EXE (pay attention to the missing E) so it may be an attempt to masquerade a piece of malware… Or can it be a legitimate binary from a barely known company?

Curiosity time

It would not change the course of the investigation, but first, I was curious to see if there was any tool signed with an “Original Name” of sqlserver.exe.

We are lucky enough to have a kind of copy of VirusTotal’s metadata in Splunk, let’s query it:

search sqlserver.exe Signed  
| spath "additional_info.sigcheck.product" 
| spath "additional_info.sigcheck.verified"
| spath "additional_info.sigcheck.original name"
| spath "submission_names{}"
| search "additional_info.sigcheck.verified"=Signed
| search "additional_info.sigcheck.original name" = "sqlserver.exe"
| spath "md5"
| dedup "md5"
| table "md5" "additional_info.sigcheck.original name" "submission_names{}"

Only 2 samples match that description:

md5original namesubmission_names
40593f27c042bf07c86a659b8745999dsqlserver.exedhserver, sqlserver.exe, sqlserver.exe.E908FD29_F7EC_46D3_A5F5_ED4B563EB5AA
c6b9b0d924476e5154c1e49e4e1aa4f0sqlserver.exedhserver, sqlserver.exe, SqlServer.exe

Both executables are from Unisys Corporation:

  sigcheck: {
       copyright: Copyright © 2016, Unisys Corporation, All Rights Reserved
       counter signers: COMODO SHA-1 Time Stamping Signer; UTN-USERFirst-Object; The USERTrust Network?
       counter signers details: [ [+]
       description: ODBC Data Access
       file version:
       internal name: dhserver
       link date: 10:49 PM 7/12/2016
       original name: sqlserver.exe
       product: ODBC Access
       signers: Unisys Corporation; Symantec Class 3 SHA256 Code Signing CA; VeriSign
       signers details: [ [+]
       signing date: 10:53 PM 7/12/2016
       verified: Signed

So the conclusion is that unless we are actively working on with Unisys, or unless the server is linked to a development environment, this executable is worrisome.

Hash reputation

If we have the hashes of this file from the initial alert, or any telemetry means like Sysmon EventID 1, native EventID 4688, or from the EDR, we apply the Triage Executable routine.

Data acquisition

Depending on the available means, we collect the executable:

  • If there is an EDR, we perform a file acquisition with it
  • Otherwise, we make an EBS snapshot and extract the binary from it
  • Last resort, we acquire the file manually by connecting to the remote machine, making sure we are authenticating using Kerberos (and not NTLM which may leave credentials in memory).

For this scenario, we will assume that there is no evidence that the executable is legitimate. My next move is to understand how this binary was planted.

How was this executable dropped on disk? And by whom?

We need to understand how this executable ended up on the host, file creation information can be gathered by:

  • Sysmon Event ID 11 (FileCreate)
  • EDR Telemetry
  • Checking the Zone.Identifier Alternate Data Stream to see if this file was downloaded from Internet
  • MFT creation times and owner

What if it was coming from the web server?

As we know that a web server is running, possibly over the Internet, it is possible that the executable was created following the exploitation of a vulnerable Web application:

  • Spot HTTP requests in the Apache/IIS logs with a bytes_in in the range of the executable’s file size
  • Filter out IP addresses using GreyNoise to remove the Internet noise
    • Stack the target URL and see if any rarely used resource is accessed by a limited number of IP addresses

Investigation fallback

If the previous steps come back blank, we can also go the heavy way and build a timeline of the MFT and registry hives to get the activities observed in the timeframe of the file creation: It may lead for example to the discovery of Windows Service registered around the file creation and so on.

Once we understand how the file was created, we need to know which account was behind this action: What were the credentials in use? From where the user was connected?

Around the time of the file creation, we investigate:

  • Event ID 4624
  • RDP Connections:
    • Microsoft-Windows-TerminalServices-RemoteConnectionManager: Event ID 1149
    • Microsoft-Windows-TerminalServices-LocalSessionManager: Event 21

Who is responsible for the execution of this file?

Now we know how the executable was created, we also have to understand how it is executed as well:

  • What is the parent process of sqlserver.exe?
  • Based on the registry timeline, can we spot the creation or modification of a Run key? Or a Windows Service?
  • Alternatively, we can use autoruns to spot new entries

Now that we have a good understanding of what happened to this single machine, we have to care about the surrounding environment, AWS.

AWS Context

Exposed to the Internet

If the EC2 instance is on an Internet-enabled VPC, and if we assume the server was compromised, it will be worth hunting for any Webshell deployed on the host.

One of the most relevant resources in this endeavor is to use the “Mitigating Web Shells” strategy defined by the NSA and ASD teams: They describe Yara rules as well as detection heuristics.


Working with AWS is easy… once you understand IAM and its ramification. I strongly recommend reading Effective IAM by Stephen Kuenzli to get a grasp on it.

There are (at least?) two ways to authenticate in IAM:

  • Instance profiles: You assign a role to an EC2 instance or Lambda implicitly, everything is handled under the hood by AWS and you don’t need to handle API keys and so on.
  • Explicit API keys: You create a user, assign a role to it and generate an API key/id. Finally, you put that credentials into a “secret” file on your disk and this is where attackers may have an interest in stealing them to move laterally.

Instance profile

To get the role policy for this host, we need to understand that:

  1. An EC2 instance is associated with an instance profile
  2. An instance profile is linked to a role
  3. A role is linked to a policy
  4. The policy registers what the role is allowed to do
Get the instance profile

Let’s assume we know the Instance ID of the compromised host:

$ aws ec2 describe-instances                  \
        --region eu-west-1                    \
        --instance-ids i-01a840fe4d183f01b    \
        --query 'Reservations[*].Instances[*].IamInstanceProfile'
      "Arn": "arn:aws:iam::1234567890:instance-profile/foobar_instance_profile",
Get the role name
$ aws iam get-instance-profile                            \
        --region eu-west-1                                \
        --instance-profile-name foobar_instance_profile   \
        --query 'InstanceProfile.Roles[*].RoleName'
Get the role policy name
$ aws iam list-role-policies -region eu-west-1 --role-name foobar_role
    "PolicyNames": [
Get the role policy
$ aws iam get-role-policy        \
        --region eu-west-1       \
        --role-name foobar_role  \
        --policy-name foobar_policy
    "RoleName": "foobar_role",
    "PolicyName": "foobar_policy",
    "PolicyDocument": {
        "Version": "2012-10-17",
        "Statement": [
                "Effect": "Allow",
                "Action": "secretsmanager:GetSecretValue",
                "Resource": "arn:aws:secretsmanager:eu-west-1:1234567890:secret :prod/foobar/ssl_certificate_key-abcde"
                "Effect": "Allow",
                "Action": "secretsmanager:GetSecretValue",
                "Resource": "arn:aws:secretsmanager:eu-west-1:1234567890:secret :prod/foobar/deploy_keys-C4B23"
                "Action": [
                "Effect": "Allow",
                "Resource": "arn:aws:elasticfilesystem:eu-west-1:1234567890:file-system/fs-0ab23231b"

Explicit API key

On top of the instance profile, it is possible that some API keys were stored on the host and possibly stolen and reused by an attacker.

Using AWS CloudTrail logs, we review all API calls from the IP address of the victim EC2.

For each new credential discovered, we review the role policy for each of them like we did in the previous section to see the possible extent of the compromission.

Lateral movement

If money is not a problem for your organization, you may be lucky to have VPC Flow logs enabled. In that case, it will be very helpful to discover any lateral movement from the compromised machine elsewhere.