projects, Lurking threat actors and targets with VT

Jose Ramon Palanco Jose Ramon Palanco Follow Mar 28, 2019 · 7 mins read Lurking threat actors and targets with VT
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Lurking threat actors and targets with VT

Tracking malware actors and targets is not an easy task, so if you have a VirusTotal account with private API capabilities, I will provide you some tips and tricks to set up your control panel. We will use the ELK stack, some Python and lot of Yara rules.

Get your hands dirty with Nutella

First of all, you will need to write some Yara rules to feed our system, I will show you some examples:

rule new_suspicious
    new_file and file_type contains "pe" and positives < 8 and positives > 3 


This example will track:

  • New submissions (so we will avoid repeated samples, an ensure freshness)
  • PE files
  • With detections between 4 and 7 (so it will not be very detected but enough to avoid lot of FP)

Actually, we can optimize much more this rule in order to focus on specifics threats.

rule mail_es
    $a = "To: " nocase ascii wide
    $b = ".es" nocase ascii wide
    $c = "Subject: " nocase ascii wide
    new_file and file_type contains "email" and @a < @b and @b < @c

This second example is pretty simple, you will track:

  • New submissions
  • Emails
  • Contains a .es domain between “To” and “Subject”
import requests

url = ""

params = {'apikey': '<apikey>'}

response = requests.request("GET", url, params=params)

We will receive the details related to the samples; we will need to use the cursor parameter to iterate all the notifications.

      "attributes": {
        "body": "",
        "date": 1553732253,
        "subject": "mail_es",
        "tags": [

We get the hash from the tags in order to perform a second query to VT, for this it is important your API key allows you to fetch all the fields are interesting for us.

  • source_id
  • first_seen
  • first_name

What is source id? If you are familiar with VT you may realize that you in each report will find a ‘Submissions’ tab. This tab shows information about when and from where was uploaded the sample.

Date File name Source Country
2019-03-28 06:28:51 6700138 a1a85c39 (api) US
2019-03-29,10:35:10 malware fa8be158 (web) UK

In this table we can see the “6700138” file was uploaded via API (it maybe also possible email, web or community) on 2019-03-28 by a user located in US (or using an IP Address from US).

But what is that source? Okay, this is getting interesting. VT doesn’t want to save the IP address of a submitter, but at the same type this attribution is very interesting for researchers, so VT assign an id to each user they can recognize as the same submitter and they call it source.

If we have the right permissions, we will be able to query all this data to VT via API, that means we will collect not only the files matching our Yara rules, but also some metadata related to the origin/target of the malware samples.

Let’s talk about origin. Advanced actors may never upload the samples directly to VT, because they may expose their samples too much and the AV engines will be able to detect them before they spreads the final binary. However, I found some actors are uploading malware samples to VT and tweaking their samples to decrease detections, in some cases until they become almost undetected.

If we are able to collect several source_ids, and store into our database, we will be able to:

  • Identify the location of an actor
  • See evolution of a malware sample: we can download the sample and analyze the functionality and evasion capabilities
  • Associate different samples to the same actor
  • Analyze the periods of activity on a calendar
  • Identify paths or even usernames based on first submission file name

What about the target? The second rule checks for new emails uploaded to VT received by users under a .es domain, so that might allow us to:

  • Identify the organization under the source_id based on the domain of the email address
  • Identify malware targeting the organization, looking for PE files with the same source_id
  • Monitor the techniques used against specific organization or a sector.

However, the source_id may change within the time frame we are researching. With email-based yara rules is not an issue, because each email has the destination address, but in the case of binaries it may be complicated to track the authors along the time. Fortunately, we can reuse the information we collected from the actor, and in some cases, we will be able to extract characteristics like imphash, entrypoint address, linker version, … that will help us to track new source_ids related to the actor.

I have been using Yara for tracking some interesting submissions since September 2018, but I set up my new environment by December 2018, so today I have collected close to 300k submissions with very interesting metadata.


Most of the submissions I captured are PE files, x86 using different kind of linkers, but mostly Visual Studio.


Let’s review a few simple examples of sample based on my Yara rules.

After playing and pivoting with my data I found a source_id in US submitting the following files between Feb 19 and Feb 21:

Time MD5 First name
February 21st 2019, 00:01:46.000 345e2e55f48b64d697e3dfee8b9a2fe4 mypc2.exe
February 20th 2019, 23:37:58.000 beeaecf669e7f8e7e5a7094c0fbe1da3 mypc.exe
February 20th 2019, 23:15:32.000 5b8dfc5e482d6816cdd6a5d024b92fad malware_dd_imp2_pad_04res.exe
February 20th 2019, 21:31:37.000 a7a5046c5c36f4648e8b432009d8717a malware_dd_imp2_pad_06
February 20th 2019, 21:21:41.000 5d8f025d942dbe92ae905a65fac75125 malware_dd_imp2_04
February 20th 2019, 06:35:14.000 2c6187ca6d158fc77eb72db29c8558dc malware_dd.exe
February 19th 2019, 23:01:01.000 b390cb55e962296d128572a1c3acbc91 osk_dd2.exe
February 19th 2019, 22:39:57.000 a4aba6a64d09c7002147c4489cd08852 osk_pad_fi_2.exe
February 19th 2019, 22:09:59.000 00700a525d1dcdffd7aac5cbf82467cc osk_pad_fi.exe

It is obvious this is not a user or an organization trying to get results for a suspicious file, it may be an actor or a researcher trying to avoid AV detections.

Here we have another example from the Philippines, this one is having fun.. LOL!

Time EntryPoint MD5 First name
February 20th 2019, 10:44:14.000 0x8b56 b337842ac26256c9c922c8446392833e InsaneHackerGame.exe
February 16th 2019, 14:49:13.000 0x8b56 08c84376698550e736308e9b8b21e0e1 ServerSecurityActiveLogin.exe
February 15th 2019, 12:18:57.000 0x8b56 a0e2d1a90871c4656adf2ee79a5aa0e6 lol.exe
February 15th 2019, 03:52:22.000 0x8b56 e99d2f626d1494a88d5f74535c38c6c9 ServerDataUltraSecurity.exe

Let’s review a source_id from Spain submitting files, in the last version we can see the EntryPoint changes respect to the previous versions. In one of the submissions we can appreciate the username “director1”:

Time EntryPoint MD5 First name
February 4th 2019, 13:44:17.000 0x4a0c0 ffe83c8f462d6d3a752689ff19b1a873 rentacert.exe
January 31st 2019, 22:52:13.000 0x1596f 63f0dbf5b590dd95056da010d638214f C:\Users\director1\rentacert(4).exe
January 29th 2019, 19:00:10.000 0x1596f a53d1c26ce6529829580b0e75097ba07 avanzada.exe
January 21st 2019, 20:17:05.000 0x1596f ff4da2037b978b50408d36eab57c608c avanzada.exe
December 18th 2018, 12:07:52.000 0x1596f 8344bdee57110fe259729fe3a49036e9 avanzada.exe
December 17th 2018, 00:13:47.000 0x1596f 0415275894d2141fab0a3aaebd6c300f avant.exe

Going back to the email-based Yara rules, with my rules I received files from different sources: API, email and web, mostly related to exploits and most of them submitted by users from Germany.





VT is a fantastic tool for tracking targeted malware from both perspectives, actor and a target.


Jose Ramon Palanco
Written by Jose Ramon Palanco Follow
Jose Ramón Palanco currently holds CEO/CTO positions at EpicBounties since June 2021. In the past he founded Dinoflux at 2014, a Threat Intelligence startup acquired by Telefonica, currently he works for 11paths since 2018. He worked also for Ericsson at R&D department and Optenet (Allot). He studied Telecommunications Engineering at the University of Alcala de Henares and Master of IT Governance at the University of Deusto. He has been a speaker at OWASP, ROOTEDCON, ROOTCON, MALCON, and FAQin... He has published several CVE and different open source tools for cybersecurity like nmap-scada, ProtocolDetector, escan, pma, EKanalyzer, SCADA IDS, ...