Building A Custom Tool For Shellcode Analysis

The Zero2Hero malware course continues with Daniel Bunce demonstrating how to write a custom tool to load, execute and debug malicious shellcode in memory.

image of shellcode analysis

Recently, FireEye posted a blog post detailing malware used by APT 41, specifically the DEADEYE initial first stage, capable of downloading, dropping or loading payloads on an infected system, and the LOWKEY backdoor. Additionally, they described an additional “RC4 Layer”, which is Position Independent Code (PIC) that RC4 decrypts an embedded payload and loads it into memory using it’s reflective DLL loader capabilities.

Unlike Windows executables, shellcode doesn’t have any headers, meaning the Windows loader cannot execute standalone shellcode. As a result, debugging is impossible without an external tool to load and execute shellcode for you. Therefore, in this blog post, we will cover how to write a tool in C to load shellcode into memory and wait until a debugger is attached before executing it. But first, why do we need to debug shellcode?

Why Debugging Position Independent Shellcode is Useful

Position Independent Code can be executed anywhere inside memory, without any issues. This means there are no hardcoded addresses and no calls to APIs such as GetProcAddress or LoadLibrary, not to mention a few other complications.

As a result, static analysis of the shellcode can take a while to fully understand as the shellcode is forced to manually lookup addresses that may not be known without debugging. Furthermore, plenty of malware utilizes hashing when looking up APIs, so a hash will be passed into a function that will hash each export of the DLL in question, until a matching pair is found. Whilst the hashing routine can be replicated so that the correct API is found without static analysis, there are many hashing algorithms out there, from CRC hashing up to custom hashing algorithms. This means there will be plenty of situations where you will have to update the script to include an additional algorithm, slowing down analysis further. So why not just load it into memory yourself and execute when a debugger is attached?

Well, you can. The guys at OALabs have created an extremely helpful tool called BlobRunner to do exactly that. However, rather than simply use a pre-existing tool, in this post we’re going to be focusing on writing our own, as it’s not too difficult to do so, and shellcode execution isn’t uncommon inside malware, so knowing the internals of how it works will help when it comes to recognizing it inside of a sample.

Overview of the ShellCode Analysis Tool’s Routine

So, the tool we’re writing needs to be able to read the shellcode from a file, allocate a region of memory large enough to accomodate the shellcode, write the shellcode into said region of memory, wait until a debugger has been attached, and then execute it. As it is for debugging and not behavioural analysis, we need to wait until a debugger has been attached, to prevent it running before attaching to it. The shellcode is also 64 bit, and as Visual C++ compiler does not support inline assembly for 64 bit applications, we’ll have to use CreateThread() to execute the shellcode, rather than using a jmp. Anyway, with that covered, let’s take a look at what the main() function will look like.

Writing the main() Function

This function is setup to accept two arguments: the filename, and the entry point offset.

image of main function

In the case of the loader, without analyzing what executes it, the entry point seems to be at the offset 0x80. If we don’t pass in a second argument (the offset), the program will attempt to execute it from the offset 0x00. The offset is converted to an integer using strtol(), and then the function read_into_memory() is called, which, as the name suggests, reads the shellcode into process memory. This returns the base address of the shellcode, which is then passed into the function execution(), along with the entry point offset. As you can see, the layout is fairly simple – unlike loading an executable in process memory, we don’t need to map the sections of shellcode into memory, and can simply execute it once it has been copied into memory. With that said, let’s move on to the other functions that we need.

Writing the read_into_memory() Function

This function is responsible for loading the shellcode from a file into an allocated region of memory.

image of read_into_memory function

To do this, we first need the size of the shellcode, which we can get using fseek() and ftell(). This is then passed into VirtualAlloc(), along with PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE, allowing us to execute that region of memory without calling VirtualProtect(). The return address is put into the buffer variable, which is then passed into fread(), along with the handle to the open file. After the shellcode has been read into memory, we return the address in buffer back to the calling function, for use in the execution() function, which we will move onto now.

Writing the execution() Function

The execution() function is the most important part of the entire tool, as without it we’d still only have static shellcode.

image of execution function

To begin with, we add the entry point offset to the base address of the shellcode, so if the allocated region of memory was at 0x20000, the actual entry point would be 0x20080 for our LOWKEY reflective DLL loader. We then pass this into a call to CreateThread(), along with the value 0x4, which indicates we want to create the thread in a suspended state. This is done to prevent execution of the shellcode whatsoever, and we only resume the thread once a debugger is attached. This is done through a pretty simple while() loop that constantly calls IsDebuggerPresent() until one is detected. From there, the thread is resumed with a call to ResumeThread(), and then we enter another loop that will call WaitForSingleObject() every second to check if the thread has exited. If so, we close the handle and return from the function!

Compile Time!

That pretty much wraps up the tool, so let’s go ahead and compile it to test it out!

animated image of compiled shellcode analysis tool

As you can see, everything runs smoothly and we’re able to see which API each hash represents, a lot faster than if we were writing a script to calculate it!

So, now we know how to read and execute shellcode in memory, recognizing it in malware should be fairly easy! In this case, the DEADEYE payload that executes the shellcode is packed and protected with VMProtect, making it very difficult to locate the function responsible for loading and executing the payload; however, the unpacked payloads can be found on Malpedia here for those that have an account.

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How you react when your systems fail may define your business

Just around 9:45 a.m. Pacific Time on February 28, 2017, websites like Slack, Business Insider, Quora and other well-known destinations became inaccessible. For millions of people, the internet itself seemed broken.

It turned out that Amazon Web Services was having a massive outage involving S3 storage in its Northern Virginia datacenter, a problem that created a cascading impact and culminated in an outage that lasted four agonizing hours.

Amazon eventually figured it out, but you can only imagine how stressful it might have been for the technical teams who spent hours tracking down the cause of the outage so they could restore service. A few days later, the company issued a public post-mortem explaining what went wrong and which steps they had taken to make sure that particular problem didn’t happen again. Most companies try to anticipate these types of situations and take steps to keep them from ever happening. In fact, Netflix came up with the notion of chaos engineering, where systems are tested for weaknesses before they turn into outages.

Unfortunately, no tool can anticipate every outcome.

It’s highly likely that your company will encounter a problem of immense proportions like the one that Amazon faced in 2017. It’s what every startup founder and Fortune 500 CEO worries about — or at least they should. What will define you as an organization, and how your customers will perceive you moving forward, will be how you handle it and what you learn.

We spoke to a group of highly-trained disaster experts to learn more about preventing these types of moments from having a profoundly negative impact on your business.

It’s always about your customers

Reliability and uptime are so essential to today’s digital businesses that enterprise companies developed a new role, the Site Reliability Engineer (SRE), to keep their IT assets up and running.

Tammy Butow, principal SRE at Gremlin, a startup that makes chaos engineering tools, says the primary role of the SRE is keeping customers happy. If the site is up and running, that’s generally the key to happiness. “SRE is generally more focused on the customer impact, especially in terms of availability, uptime and data loss,” she says.

Companies measure uptime according to the so-called “five nines,” or 99.999 percent availability, but software engineer Nora Jones, who most recently led Chaos Engineering and Human Factors at Slack, says there is often too much of an emphasis on this number. According to Jones, the focus should be on the customer and the impact that availability has on their perception of you as a company and your business’s bottom line.

Someone needs to be calm and just keep asking the right questions.

“It’s money at the end of the day, but also over time, user sentiment can change [if your site is having issues],” she says. “How are they thinking about you, the way they talk about your product when they’re talking to their friends, when they’re talking to their family members. The nines don’t capture any of that.”

Robert Ross, founder and CEO at FireHydrant, an SRE as a Service platform, says it may be time to rethink the idea of the nines. “Maybe we need to change that term. Maybe we can popularize something like ‘happiness level objectives’ or ‘happiness level agreements.’ That way, the focus is on our products.”

When things go wrong

Companies go to great lengths to prevent disasters to avoid disappointing their customers and usually have contingencies for their contingencies, but sometimes, no matter how well they plan, crises can spin out of control. When that happens, SREs need to execute, which takes planning, too; knowing what to do when the going gets tough.

Ransomware Attacks: To Pay or Not To Pay? Let’s Discuss

This year has seen an escalation in the number of ransomware attacks striking organizations, with both private and public sector agencies like local government and education firmly in the firing line of threats such as Ryuk and Robinhood ransomware. Often understaffed and under resourced, those responsible for delivering critical public services are at the sharp end of the dilemma: to pay or not to pay? It’s a quandary that has technical, ethical, legal, safety and, of course, financial dimensions. In this post, we explore the arguments both for and against. Our aim here is to describe the implications and rationale from both angles across a number of different considerations. 

Ransomware Attacks: To Pay or Not To Pay? Let's Discuss

Is Paying a Ransom to Stop a Ransomware Attack Illegal?

It may seem odd to some, but it isn’t illegal to pay a ransomware demand, even though the forced encryption of someone else’s data and demand for payment is itself a federal crime under at least the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, as well as many laws passed by State legislatures.

One might argue that the best way to solve the ransomware epidemic would be to make it illegal for organizations to pay. Criminals are naturally only interested in the pay off, and if that route to the payday was simply prescribed by law, it would very quickly lead both to companies exploring other options to deal with ransomware and, at least in theory, criminals moving toward some other endeavour with an easier payout.

In sum, one could argue that it is the ease with which criminals can be paid and the perceived anonymity of crypto payment that helps foster the continuance of the ransomware threat. 

The idea of outlawing the payment of ransomware demands might seem appealing at first, until you unpack the idea to think how it would work in practice. Publicly traded companies have a legal duty to shareholders; public service companies have legally binding commitments to serve their communities. A law that threatened to fine organizations, or perhaps imprison staff, would be hugely controversial in principle and likely difficult to enforce in practice, quite aside from the ethics of criminalizing the victim of a crime whose sole intent is to coerce that victim into making a payment.

Imagine a prosecutor attempting to convince a court that an employee – whose actions, say, restored a critical public service and saved the taxpayer millions of dollars after authorizing a five figure ransomware payment – should be jailed. How would that, in principle, be different from prosecuting a parent for securing the safety of a child by paying off kidnappers? It doesn’t look like an easy case to win, particularly when the employee (or organization) might cite legitimate extenuating circumstances such as preserving life or other legal obligations. 

Is It Ethical To Pay a Ransomware Demand?

If it’s not illegal to pay a ransomware demand, that still leaves open the separate question as to whether it’s ethical. There’s a couple of different angles that can be taken on this one. According to some interpretations of ethics, something is a “good” or “right” decision if it leads to an overall benefit for the community.

On this pragmatic conception of ethics, one might argue that paying a ransomware demand that restores some vital service or unlocks some irreplaceable data outweighs the ‘harm’ of rewarding and encouraging those engaged in criminal behavior. 

On the other hand, it could be argued that what is right, or ethical, is distinct from what is a pragmatic or merely expedient solution. Indulging in a fantastical thought-experiment for a moment, would we consider it ethical if a ransomware author demanded the life of a person, instead of money, to release data that would save the lives of thousands of others? Many would have a strong intuition that it would always be unethical to murder one innocent to protect the lives of others. And that suggests that what is “right” and “wrong” might not revolve around a simple calculation of perceived benefits. 

The real problem with the pragmatic approach, however, is that there’s no agreement on how to objectively calculate the outcome of different ethical choices. More often than not, the weight we give to different ethical choices merely reflect our bias for the choice that we are naturally predisposed to.

If pragmatism can’t help inform us of whether it’s ethical or not to pay ransomware, we could look to a different view of ethics that suggest we should consider actions as “right” or “wrong” insofar as they reflect the values of the kind of society we want to live in. This view is sometimes expressed more simply as a version of the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” maxim. A more accurate way to parse it might be to ask: Do we want to live in a society where we think it’s right (ethical) to pay those who engage in criminal behavior? Is this a maxim that we would want to teach our children? Put in those terms, many would perhaps say not.

Is It Prudent To Pay a Ransomware Demand?

Even if we might have a clear idea of the legal situation and a particular take on our own ethical stance, the question of whether to pay or not to pay raises other issues. We are not entirely done with the pragmatics of the ransomware dilemma. We may still feel inclined to make an unethical choice in light of other, seemingly more pressing concerns. 

There is a real, tangible pressure on making a choice that could save your organization or your city millions of dollars, or which might spare weeks of downtime of a critical service.

Even if they believe it would be technically unethical to do so, sometimes, some people may judge that today’s hard reality just takes imminent precedence over loftier principles.

A case in point: recently, three Alabama hospitals paid a ransom in order to resume operations. The hospitals’ spokesperson said: 

“We worked with law enforcement and IT security experts to assess all options in executing the solution we felt was in the best interests of our patients and in alignment with our health system’s mission. This included purchasing a decryption key from the attackers to expedite system recovery and help ensure patient safety.”

This “hard reality” perspective is reflected in recent changes made to the FBI’s official guidance on ransomware threats. 

“…the FBI understands that when businesses are faced with an inability to function, executives will evaluate all options to protect their shareholders, employees, and customers.”

However, the possibility that the criminals will not hold up their side of the bargain must be factored into any decision about paying a ransomware demand. In some cases, decryption keys are not even available, and in others, the ransomware authors simply didn’t respond once they were paid. We saw this to some degree with WannaCry. In the flurry of the WannaCry outbreak, some victims paid and got keys, yet a large amount either never heard from the authors, or the key pairs between victim and server were unmatched, making per-user decryption impossible.

A further point to consider when weighing up the prudence of acquiescing to the demand for payment is how this will affect your organization beyond the present attack itself. Will paying harm your reputation or earn you plaudits? Will other – or even the same – attackers now see you as a soft target and look to strike you again? Will your financial support for the criminals’ enterprise lead to further attacks against other companies, or services, that you yourself rely on? In other words, will giving in to the ransomware demand produce worse long-term effects than the immediate ones it seems – if the attackers deliver on their promise – to solve? 

What Happens If I Don’t Pay A Ransom for Ransomware Attacks?

If you choose not to pay the ransom, then of course you are in the very same position the ransomware attacker first put you in by encrypting all your files in order to “twist your arm” into paying. 

Depending on what kind of ransomware infection you have, there is some possibility that a decryptor already exists for that strain; less likely, but not unheard of, is the possibility that an expert analysis team may discover a way to decrypt your files. A lot of ransomware is poorly written and poorly implemented, and it may be that all is not lost as it might at first seem.

The NoMoreRansom Project is the culmination of effort from global law enforcement agencies and private security industry partners. They host a large repository of stand-alone decryption tools which are constantly updated by industry partners.

This can be a very valuable resource when evaluating your course of action when facing a ransomware attack.

Also consider whether you have inventoried all possible backup and recovery options. Many look no further than the Maersk shipping story during the NotPetya attack to emphasize the importance of being able to rapidly restore one’s entire infrastructure from backup. The most eye-opening realization for Maersk (and indeed the entire industry) was that recovery depended on a happy accident: a sole unaffected domain controller did not become infected due to a local power outage where it was residing. Without that fortunate, coincidental event, it would have taken exponentially longer to rebuild their entire infrastructure after 50,000 devices and thousands of apps were destroyed all at once. 

Some hail this as a success story for backups, but shareholders and operators on board the thousands of ships worldwide are quick to remind us that this incident still cost the company well over a half billion dollars in the 6 months following the incident. While backup and restoration are indeed critical, they are by no means the primary basis for a strategy to address the threat of ransomware.

Finally, there is the worst case scenario, where you have no backups and no recovery software, and you will have to dig yourself out by re-building data, services and, perhaps your reputation, from the ground up. Transparency is undoubtedly your best bet in that kind of scenario. Admit to past mistakes, commit to learning those lessons, and stand tall on your ethical decision not to reward criminal behavior. 

What Happens If I Pay A Ransom for Ransomware Attacks?

There is perhaps more uncertainty in paying than there is in not paying. At least when you choose not to pay a ransomware demand, what happens next is in your hands. In handing over whatever sum the ransomware attacker demands, you remain in their clutches until or unless they provide a working decryption key. 

Before going down the road of paying, look for experienced advisors and consultants to help negotiate with the extortionists. Despite the often taunting ransomware notes, some ransomware groups will engage in negotiating terms if they think it will improve their chances of a payday.

Tactics like asking for ‘proof of life’ to decrypt a portion of the environment up front prior to payment, or to negotiate payment terms like 50% up front, and 50% only after the environment has been decrypted, can work with some groups, albeit not with others.

The vast majority of ransom is still being paid in bitcoin, which is not an anonymous or untraceable currency. If you do feel forced to pay, you can work with the FBI and share wallet and payment details. Global Law Enforcement is keen to track where the money moves.

And where do you go beyond that? Any sensible organization must realize the need for urgent investment in determining not only the vector of that attack but all other vulnerabilities, as well as rolling out a complete cybersecurity solution that can block and rollback ransomware attacks in future. While these are all costs that need to be borne regardless of whether you pay or do not pay, the temptation to take the quick, easy way out rather than working through the entire problem risks leaving holes that may be exploited in the future. Balance the need for speed of recovery against several risks:

  1. Unknown back doors the attackers leave on systems
  2. Partial data recovery (note some systems will not be recovered at all)
  3. Zero recovery after payment (it is rare, but in some cases the decryption key provided is 100% useless, or worse, one is never sent)</span

Finally, note that some organizations that get hit successively by the same actors might have actually only been hit once, but encryption payloads may have been triggered in subsequent waves. Experience pays off tremendously in all of these scenarios, and ‘knowing thy enemy’ can make all the difference.


Pay or don’t pay, make sure you notify the proper law enforcement agency:

“Regardless of whether you or your organization have decided to pay the ransom, the FBI urges you to report ransomware incidents to law enforcement. Doing so provides investigators with the critical information they need to track ransomware attackers, hold them accountable under U.S. law, and prevent future attacks”.

At SentinelOne, we concur with the FBI that paying criminals for criminal activity is no way to put an end to criminal behavior. We understand the technical, ethical, and financial impacts that ransomware has on a business. It’s why we offer a ransomware guarantee with a trusted security solution that can both block known and unknown ransomware activity and also rollback your protected devices to a healthful state without recourse to backups or lengthy reinstallation. If you’d like to find out more, contact us today or request a free demo

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Google launches TensorFlow Enterprise with long-term support and managed services

Google open-sourced its TensorFlow machine learning framework back in 2015 and it quickly became one of the most popular platforms of its kind. Enterprises that wanted to use it, however, had to either work with third parties or do it themselves. To help these companies — and capture some of this lucrative market itself — Google is launching TensorFlow Enterprise, which includes hands-on, enterprise-grade support and optimized managed services on Google Cloud.

One of the most important features of TensorFlow Enterprise is that it will offer long-term support. For some versions of the framework, Google will offer patches for up to three years. For what looks to be an additional fee, Google will also offer to companies that are building AI models engineering assistance from its Google Cloud and TensorFlow teams.

All of this, of course, is deeply integrated with Google’s own cloud services. “Because Google created and open-sourced TensorFlow, Google Cloud is uniquely positioned to offer support and insights directly from the TensorFlow team itself,” the company writes in today’s announcement. “Combined with our deep expertise in AI and machine learning, this makes TensorFlow Enterprise the best way to run TensorFlow.”

Google also includes Deep Learning VMs and Deep Learning Containers to make getting started with TensorFlow easier, and the company has optimized the enterprise version for Nvidia GPUs and Google’s own Cloud TPUs.

Today’s launch is yet another example of Google Cloud’s focus on enterprises, a move the company accelerated when it hired Thomas Kurian to run the Cloud businesses. After years of mostly ignoring the enterprise, the company is now clearly looking at what enterprises are struggling with and how it can adapt its products for them.

Samsung ramps up its B2B partner and developer efforts

Chances are you mostly think of Samsung as a consumer-focused electronics company, but it actually has a very sizable B2B business as well, which serves more than 15,000 large enterprises and hundreds of thousands of SMB entrepreneurs via its partners. At its developer conference this week, it’s putting the spotlight squarely on this side of its business — with a related hardware launch as well. The focus of today’s news, however, is on Knox, Samsung’s mobile security platform, and Project AppStack, which will likely get a different name soon, and which provides B2B customers with a new mechanism to deliver SaaS tools and native apps to their employees’ devices, as well as new tools for developers that make these services more discoverable.

At least in the U.S., Samsung hasn’t really marketed its B2B business all that much. With this event, the company is clearly thinking to change that.

At its core, Samsung is, of course, a hardware company, and as Taher Behbehani, the head of its U.S. mobile B2B division, told me, Samsung’s tablet sales actually doubled in the last year, and most of these were for industrial deployments and business-specific solutions. To better serve this market, the company today announced that it is bringing the rugged Tab Active Pro to the U.S. market. Previously, it was only available in Europe.

The Active Pro, with its 10.1″ display, supports Samsung’s S Pen, as well as Dex for using it on the desktop. It’s got all of the dust and water-resistance you would expect from a rugged device, is rated to easily support drops from about four feet high and promises up to 15 hours of battery life. It also features LTE connectivity and has an NFC reader on the back to allow you to badge into a secure application or take contactless payments (which are quite popular in most of the world but are only very slowly becoming a thing in the U.S.), as well as a programmable button to allow business users and frontline workers to open any application they select (like a barcode scanner).

“The traditional rugged devices out there are relatively expensive, relatively heavy to carry around for a full shift,” Samsung’s Chris Briglin told me. “Samsung is growing that market by serving users that traditionally haven’t been able to afford rugged devices or have had to share them between up to four co-workers.”

Today’s event is less about hardware than software and partnerships, though. At the core of the announcements is the new Knox Partner Program, a new way for partners to create and sell applications on Samsung devices. “We work with about 100,000 developers,” said Behbehani. “Some of these developers are inside companies. Some are outside independent developers and ISVs. And what we hear from these developer communities is when they have a solution or an app, how do I get that to a customer? How do I distribute it more effectively?”

This new partner program is Samsung’s solution for that. It’s a three-tier partner program that’s an evolution of the existing Samsung Enterprise Alliance program. At the most basic level, partners get access to support and marketing assets. At all tiers, partners can also get Knox validation for their applications to highlight that they properly implement all of the Knox APIs.

The free Bronze tier includes access to Knox SDKs and APIs, as well as licensing keys. At the Silver level, partners will get support in their region, while Gold-level members get access to the Samsung Solutions Catalog, as well as the ability to be included in the internal catalog used by Samsung sales teams globally. “This is to enable Samsung teams to find the right solutions to meet customer needs, and promote these solutions to its customers,” the company writes in today’s announcement. Gold-level partners also get access to test devices.

The other new service that will enable developers to reach more enterprises and SMBs is Project AppStack.

“When a new customer buys a Samsung device, no matter if it’s an SMB or an enterprise, depending on the information they provide to us, they get to search for and they get to select a number of different applications specifically designed to help them in their own vertical and for the size of the business,” explained Behbehani. “And once the phone is activated, these apps are downloaded through the ISV or the SaaS player through the back-end delivery mechanism which we are developing.”

For large enterprises, Samsung also runs an algorithm that looks at the size of the business and the vertical it is in to recommend specific applications, too.

Samsung will run a series of hackathons over the course of the next few months to figure out exactly how developers and its customers want to use this service. “It’s a module. It’s a technology backend. It has different components to it,” said Behbehani. “We have a number of tools already in place we have to fine- tune others and we also, to be honest, want to make sure that we come up with a POC in the marketplace that accurately reflects the requirements and the creativity of what the demand is in the marketplace.”

Breaches at NetworkSolutions,, and

Top domain name registrars, and are asking customers to reset their passwords after discovering an intrusion in August 2019 in which customer account information was accessed.

A notice to customers at

“On October 16, 2019, determined that a third-party gained unauthorized access to a limited number of its computer systems in late August 2019, and as a result, account information may have been accessed,” said in a written statement. “No credit card data was compromised as a result of this incident.”

The Jacksonville, Fla.-based said the information exposed includes “contact details such as name, address, phone numbers, email address and information about the services that we offer to a given account holder.”

The “such as” wording made me ask whether the company has any reason to believe passwords — scrambled or otherwise — were accessed.

A spokesperson for later clarified that the company does not believe customer passwords were accessed.

“We encrypt account passwords and do not believe this information is vulnerable as a specific result of this incident. As an added precautionary measure, customers will be required to reset passwords the next time they log in to their accounts. As with any online service or platform, it is also good security practice to change passwords often and use a unique password for each service.”

Both Network Solutions and are owned by Network Solutions is now the world’s fifth-largest domain name registrar, with almost seven million domains in its stable, according to; listed at #17 with 1.7 million domains.’s homepage currently makes no mention of the breach notification. does not appear to currently link to any information about the incident on its homepage, nor does To get to the advisory, one needs to visit said it has reported the incident to law enforcement and hired an outside security firm to investigate further, and is in the process of notifying affected customers through email and via its website.

The company says it plans to circle back with customers when it learns the results of its investigation, but I wonder whether we’ll ever hear more about this breach. wasn’t clear how long the intrusion lasted, but if the breach wasn’t detected until mid-October that means the intruders potentially had about six weeks inside unnoticed. That’s a long time for an adversary to wander about one’s network, and plenty of time to steal a great deal more information than just names, addresses and phone numbers.

H/T to‘s Elliot Silver for the heads up on this notification.

WeFarm rakes in $13M to grow its marketplace and network for independent farmers

Huge networks like Facebook and LinkedIn have a huge gravitational force in the world of social media — the size of their audiences make them important platforms for advertising and those who want information (for better or worse) to reach as many people as possible. But alongside their growth, we’re seeing a lasting role for platforms and networks focused on more narrow special interests, and today one of them — focused on farmers, of all communities — is picking up a round of funding to propel its growth.

WeFarm, a marketplace and networking site for small-holder farmers (that is, farms not controlled by large agribusinesses), has raised $13 million in a Series A round of funding, with plans to use the money to continue adding more users — farmers — and more services geared to their needs.

The round, which brings the total raised by the company to a modest $20 million, is being led by True Ventures, with AgFunder, June Fund; previous investors LocalGlobe, ADV and Norrsken Foundation; and others also participating.

WeFarm today has around 1.9 million registered users, and its early moves into providing a marketplace — helping to put farmers in touch with local suppliers of goods and gear such as seed and fertilizers — generated $1 million in sales in its first eight months of operations, a sign that there is business to be had here. The startup points out that this growth has been, in fact, “faster… than both Amazon and eBay in their early stages.”

WeFarm is based out of London, but while the startup does have users out of the U.K. and the rest of Europe, Kenny Ewan, the company’s founder and CEO, said in an interview that it is seeing much more robust activity and growth out of developing economies, where small-scale agriculture reigns supreme, but those working the farms have been massively underserved when it comes to new, digital services.

“We are building an ecosystem for global small-scale agriculture, on behalf of farmers,” Ewan said, noting that there are roughly 500 million small-scale farms globally, with some 1 billion people working those holdings, which typically extend 1.5-2 hectares and often are focused around staple commercial crops like rice, coffee, cattle or vegetables. “This is probably the biggest industry on Earth, accounting for some 75-80% of the global supply chain, and yet no one has built anything for them. This is significant on many levels.”

The service that WeFarm provides, in turn, is two-fold. The network, which is free to join, first of all serves as a sounding board, where farmers — who might live in a community with other farmers, but might also be quite solitary — can ask each other questions or get advice on agricultural or small-holding matters. Think less Facebook and more Stack Exchange here.

That provided a natural progression to WeFarm’s second utility track: a marketplace. Initially Ewan said that it’s been working with — and importantly, vetting — local suppliers to help them connect with farmers and the wider ecosystem for goods and services that they might need.

Longer term, the aim will be to provide a place where small-holding farmers might be able to exchange goods with each other, or sell on what they are producing.

In addition to providing access to goods for sale, WeFarm is helping to manage the e-commerce process behind it. For example, in regions like Africa, mobile wallets have become de facto bank accounts and proxies for payment cards, so one of the key ways that people can pay for items is via SMS.

“For 90% of our users, we are the only digital service they use, so we have to make sure we can fulfill their trust,” Ewan said. “This is a network of trust for the biggest industry on earth and we have to make sure it works well.”

For True and other investors, this is a long-term play, where financial returns might not be as obvious as moral ones.

“We are enormously inspired by how Kenny and the Wefarm team have empowered the world’s farmers, and we see great potential for their future,” said Jon Callaghan, co-founder of True Ventures, in a statement. “The company is not only impact-driven, but the impressive growth of the Wefarm Marketplace demonstrates exciting commercial opportunities that will connect those farmers to more of what they need to the benefit of all, across the food supply chain. This is a big, global business.”

Still, given the bigger size of the long tail, the company that can consolidate and manage that community potentially has a very valuable business on its hands, too.

Datameer announces $40M investment as it pivots away from Hadoop roots

Datameer, the company that was born as a data prep startup on top of the open-source Hadoop project, announced a $40 million investment and a big pivot away from Hadoop, while staying true to its big data roots.

The investment was led by existing investor ST Telemedia . Existing investors Redpoint Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Nextworld Capital, Citi Ventures and Top Tier Capital Partners also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to almost $140 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Company CEO Christian Rodatus says the company’s original mission was about making Hadoop easier to use for data scientists, business analysts and engineers. In the last year, the three biggest commercial Hadoop vendors — Cloudera, Hortonworks and MapR — fell on hard times. Cloudera and Hortonworks merged and MapR was sold to HPE in a fire sale.

Starting almost two years ago, Datameer recognized that against this backdrop, it was time for a change. It began developing a couple of new products. It didn’t want to abandon its existing customer base entirely, of course, so it began rebuilding its Hadoop product and is now calling it Datameer X. It is a modern cloud-native product built to run on Kubernetes, the popular open-source container orchestration tool. Instead of Hadoop, it will be based on Spark. He reports they are about two-thirds done with this pivot, but the product has been in the hands of customers.

The company also announced Neebo, an entirely new SaaS tool to give data scientists the ability to process data in whatever form it takes. Rodatus sees a world coming where data will take many forms, from traditional data to Python code from data analysts or data scientists to SaaS vendor dashboards. He sees Neebo bringing all of this together in a managed service with the hope that it will free data scientists to concentrate on getting insight from the data. It will work with data visualization tools like Tableau and Looker, and should be generally available in the coming weeks.

The money should help them get through this pivot, hire more engineers to continue the process and build a go-to-market team for the new products. It’s never easy pivoting like this, but the investors are likely hoping that the company can build on its existing customer base, while taking advantage of the market need for data science processing tools. Time will tell if it works.

Yext Answers helps businesses provide better site search

Yext helps businesses manage their presence on search and across the web; starting today, with the launch of Yext Answers, it’s also helping them provide a better experience on their own websites.

“It lets any company with a website answer a question about their own brand in a Google-like experience on their own site,” CEO Howard Lerman told me.

While Lerman is officially announcing Yext Answers onstage at the company’s Onward conference this afternoon, the issue is clearly one he’s been thinking about for a while — in an interview earlier this year, he described user-generated content as “tyranny,” and claimed the company’s “founding principle is that the ultimate authority on how many calories are in a Big Mac is McDonald’s.”

It’s a theme that Lerman returned to when he demonstrated the new product for me yesterday, running a number of Google searches — such as “student checking account” — where a brand might want to be relevant, but where the results mostly come from SEO-optimized advice and how-to articles from third-party sites.

“The world of search became pretty cluttered with all these self-declared experts,” he said.

Answers Comparison AnswersNotLinks 1

The goal with Yext Answers is to turn a brand’s website into the source that consumers turn to for information on these topics. Lerman said the big obstacle is the simple fact that most site search is pretty bad: “The algorithms that are there today are the algorithms of 1995. It’s keyword-based document search.”

So if you don’t enter exactly the right keywords in exactly the right order, you don’t get useful results. Yext, on the other hand, has supposedly spent two years building its own search engine, with natural language processing technology.

As Lerman showed me, that means it can handle more complex, conversational queries like “broccoli cheese soup recipes in 10 minutes or less.” He also pointed out how Yext has tried to follow Google’s lead in presenting the results in a variety of formats, whether that’s just a straightforward answer to a question, or maps if you’re searching for store locations.

In addition, Yext Answers customers will get analytics about what people are searching for on their site. If people are searching for a question that the site isn’t answering, businesses can then take advantage of their company’s knowledge base to publish something new — and that, in turn, could also help them show up in search results elsewhere.

BBVA LiveExample3 1

Yext Answers has been beta testing with companies like Three Mobile, BBVA USA, IHA and Healthcare Associates of Texas. You also can try it out for yourself on the Yext site.

“Yext Answers represents a level of sophistication that elevates our current search into a predictive, insightful tool that provides opportunities to better understand what our patient population is interested in finding on our site,” said Lori Gillen, marketing director at Healthcare Associates of Texas, in a statement. “It is intelligent enough to understand complex relationships between HCAT-specific facts, like doctors to procedures or specialties to locations, and give insights into what our patients want to know.”

Yext Answers is now available in English-speaking countries.

Takeaways from the $566M BriansClub breach

Reporting on the exposure of some 26 million stolen credit cards leaked from a top underground cybercrime store highlighted some persistent and hard truths. Most notably, that the world’s largest financial institutions tend to have a much better idea of which merchants and which bank cards have been breached than do the thousands of smaller banks and credit unions across the United States. Also, a great deal of cybercrime seems to be perpetrated by a relatively small number of people.

In September, an anonymous source sent KrebsOnSecurity a link to a nearly 10 gb set of files that included data for approximately 26 million credit and debit cards stolen from hundreds — if not thousands — of hacked online and brick-and-mortar businesses over the past four years.

The data was taken from BriansClub, an underground “carding” store that has (ab)used this author’s name, likeness and reputation in its advertising since 2015. The card accounts were stolen by hackers or “resellers” who make a living breaking into payment card systems online and in the real world. Those resellers then share the revenue from any cards sold through BriansClub.

KrebsOnSecurity shared a copy of the BriansClub card database with Gemini Advisory, a New York-based company that monitors BriansClub and dozens of other carding shops to learn when new cards are added and when existing inventory is removed (sold).

Gemini estimates that the 26 million cards — 46 percent credit cards and 54 percent debit cards — representing almost one-third of the existing 87 million credit and debit card accounts currently for sale in the underground.

“While many of these cards were added in previous years, more than 21.6 million will not expire until after October 2019, offering cybercriminal buyers ample opportunity to cash out these records,” Gemini wrote in an analysis of the BriansClub data shared with this author.

Cards stolen from U.S. residents made up the bulk of the data set (~24 million of the 26+ million cards), and as a result these far more plentiful cards were priced much lower than cards from banks outside the U.S. Between 2016 and 2019, cards stolen from U.S.-based bank customers fetched between $12.76 and $16.80 apiece, while non-U.S. cards were priced between $17.04 and $35.70 during the same period.

Image: Gemini Advisory.

Unfortunately for cybercrime investigators, the person who hacked BriansClub has not released (at least not to this author) any information about the BriansClub users, payments, vendors or resellers. [Side note: This hasn’t stopped an unscrupulous huckster from approaching several of my financial industry sources with unlikely offers of said data in exchange for bitcoin].

But the database does have records of which cards were sold and which resellers (identified only by a unique number) supplied those cards, Gemini found.

“While neither the vendor nor the buyer usernames appeared in this database, they were each assigned ID numbers,” Gemini wrote. “This allowed analysts to determine how prolific certain threat actors were on BriansClub and derive relevant metrics from this data.”

According to Gemini, there were 142 resellers and more than 50,000 buyers of the card data sold through BriansClub. These buyers purchased at least 9 million of the 27.2 million cards available.

Image: Gemini Advisory

One reseller in particular (ID: 174,829) offered just shy of 6 million records, posted for $106 million. Of those, almost 940,000 were sold, grossing over $16 million in profits shared between BriansClub and the reseller. In the quote below, a “base” refers to a distinct batch of freshly-stolen card data uploaded to BriansClub.

“For context, the collective price for the entirety of exposed BriansClub records was $566 million, while the total dollar amount of all sold records exceeded $162 million,” Gemini noted. “The top 20 buyers bought 5% of the entire set of records in this shop, while the top 100 buyers accounted for 11%. The shop had a total of 11,000 bases, with most vendors uploading multiple bases.”

Image: Gemini Advisory

All the 26 million+ card records leaked from BriansClub were shared with multiple trusted sources that work directly with financial institutions to inform them when their customers’ cards go up for sale in the cybercrime underground.

Banks at this point basically have three options. Ignore the report and hope for the best. Cancel the card and reissue. Or monitor the card more closely and place tighter fraud controls on that account.

But here’s the thing: Not all banks got the data at the same time. The larger banks got it first and largely shrugged. At least according to anti-fraud sources at two large U.S.-based financial institutions: Their anti-fraud teams had already identified 90-95 percent of the cards as potentially compromised in one of hundreds of breaches since 2015, mostly those involving malware inside point-of-sale retail checkout systems.

The sources I spoke with at smaller financial institutions found out about the cards they’d issued to customers that wound up in the BriansClub data by receiving alerts last week from Visa and MasterCard. Most of those sources seemed genuinely surprised at the number of cards exposed, and two sources at different credit unions each estimated they were previously unaware of about 80 percent of the cards listed in the alerts from the credit card companies.

Also, smaller financial institutions are far more likely to eat the cost of re-issuing cards at risk of fraudulent use than are larger institutions, which typically have much a higher tolerance for financial losses from counterfeit card fraud. So far, however, there is no evidence this flood of card data intelligence to the banking sector is causing much of stampede for re-issuing cards.

Visa maintains that smaller financial institutions receive the same alerts sent to larger banks about cards thought to be exposed in specific breaches. The alerts include cards specific to each bank, but smaller banks are often limited in the resources they have available to do much with the reported card data, aside from re-issuing the card.

Gemini CEO and co-founder Andrei Barysevich said so far the feedback from the banks has been all over the place.

“While the larger US banks told us that most of the cards have been previously flagged as compromised, the mid and small size financial institutions were caught completely off-guard,” he said. “As to the European and Asian banks, to them the data was mostly new, in some cases upwards of 60% of cards were still open and active.”

I thought perhaps the card associations could provide some meta-statistics on the BriansClub dump, but also those hopes were dashed. MasterCard did not respond to requests for comment. Visa declined to share any information related to the BriansClub database (even though they got it indirectly care of Yours Truly), but issued the following statement:

“As part of our core mission to ensure security across the payment system, we are very aware of carder forums and other criminal enterprises. Visa continuously invests in intelligence and technology to detect cyber threats and works with law enforcement, clients and other partners, to mitigate and disrupt such threats.

“Whenever we discover compromised account information, Visa uses its payment intelligence and investigative capabilities to determine the source. We also work with our financial institution clients to provide card issuers with the compromised account numbers so they can take steps to protect consumers through independent fraud monitoring and, if needed, by reissuing cards. Incidents such as these reinforce the need for secure technologies such as chip and tokenization to devalue account information so that even if stolen, data cannot be leveraged for fraud.””

Gemini found that exactly two-thirds of the stolen cards (66.6 percent) siphoned from BriansClub were Visa-branded, and 23 percent MasterCard. A full 85% of the total records were EMV (chip) enabled, with the remaining 15% using only a magnetic stripe.

One final note: Gemini report also challenges claims made by the administrator of BriansClub, namely that he removed the breached cards from his online store and that the data leak stemmed from a breach in February as his site’s data center.

The BriansClub admin, defending the honor of his stolen cards shop after a major breach.

“While the administrator of BriansClub, operating under the moniker ‘Brian Krebs,’ claimed that the breach took place in February 2019, this appears to be false,” Gemini observed in its report. “The number of records from South Korea corresponds to a previous spike in South Korean records that occurred from March 2019 through July 2019. If BriansClub were breached in February, the South Korean-issued cards would number under 10,000 rather than over 1 million.”

The report continues:

“This threat actor also claimed to have removed the compromised records from the shop. Gemini has found this claim to be false as well. Since BriansClub offers a ‘checker service’ for all purchased records to determine whether compromised payment cards are still open, it may be unnecessary to remove the cards. The shop likely assumes that even if the banks received the compromised card data from this breach, they are unlikely to close down and reissue every single card.”