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Rope: Covert Multi-process Malware Execution with Return-Oriented Programming

Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNSC,volume 12972)


Distributed execution designs challenge behavioral analyses of anti-malware solutions by spreading seemingly benign chunks of a malicious payload to multiple processes. Researchers have explored methods to chop payloads, spread chunks to victim applications through process injection techniques, and orchestrate the execution. However, these methods can hardly be practical as they exhibit conspicuous features and make use of primitives that anti-malware solutions and operating system mitigations readily detect. In this paper we reason on fundamental requirements and properties for a stealth implementation of distributed malware. We propose a new covert design, Rope, that minimizes its footprint by making use of commodity techniques like transacted files and return-oriented programming for covert communication and payload distribution. We report on how synthetic Rope samples eluded a number of state-of-the-art anti-virus and endpoint security solutions, and bypassed the opt-in mitigations of Windows 10 for hardening applications. We then discuss directions and practical remediations to mitigate such threats.


  • Malware
  • Distributed execution
  • Anti-virus
  • EDR
  • Injection
  • Code reuse
  • Application hardening
  • ROP
  • TxF
  • WDEG

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-88418-5_10
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Fig. 1:


  1. 1.

    This is relevant also for mimicry attacks from process creation-based approaches.

  2. 2.

    Necessary to overcome present implementation gaps in WDEG, e.g., with concomitant use of ACG and ROP mitigations [28], or with ACG and remote allocations [19].

  3. 3.

    Only recursive functions would require semantic changes to their code: e.g., the attacker may use a stack data structure to host and reference each stack frame.

  4. 4.

    A more conservative and covert implementation may target an already-loaded module (e.g., kernel32.dll) and encode the bootstrap component and the chunks with, e.g., microgadgets [17] that are abundant [32]. However, this was not necessary for validating the stealthiness of our approach on the currently available tested defenses.

  5. 5.

  6. 6.

    Also the ETW (Event Tracing for Windows) system offers useful tracing capabilities.


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Correspondence to Daniele Cono D’Elia .

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D’Elia, D.C., Invidia, L., Querzoni, L. (2021). Rope: Covert Multi-process Malware Execution with Return-Oriented Programming. In: Bertino, E., Shulman, H., Waidner, M. (eds) Computer Security – ESORICS 2021. ESORICS 2021. Lecture Notes in Computer Science(), vol 12972. Springer, Cham.

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