Advancing Malware Family Classification with MOTIF
Written by Robert J. Joyce and Edward Raff
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Written by Robert J. Joyce and Edward Raff
Zeus. Poison Ivy. Conficker. Stuxnet. WannaCry. Even years after discovery, the names of these malware families are still infamous. But new digital threats are constantly arising. Malware production is booming. And that means network defenders must learn to categorize newly discovered malware in a blink. To succeed, they’ll need the right tools. Until now, crucial data has been unavailable. Booz Allen’s new dataset will help cybersecurity teams accurately analyze malware faster than ever.
The ability to quickly pin down the family of malware used during a cyber attack can be a massive boon to an incident responder. Not only does family classification provide immediate insights about the characteristics and behaviors of a malware sample, but it is a core part of the triage, remediation, and attribution efforts. But figuring all this out quickly under pressure is hard. Organizations need new tools to automate the process of malware family classification and empower defenders so that they can swiftly understand the nature of threats and take action—leading to the need for better data.
The lack of reliably labeled data is a major obstacle to the development of any malware family classification tool. One reason is that manual analysis is the only way to be sure of which family a particular sample belongs to—only labels derived this way are said to have “ground truth” confidence. And it’s very time-consuming to do such analysis on even a single file—hence, nearly all datasets label malware with less reliable methods (such as relying on antivirus products).
Using low-quality labels to judge the performance of a malware family classifier can lead to biased or misleading evaluation results—and that’s a big problem. A cybersecurity team charged with defending an organization must be able to have confidence in its analysis toolset. To enable high-confidence benchmarking of malware classification tools, Booz Allen has created the Malware Open-source Threat Intelligence Family (MOTIF) dataset.
Containing 3,095 malware samples from 454 families, MOTIF is the largest and most diverse public dataset with “ground truth” family labels to date. To build the MOTIF dataset, the authors reviewed all the threat reports published by 14 cybersecurity organizations during a 5-year period.
All these reports include expert analysis about a particular family of malware. For each malware sample, Booz Allen is releasing:
|md5||MD5 hash of malware sample|
|sha1||SHA-1 hash of malware sample|
|sha256||SHA-256 hash of malware sample|
|reported_hash||Hash of malware sample provided in report|
|reported_family||Normalized family name provided in report|
|aliases||List of known aliases for family|
|label||Unique id for malware family (for ML purposes)|
|report_source||Name of organization that published report|
|report_date||Date report was published|
|report_url||URL of report|
|report_ioc_url||URL to report appendix (if any)|
|appeared||Year and month malware sample was first seen|
|byteentropy||EMBER byte histogram|
|strings||EMBER strings metadata|
|general||EMBER general file metadata|
|header||EMBER PE header metadata|
|section||EMBER PE section metadata|
|imports||EMBER imports metadata|
|exports||EMBER exports metadata|
|datadirectories||EMBER data directories metadata|
Malware family naming is messy and inconsistent. Sometimes, multiple names, called aliases, are used to refer to the same family. To help with this issue, we are releasing the following information about each family in MOTIF (Table 3):
|Aliases||List of known aliases for family|
|Description||Brief sentence describing capabilities of malware family|
|Attribution (If any)||Name of threat actor malware/campaign is attributed to|
Finally, Booz Allen is releasing LightGBM and MalConv2 models that serve as baselines for malware family classification. All of this data is available on our GitHub repository.
All the malware in MOTIF has been disarmed using the same method as the SOREL dataset, by replacing the OPTIONAL_HEADER.Subsystem and FILE_HEADER.Machine fields in each executable with zero. Booz Allen provides the same guidance as Sophos about abuse of this data.
According to Sophos:
“It would take knowledge, skill, and time to reconstitute the samples and get them to actually run. That said, we recognize that there is at least some possibility that a skilled attacker could learn techniques from these samples or use samples from the dataset to assemble attack tools to use as part of their malicious activities. However, in reality, there are already many other sources attackers could leverage to gain access to malware information and samples that are easier, faster, and more cost-effective to use. In other words, this disarmed sample set will have much more value to researchers looking to improve and develop their independent defenses than it will have to attackers.”
Results obtained using the MOTIF dataset have already challenged conventional wisdom firmly held by the community, such as the accuracy of techniques which use collective decisions of a group of antivirus engines as a source of family labeling. We envision the MOTIF dataset becoming a valuable asset for evaluating malware family classifiers and for enabling future malware research.
The MOTIF dataset was only made possible by the outstanding threat research published by many different cybersecurity organizations. Collaboration and sharing of open-source threat intelligence are fundamental to building a collective defense against cyber threats. We would especially like to thank Malpedia, whose large corpus of malware information was invaluable to this research.
For further details about the MOTIF dataset, please refer to our academic paper.
This blog series is brought to you by Booz Allen DarkLabs. Our DarkLabs is an elite team of security researchers, penetration testers, reverse engineers, network analysts, and data scientists, dedicated to stopping cyber attacks before they occur.
This article is for informational purposes only; its content may be based on employees’ independent research and does not represent the position or opinion of Booz Allen. Furthermore, Booz Allen disclaims all warranties in the article's content, does not recommend/endorse any third-party products referenced therein, and any reliance and use of the article is at the reader’s sole discretion and risk.