Naveen Sunkavally

Project Syn in Action: Detecting Threats to Containerized Web Applications

Blog Post created by Naveen Sunkavally Employee on Sep 12, 2017

Web applications and web services are probably the most commonly produced type of software, and they are increasingly being developed and deployed as containers. Among the top downloaded container images on the public Docker Hub are many related to web application development, such as nginx, MySQL, PostgreSQL, the Apache HTTP server, Ruby, PHP, Tomcat, and Django.


This post walks through an example scenario of detecting a web application attack using Project Syn. The scenario is admittedly simple and contrived, but we believe it's illustrative of how Syn can help in the real world.



In our scenario we use the Damn Vulnerable Web Application (DVWA) as the web app to be exploited. The application is intentionally riddled with vulnerabilities and is often used in security pen-test training. We deploy the entire web app, based on the LAMP stack, in a single Docker container. (Typically a web application would be deployed as many containers but a single container is sufficient for our purposes.)


We also deploy the Project Syn container side-by-side with the DVWA container on the same Docker host. The Project Syn container collects security-related data about other containers on the same host (in this case the DVWA container) and forwards them to the Syn cloud service for analysis and alerting.


Here's the output of docker ps:


Exploit, Payload Delivery and Execution

Among the many vulnerabilities in the DVWA is one that permits the upload and execution of malicious code disguised as image files.



We use the OWASP Zed Attack Proxy to exploit the vulnerability to install a malicious PHP file, bad.php, and execute it. The PHP file contains a small bit of code that when executed launches a Python process that connects to an external IP hosting a Remote Admin Tool (RAT). The Python process downloads a full payload from the external IP and executes it, giving the operator of the RAT full control over the container.



The Syn service raises alerts when it detects the launching of the malicious Python process:




In addition, the Syn service raises alerts when it detects network traffic to the malicious external IP on ports 8080 and 443:

Data Exfiltration

Once the payload is installed, the operator of the RAT has full control over the container and can do any number of things. In our case, we are using the open source Pupy RAT tool. We start an interactive shell on the container,  dump the MySQL database to a file, and download it.



The Syn service detects the anomalous execution of the mysqldump process:


The Syn service also detects that data exfiltration through the producer-consumer ratio (PCR) metric.


The PCR metric tracks a normalized ratio of network bytes in and out of a component. Producers (PCR value between 0 and 1) have more data flowing out than in, while consumers (PCR value between -1 and 0) have more data flowing in than out. Components tend to have pretty stable PCR values over time.


In our scenario, the Syn service detected a significant change in the DVWA container's PCR. It changed from being a moderate producer (.613) to being a strong producer (.979) at the moment the database dump was downloaded.




The beauty of containers is that they are designed to be limited in function and behavior. As such, from a security perspective, we believe we can precisely model what the expected/normal behavior for any container should be, and raise targeted alerts when anomalies arise. We walked through a simplified scenario above of using Project Syn to detect the exploitation of a containerized web application.


If you're interested in giving Project Syn a spin, check out or the Getting Started video. Feedback is welcome!