Lee Kirkpatrick

Detecting Command and Control in RSA NetWitness: Cobalt Strike

Blog Post created by Lee Kirkpatrick Employee on May 28, 2019


Cobalt Strike is a threat emulation tool used by red teams and advanced persistent threats for gaining and maintaining a foothold on networks. This blog post will cover the detection of Cobalt Strike based off a piece of malware identified from Virus Total:


NOTE: The malware sample was downloaded and executed in a malware VM under analysts constant supervision as this was/is live malware.

The Detection in NetWitness Packets

NetWitness Packets pulls apart characteristics of the traffic it sees. It does this via a number of Lua parsers that reside on the Packet Decoder itself. Some of the Lua parsers have option files associated with them that parse out additional metadata for analysis. One of these is the HTTP Lua parser, which has an associated HTTP Lua options file, you can view this by navigating to Admin  Services ⮞ Decoder ⮞ Config ⮞ Files - and selecting HTTP_lua_options.lua from the drop down. The option we are interested in for this blog post is the headerCatalog() - making this return true will register the HTTP Headers in the request and response under the meta keys:

  • http.request
  • http.response


And the associated values for the headers will be registered under:

  • req.uniq
  • resp.uniq


NOTE: This feature is not available in the default options file due to potential performance considerations it may have on the Decoder. This feature is experimental and may be deprecated at any time, so please use this feature with caution, and monitor the health of all components if enabling. Also, please look into the customHeader() function prior to enabling this, as that is a less intensive substitute that could fit your use cases.


There are a variety of options that can be enabled here. For more details, it is suggested to read the Hunting Guide - https://community.rsa.com/docs/DOC-62341.


These keys will need to be indexed on the Concentrator, and the following addition to the index-concentrator-custom.xml file is suggested:

<key description="HTTP Request Header" format="Text" level="IndexValues" name="http.request" defaultAction="Closed" valueMax="5000" />
<key description="HTTP Response Header" format="Text" level="IndexValues" name="http.response" defaultAction="Closed" valueMax="5000" />
<key description="Unique HTTP Request Header" level="IndexKeys" name="req.uniq" format="Text" defaultAction="Closed"/>
<key description="Unique HTTP Response Header" level="IndexKeys" name="resp.uniq" format="Text" defaultAction="Closed"/>



The purpose for this, amongst others, is that the trial version of Cobalt Strike has a distinctive HTTP Header that we, as analysts, would like to see: https://blog.cobaltstrike.com/2015/10/14/the-cobalt-strike-trials-evil-bit/. This HTTP header is X-Malware - and with our new option enabled, this header is easy to spot:

NOTE: While this is one use case to demonstrate the value of extracting the HTTP Headers, this metadata proves incredibly valueable across the board, as looking for uncommon headers can help lead analysts to uncover and track malicious activity. Another example where this was useful can be seen in one of the previous posts regarding POSH C2, whereby an application rule was created to look for the incorrectly supplied cachecontrol HTTP response header: https://community.rsa.com/community/products/netwitness/blog/2019/03/04/command-and-control-poshc2


Pivoting off this header and opening the Event Analysis view, we can see a HTTP GET request for KHSw, which was direct to IP over port 666 and had a low header count with no referrer - this should stand out as suspicious even without the initial indicator we used for analysis:


If we had decided to look for traffic using the Service Analysis key, which pulls apart the characteristics of the traffic, we would have been able to pivot of off these metadata values to whittle down our traffic to this as well:


Looking into the response for the GET request, we can see the X-Malware header we pivoted off of, and the stager being downloaded. Also, take notice of the EICAR test string in the X-Malware as well, this is indicative of a trial version of Cobalt Strike as well:


NetWitness Packets also has a parser to detect this string, and will populate the metadata, eicar test string, under the Session Analysis meta key (if the Eicar Lua parser is pushed from RSA Live) - this could be another great pivot point to detect this type of traffic:


Further looking into the Cobalt Strike traffic, we can start to uncover more details surrounding its behaviour. Upon analysis, we can see that there are multiple HTTP GET requests with no error (i.e. 200), and a content-length of zero, which stands out as suspicious behaviour - as well as this, there is a cookie that looks like a Base64 encoded string (equals at the end for padding) with no name/value pairs, cookies normally consist of name/value pairs, these two observations make the cookie anomalous:


Based off of this behaviour, we can start to think about how to build content to detect this type of behaviour. Heading back to our HTTP Lua options file on the Decoder, we can see another option named, customHeaders() - this allows us to extract the values of HTTP headers in a field of our choosing. This means we can choose to extract the cookie into a meta key named cookie, and content-length into a key named http.respsize - this allows us to map a specific HTTP header value to a key so we can create some content based off of the behaviours we previously observed:


After making the above change, we need to add the following keys to our index-concentrator-custom.xml file as well - these are set to the index level of, keys, as the values that can be returned are unbounded and we don't want to bloat the index:

<key description="Cookie" format="Text" level="IndexKeys" name="cookie" defaultAction="Closed"  />
<key description="HTTP Response Size" format="Text" level="IndexKeys" name="http.respsize" defaultAction="Closed" />


Now we can work on creating our application rules. Firstly, we wanted to alert on the suspicious GET requests we were seeing:

service = 80 && action = 'get' && error !exists && http.respsize = '0' && content='application/octet-stream'

And for the anomalous cookie, we can use the following logic. This will look for no name/value pairs being present and the use of equals signs at the end of the string which can indicate padding for Base64 encoded strings:

service = 80 && cookie regex '^[^=]+=*$' && content='application/octet-stream'

These will be two separate application rules that will be pushed to the Decoders:


Now we can start to track the activity of Cobalt Strike easily in the Investigate view. This could also potentially alert the analyst to other infected hosts in their environment. This is why it is important to analyse the malicious traffic and create content to track:



Cobalt Strike is a very malleable tool. This means that the indicators we have used here will not detect all instances of Cobalt Strike, with that being said, this is known common Cobalt Strike behaviour. This blog post was intended to showcase how the usage of the HTTP Lua options file can be imperative in identifying anomalous traffic in your environment whilst using real-world Live malware. The extraction of the HTTP headers, whilst a trivial piece of information, can be vital in detecting advanced tools used by attackers. This coupled with the extraction of the values themselves, can help your analysts to create more advanced higher fidelity content.