Weaponizing Mapping Injection with Instrumentation Callback for stealthier process injection

by splinter_code - 16 July 2020

Process Injection is a technique to hide code behind benign and/or system processes. This technique is usually used by malwares to gain stealthiness while performing malicious operations on the system. AVs/EDR solutions are aware of this technique and create detection patterns to identify and kill this "class" of attacks.

Nowadays the detection is achieved through multiple ways. The most common is through Userland Hooking. Most of the times, this is achieved by injecting a hooking engine dll directly from the kernel every time a new process is created.

While this kind of detection has been proven that can be bypassed in multiple ways (by remapping DLLs from the disk at runtime or by using direct system calls) there are other effective ways to track the injection behaviors.
For example Sysmon provide a way to track remote thread creations directly from ring 0 and avoids all the problems of monitoring processes from the same ring level of the process itself.

There are also Event Tracing for Windows (ETW) kernel-mode API to add event tracing to kernel-mode drivers where you can register to specific events (for process injection scenario syscalls are of interests) and receive notifications by the kernel directly from ring 0. In latest windows the kernel has been instrumented with new sensors designed to trace User APC code injection initiated by a kernel code and other events to track process injections. There are no public documentation about that, but here you can find an interesting article with some of the events you can register.

With that in mind i wanted to explore if there are other patterns that can be took to perform process injection operations (ideally not well documented nor already known) and check if that can work to bypass some AVs/EDR. The aim is not to criticize the actual detection in place by AVs/EDR, but to give detailed internals on how it works in order to ease (making known what is unknown) the development of effective detection.

So before i jump in the technical deep dive TL;DR section i want to give a little brief of what are you going to read (if you are interested):

I'm going to release and detail a stealthy process injection technique that uses a combination of two functions to achieve allocation primitive (that i have already described some time ago) CreateFileMapping() and MapViewOfFile2() ( well i have made some updates to use a stealthier version called MapViewOfFile3() ) and chain a very powerful execution primitive through the call NtSetInformationProcess().
The last function i mentioned can be used to set an Instrumentation Callback in an arbitrary process. From the attacker perspective this function could be abused and would allow to do a "jmp [0xYourAddress]" directly from the kernel without raising any remote thread creation and neither an APC creation, really stealthy!
It has a drawback, it expect a certain callback with a specific behavior to follow if you don't want to mess/crash the target process and this is what i will [try to] explain in this post.


While the functions to achieve allocation primitive on the target process have been already described, the main focus of this section will be to detail all the steps needed to comply with the expected behavior for the callback to be used in the NtSetInformationProcess() function.

The starting point will be this post and this presentation where they described this technique for hooking purposes.

The core of this technique is not the syscall NtSetInformationProcess() but the Instrumentation Callback.
The Instrumentation Callback is a field in KPROCESS structure and is set to NULL by default to every process.

How it works?

"Each time the kernel encounters a situation in which it returns to user level code. It checks the InstrumentationCallback member of the current KPROCESS structure under which the processor executes. If it is not NULL and assuming it points to valid memory, the kernel will swap out the RIP on the trap frame and exchange it for the value contained at InstrumentationCallback." took here

There are many situations in which there is a transition from kernel to user land code. So let's analyze the function in charge of the swap of RIP.
Reversing ntoskrnl.exe i found the function KiSetupForInstrumentationReturn() that looks promising:

What it does is just checking the InstrumentationCallback field and, if it's not NULL, it saves the original RIP address (this is the address to restore userland execution) and then changes the KTRAP_FRAME values of RIP to the address contained in the InstrumentationCallback field.
The KTRAP_FRAME are all the data saved before the transition from kernel to user land. And this struct will be used to restore the old data prior to transition when the kernel finishes its job and restore the userland execution.

In other words setting the Instrumentation Callback can trigger your code any time this transition occurs.
But... In the beginning i had 2 points to clarify in order to understand if the callbacks could be abused as an execution primitive for a process injection:
  1. How often this transition happens? Ideally the shellcode shouldn't take ages to run so we need those transitions happens often in processes (and in this case in the target process).
  2. The InstrumentationCallback is a field of the kernel structure KPROCESS. So we can't set that directly from a userland process. Is there a way to set it from a userland process? If yes, do we need any particular privilege or precondition?
To clarify the first point i looked at all cross references of the function KiSetupForInstrumentationReturn():

As shown in the above screenshot there are some places where the instrumentation callback triggers. Those triggers happens when the process raise an exception (KiDispatchException) or when an APC get scheduled in the process (KiInitilizeUserApc). Also if those triggers are valid (and useful from a hooking perspective), they are not triggered often enough for our purpose.

But... What about the transition from kernel to user land happening when using syscall? Does this get triggered before the sysret? For sure this is not triggered in the function KiSetupForInstrumentationReturn() showed above, but maybe there is some inline code that does this job.

So let's investigate KiSystemCall64() call that's the system service dispatcher function for x64 systems (in other words this is the function in the kernel called after the syscall instruction).

A label of this function caught my attention: KiSystemServiceExit. This is one of the latest operations done before the sysret instruction where all the data are restored from the KTRAP_FRAME.

Disassembling this function i found a really interesting piece of code:

The variable ReturnAddressLocal is a local variable initialized to the real return address to userland (this address will point to the address after the syscall instruction in the userland process that is usually a ret instrunction). This address is took from 3rd argument of the KiSystemCall64() function. This piece of code check if the Instrumentation Callback is set and if that's the case the real address will be saved in R10 and the callback address is stored in the ReturnAddressLocal. Then the ReturnAddressLocal is assigend to KTRAP_FRAME->RIP and when the restoration will occur the redirection of the userland code to the callback address will occurs.

Great! This is a perfect trigger for our process injection :D

So let's proceed on the next point i wanted to clarify: How to set this field from a userland process? This can be achieved by calling NtSetInformationProcess() using ProcessInstrumentationCallback (40) as the PROCESS_INFORMATION_CLASS parameter and the structure PROCESS_INSTRUMENTATION_CALLBACK_INFORMATION with some required values. (credits to @aionescu)

There are 2 prerequisites to met:
  1. A process handle with the PROCESS_SET_INFORMATION access is needed;
  2. If a remote process is the target, the SeDebugPrivilege is required. No privileges required if the current process handle is used.
Let's do something more practical and see how works running a debugging session. I just created a .c source that set its current Instrumentation Callback to a callback that just does "jmp R10" and after that it will call a random syscall (i used NtDelayExecution() in this example) that will trigger our callback.

As you can see in the above debugging session the userland execution after the syscall instruction isn't restored as usual at next instruction (so at ret instruction) but it jumps to the callback function that, in this case, is just a jump to r10.

Ok, now we know we are able to hijack the execution flow of every syscall of the target process!

But... but... We can't just allocate our shellcode and run it from the callback address because this would blow up the target process for different reasons (recursions, stack messes, etc...). Effective process injections shouldn't crash the target process. So, what are all the potential problems causing a crash we should took in consideration?

  1. The callback code must be in charge of saving and restoring RAX (which contains the return value of the syscall) and R10 (needed to restore the execution);
  2. The callback code must be in charge of saving and restoring all the non-volatile registers and the shadow stack space;
  3. The shellcode shouldn't run any time the syscall is returning to userland, but just 1 time;
  4. The callback code must ensure that the shellcode execution doesn't create lock conditions while returning the result of the syscall to the caller. So we need to run the shellcode in an async way. This can be achieved running the shellcode in a local thread.
  5. If the callback code calls itself another syscall it should avoids recursions.
  6. Once the shellcode is executed successfully, the callback code will be still placed on the target process. So the callback code must have a way to be turned off.

Let's write the callback code that manages all the above points, it's assembly time!

As a starting point i used this public POC available here that managed the first 2 points mentioned above. I will use fasm for assembling and emitting raw shellcode. There are no particular technical reason i preferred it over nasm. I found it cool that it's entirely written in assembly and can be used to assemble itself. I didn't use masm because, as far as i know, there are no ways to emit raw assembled code instead of the object files (those are in the .coff format).

The final callback asm code is:

note: The NtCreateThreadEx function is a slightly modified version took from this nice repo --> SysWhispers

Very briefly, the flag for the callback activation is initialized to 0 (so turned on) and the address that contains this value is moved to rdx. If the callback is turned on it will call the DisposableHook function. This is, as the name suggest, a hook that just run 1 time and then go away (well not always true because it will still persist if the thread creation fails). The DisposableHook function is a function that i wrote with the help of asm generation of visual studio starting from a .c source code:

UPDATE: To ensure that the shellcode thread is run exactly 1 time i have used atomic read/write operations through the function InterlockedExchange8(). Credits goes to @0xrepnz for the fine advice!

This function take as input the address of the shellcode (that in our case will always be the address of "shellcode_placeholder" label moved in rcx) and the address where is stored the flag to check if the shellcode should still be run (moved in rdx in the beginning of the callback code).
It runs the shellcode in a thread and turn off the callback code by changing the global variable we passed as argument "threadCreated".
The behavior of the callback when is turned off is just jumping to r10.

Now that we have a callback that won't mess up with the target process, we need to prepare the memory for the execution of the callback in the target process. We need to allocate the memory 2 times in the target process. The first memory space we need is 1 byte RW memory that will be the flag to activate/deactivate the callback function. The second memory space we need is a chunk of memory that will contain the callback code + the shellcode (so RX memory).

Here it comes in the game the Mapping Injection technique to allocate remote memory. The only variation i applied is in using the function MapViewOfFile3() instead of MapViewOfFile2(). MapViewOfFile3() is exported from kernelbase.dll and it is more stealthy because it calls internally NtMapViewOfSectionEx() that has been exported from the kernel starting from Windows 10 build 17134 (version 1803). As it is "quite" recent, many hooking engine just forgot about it and they just place hook on the classic NtMapViewOfSection() that we are avoiding in this technique. For this reason this call will go, most probably, undetected on many hooking engine.

The function in charge of the mapping injection allocation is called MappingInjectionAlloc() with the following code:

Now it's time to write the injector that will perform the following steps:
  1. Enable the SeDebugPrivilege for the current process (needed for setting the Instrumentation Callback of a remote process);
  2. Find the PID of the target process (i.e. explorer.exe);
  3. Open a handle to that process with the accesses PROCESS_VM_OPERATION (required for MapViewOfFile3) and PROCESS_SET_INFORMATION (required for NtSetInformationProcess)
  4. Allocate 1 byte RW memory (initialized to 0) in the target process that will be used as the flag for activation/deactivation of the callback. This is done through the function MappingInjectionAlloc() that will return the allocation address used in the next step;
  5. Create the final callback by replacing in the callback code the RDX address of the previously allocated flag. Append the required shellcode at the end of the callback code and remotely allocate RX memory in the target process to hold all the final callback code. This is done  through the function MappingInjectionAlloc() that will return the allocation address used in the callback field in the next step;
  6. Assign the address of the remote final callback in the structure PROCESS_INSTRUMENTATION_CALLBACK_INFORMATION;
  7. Call NtSetInformationProcess() with the handle to the target process and with the structure PROCESS_INSTRUMENTATION_CALLBACK_INFORMATION that contains the final callback address in the remote process;
  8. Enjoy your shellcode execution :D
The shellcode execution is triggered really fast (almost instantly) if you choose a running process that is doing some jobs (i.e. explorer, winlogon, lsass...) because the callback will try to run the shellcode for every syscall execution.

In the end the chain of the api call will be:

OpenProcess() -> (CreateFileMapping() -> MapViewOfFile3() [current process] -> MapViewOfFile3() [target process]) x 2 times -> NtSetInformationProcess()

Let's test it and spawn a MessageBox in explorer.exe:

You can find the POC code here.


After the shellcode execution occurs this technique will leave some traces behind. The "InstrumentationCallback" field in the KPROCESS structure of the target process will still point to the memroy address of the callback function.

By default, processes have the InstrumentationCallback set to NULL. So this could be used to detect if a process have been injected using this technique.

Assuming you have a memory dump of the machine you can check the KPROCESS of all processes and if the field "InstrumentationCallback" is not NULL you can follow that address and you will probably find the callback code and also the shellcode allocated at the bottom.

Here an example of finding evidence after running the POC targeting the process explorer.exe:

You may be wondering: what if you set the instrumentation callback back to null to avoid detection? Well, this could be possible but this won't be detailed in this post. What i can say is that it's not easy at it seems, you can dare to try :D

That being said this is for sure not a silver bullets for every detection, but it could be used as a generic way to detect the injection, or at least attackers that uses this POC.


The Instrumentation Callback feature is really powerfull either for hooking and code execution. The concept of "DisposableHook" can be used to transform every hooking mechanism in code execution primitive for process injections without messing the target process.

This technique could bypass a plethora of AVs/EDRs because it uses quite uncommon way to perform process injection.
It doesn't use the prehistoric and classic VirtualAllocEx() and WriteProcessMemory() for allocation primitives and neither the classic CreateRemoteThread() for the execution primitive.

It uses a combination of API calls for allocating remote memory through recently added function for managing section objects. Moreover it doesn't raise any remote thread or APC thanks to the powerful execution through Instrumentation Callback.

As seen it still leave some traces that could be inspected to detect the injections.

It has some drawbacks: it requires the debug privileges, it works on latest windows and only on x64.

Prevention could be achieved using kernel ETW subscriptions that would allow to detect the remote memory allocation through MapViewOfFile3() (well technically NtMapViewOfSectionEx()) also if direct syscalls are used.

AVs/EDRs solutions that are using kernel ETW subscriptions to monitor syscalls (those allowed by ETW) can make a difference in preventing this technique and many others malicious behaviors due to the fact that those notifications work in a ring level higher than the process itself.