Cryptocurrency mining–once considered no more than a nuisance, a relatively benign activity that was a drain on machine resources–has been on the rise in recent years. This increase in cryptocurrency mining activity is driven by the increasing value of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the growth in popularity of different kinds of cryptocurrency( Ethereum, Litecoin, and Dogecoin ), and the volatility in these marketplaces. As cryptocurrency prices rise, many opportunistic attackers now prefer to use cryptojacking over ransomware. The dangers for organizations have increased, as attackers deploy coin miners as a payload for malware campaigns. According to recent research from Avira Protection Labs, there was a 53 percent an increasing number of coin miner malware attacks in Q4 2020 compared to Q3 2020.

In addition, with malware evolving over the years to evade typical anti-malware defenses, seeing coin miners are becoming more and more more challenging.

This rising threat is why Microsoft and Intel have been partnering to deliver technology that uses silicon-based threat detection to enable endpoint detection and response( EDR) abilities in Microsoft Defender for Endpoint to better detect cryptocurrency mining malware, even when the malware is obfuscated and tries to sidestep security tools.

Intel Threat Detection Technology in Microsoft Defender for Endpoint

Today, we are announcing the integration of Intel Threat Detection Technology( TDT) into Microsoft Defender for Endpoint, an addition that enhances the detection capability and protection against cryptojacking malware. This built around our existing partnership and prior collaboration to integrate Intel’s Accelerated Memory Scanning with Defender.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Defender for Endpoint alert in the security center about a CoinMiner that was blocked.

Figure 1: CoinMiner alert from Microsoft Defender for Endpoint.

Intel TDT applies machine learning to low-level hardware telemetry sourced directly from the CPU performance monitoring unit( PMU) to see the malware code executing “fingerprint” at runtime with minimal overhead. TDT leveragings a rich placed of performance profiling events available in Intel SoCs( system-on-a-chip) to monitor and see malware at their final executing level( the CPU ). This happens irrespective of obfuscation techniques, including when malware disguises within virtualized guests, without needing intrusive techniques like code injection or performing complex hypervisor introspection. TDT can further offload machine learning inference to the integrated graphics processing division( GPU ), enabling continuous monitoring with negligible overhead. While we haven’t seen any performance issues with the current deployments, we plan to enable the GPU offloading capabilities of Intel TDT in the near future.

This technology is based on telemetry signals coming directly from the PMU, the unit that records low-level information about performance and microarchitectural execution characteristics of instructions processed by the CPU. Coin miners make heavy use of reiterated mathematical operations and this activity is recorded by the PMU, which triggers a signal when a certain usage threshold is reached. The signal is processed by a layer of machine learning which can recognize the footprint generated by the specific activity of coin mining. Since the signal comes exclusively from the utilization of the CPU, caused by execution characteristics of malware, it is unaffected by common antimalware deception techniques such as binary obfuscation or memory-only payloads.

Architectural diagram showing the flow of how malware launches in the OS and cloaks as a lightweight VM, Intel monitors the CPU telemetry and the Intel TDT detects the OS and VM malware, at the end, Microsoft Defender for Endpoint remediates the malware.

Figure 2: Diagram showing how Intel TDT and Microsoft Defender detect and remediate malware.

Even though we have enabled this technology specifically for cryptocurrency mining, it expands the horizons for seeing more aggressive menaces like side-channel onslaughts and ransomware. Intel TDT already has the capacity needed for such scenarios, and machine learning can be trained to recognize these attack vectors.

Screenshot of a Windows desktop with a notification from Windows Security about a threat that was detected by Intel TDT and Microsoft Defender.

Figure 3: Intel TDT and Microsoft Defender see malware. The user is notified of a threat via a Windows Security notification.

Screenshot of the Windows Security protection history screen showing that a coinminer threat was blocked by Intel TDT and Microsoft Defender.

Figure 4: Windows security protection history indicate CoinMiner threat blocked. Detected with Intel TDT and Microsoft Defender.

This technology doesn’t require any additional investments, IT configuration, or installation of agents. The Microsoft Defender for Endpoint and Intel TDT integrated solution studies natively with Intel( r) Core™ processors and the Intel vPro( r) platform, 6th Generation or later.

Since the main signal used for this detection capability comes right from the hardware( the Intel CPU ), it can detect coin miners running inside unprotected virtual machines and other containers. This demo video showcases how, in such a scenario, Microsoft Defender for Endpoint can stop the virtual machine itself or report virtual machine abuse, thus preventing the spread of an attack as well as saving resources. “Thats one” step towards agentless malware detecting, where the “protector” can protect the asset from the “attacker” without having to be in the same OS.

As we enable information and communication technologies on more and more supported platforms, we are getting valuable machine learning telemetry back, which informs and stimulates the already existing frameworks better and more effective.

As organisations look to simplify their security investments, we’re committed to our focus on built-in platform-based security engineerings, delivering a best-of-breed and streamlined solution that empowers champions to elevate their security and protect their organizations. This partnership is part of Microsoft’s investment into collaborations with original equipment manufacturers( OEMs) and technological sciences collaborators. We’re working closely with chipmakers to always explore new possibilities for hardware-based defense hardening and deliver robust and resilient protection against cyber threats.

Learn more

For additional details, please read Intel’s News Byte.

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint is an industry-leading, cloud-powered endpoint security solution offering vulnerability management, endpoint protection, endpoint detecting and response, and mobile threat defense. With our answer, menaces are no match. If you are not yet taking advantage of Microsoft’s unrivaled menace optics and proven capabilities, sign up for a free trial of Microsoft Defender for Endpoint today.

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Amitrajit Banerjee, Andrea Lelli, Gowtham Animi Reddy, Karthik Selvaraj, Shweta Jha

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint Team

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