Twice around the dance floor - Elastic discovers the PIPEDANCE backdoor

Elastic Security Labs describes the PIPEDANCE backdoor


Key takeaways

  • Elastic Security Labs has identified PIPEDANCE, a previously unknown Windows backdoor used to enable post-compromise and lateral movement activities
  • Built for stealthy operations through named pipes, PIPEDANCE employs capabilities for interactive terminals, discovery/file enumeration, process injection, and data exfiltration checks
  • PIPEDANCE was observed deploying Cobalt Strike


In late December 2022, Elastic Security Labs observed new activity in a previously monitored environment targeting a Vietnamese organization. This new activity included the execution of a named pipe malware used to facilitate post-compromise activity.  We are naming this malware family PIPEDANCE. By leveraging PIPEDANCE, the adversary is able to:

  • Disguise activity through a custom function that randomly injects into a hard-coded list of Windows programs
  • Perform discovery by enumerating files and processes
  • Leverage standard backdoor capabilities such as running commands, writing files
  • Check different network protocols for exfiltration 
  • Launch additional payloads through process injection techniques

In this post, we walk through the initial execution then detail the capabilities we have discovered from reviewing the malware.


Unlike malware that might communicate with conventional network or application protocols, we identified a binary designed explicitly for lateral movement and post-compromise enablement within a contested environment: executing additional implants, running commands, performing file discovery, enumerating running processes, and checking outbound access; all through the use of Windows named pipes. This kind of functionality is comparable to Cobalt Strike or Metasploit’s SMB modules.

More information on named pipes

Named pipes within Windows allow for inter-process communication on a single computer or between processes on separate machines within the same network. Named pipes can be set up for one-way or two-way communication between a pipe client and a pipe server. The data used within named pipes are all stored in memory where it is written and retrieved using standard Windows APIs (CreateFile / WriteFile / ReadFile) in the same way as reading/writing files.

Elastic Defend was installed after an unknown initial compromise. The Suspicious Windows Service Execution behavioral rule generated the first observed events. While unconfirmed, published research describes similar techniques by an adversary leveraging execution through a locally-mounted Administrator share and using Microsoft’s SysInternals DebugView (DbgView.exe) utility to load PIPEDANCE.

DbgView.exe was observed loading PIPEDANCE into makecab.exe, the Windows utility used to package Cabinet files. The Windows performance data utility, typeperf.exe, was then injected into and spawned openfiles.exe where Cobalt Strike was loaded into this process.

While openfiles.exe binary is a legitimate Microsoft application, Elastic Defend generated a Cobalt Strike memory signature. After extracting the memory regions from the alert in Kibana, we identified the Cobalt Strike module invokeassembly.x64.dll, validating that Cobalt Strike was injected into the legitimate openfiles.exe binary.
Execution flow of DgbView.exe loading makecab.exe and then openfiles.exe (Cobalt Strike)

PIPEDANCE leverages named pipes as a communication mechanism between different infected endpoints within a compromised network. The adversary uses this capability as a bidirectional layer of command and control through which they can dispatch commands and pass data between named pipes.

Initial set-up / Communication flow

At the beginning of the main function, there is a hardcoded string used as the pipe name. This string is also used in later stages as an RC4 key to encrypt/decrypt data between pipes. In the image below, we can see the hardcoded pipe name (u0hxc1q44vhhbj5oo4ohjieo8uh7ufxe) being set as a global variable.

The hardcoded u0hxc1q44vhhbj5oo4ohjieo8uh7ufxe string used as the pipe name

During initial execution, the malware will use the CreateNamedPipeA and ConnectNamedPipe methods to create the named pipe (“\\.\pipe\u0hxc1q44vhhbj5oo4ohjieo8uh7ufxe") and wait for an incoming client process to connect to the pipe. The figure below represents this activity showing the pipe name being formatted with hardcoded string and initializing the pipe.

Initial Pipe Creation and Setup

During the first client connection, PIPEDANCE retrieves the following values from the local system and places them into a buffer:

  • Process ID of the PIPEDANCE process
  • Current working directory of the PIPEDANCE process.
  • Domain & Username of the PIPEDANCE process

PIPEDANCE passes this buffer and an 8-byte structure containing the result flag from a IsWow64Process evaluation and the buffer size for the subsequent WriteFile operation to the pipe. PIPEDANCE then encrypts the buffer containing the previous process details with RC4 and then writes the encrypted data back to the client pipe.

PIPEDANCE Write File Operation

Below is a high-level graphic that illustrates the purpose-built lateral movement functionality. With PIPEDANCE infections, the named pipe server process is run on a new victim machine, while the client instructions come from the operator from a previously compromised machine in the same network.

PIPEDANCE communication flow

Command dispatching

After an initial handshake, PIPEDANCE’s primary functionality consists of a while loop with a command dispatching function. This dispatching function will retrieve the provided command ID of its respective function along with any arguments and their size from the operator.

PIPEDANCE dispatching function

The parsing function passes an 8-byte structure consisting of the command instruction and the buffer size for the command argument. The command argument is decrypted using the previous RC4 key, then written back to the pipe.

PIPEDANCE parsing function

Once the command ID has been received, PIPEDANCE performs several conditional checks using if/else and switch statements.

PIPEDANCE conditional checks

The majority of the command functions return a result flag or error code to the operator. For some functions that may return large amounts of data, such as a list of running processes, the malware generates a new named pipe using the hardcoded string described earlier. Then it concatenates the PID of the PIPEDANCE process which sends and receives the data over this pipe.

PIPEDANCE sending large datasets over a new named pipe

Command functionality

PIPEDANCE supports more than 20 different functions, each accessed using their command ID via if/then and switch/case logic. Below is an example of the first 4 functions.

Sample of PIPEDANCE functions

Command handling table

Command IDDescription
0x1Terminates process based on provided PID
0x2Run a single command through cmd.exe, returns output
0x3Terminal shell using stdin/stdout redirection through named pipes
0x4File enumeration on current working directory
0x6Create a new file with content from pipe
0x7Retrieve current working directory
0x8Set current working directory
0x9Get running processes
0x16Perform injection (thread hijacking or Heaven’s Gate) with stdin/stdout option for the child process
0x18Perform injection from hardcoded list (thread hijacking or Heaven’s Gate)
0x1APerform injection on provided PID (thread hijacking or Heaven’s Gate)
0x3EClear out global variable/pipe data
0x47Connectivity check via HTTP Get Request
0x48Connectivity check via DNS with providing DNS Server IP
0x49Connectivity check via ICMP
0x4A Connectivity check via TCP
0x4BConnectivity check via DNS without providing DNS Server IP
0x63Disconnect pipe, close handle, exit thread
0x64Disconnect pipe, close handle, exit process, exit thread

In order to detail the significant capabilities of PIPEDANCE, we’ve split our analysis into three sections:

  • Standard backdoor functionality
  • Network connectivity checks
  • Process Injection techniques

Backdoor functionality

PIPEDANCE offers various interactive backdoor capabilities needed by an operator in order to perform reconnaissance, and pivot through different systems.

Command execution

There are two functions related to command execution, Function 0x2 and 0x3. The first method (Function 0x2) accepts a command argument from the terminal, such as ipconfig. This function starts by creating an anonymous named pipe with read and write handles. Before creating the process, PIPEDANCE will configure the STARTUPINFO structure using STARTF_USESTDHANDLES to pipe the command output (hStdOutput) for the new process.

Configuring the STARTUPINFO structure

A thread is then created passing the previous read pipe handle as an argument. Memory is allocated for the command output and read from this read pipe handle. The data is then looped over and encrypted in a similar manner as before and sent back through a new named pipe. In our example, this is the data from the ipconfig command.

PIPEDANCE reading in the command output

The second execution command (Function 0x3) creates a new cmd.exe process in a suspended state and also leverages STARTF_USESTDHANDLES as before.

PIPEDANCE sets up cmd.exe execution through STDIN/STDOUT

After the process is created, a new thread is created passing the STARTUPINFO where two named pipe server processes are created for input and output and the thread is resumed.

PIPEDANCE processing STDIN/STDOUT for command execution

This functionality operates similarly to a reverse shell, where the attacker has the ability to directly interact and pass data back and forth.

Discovery and enumeration

PIPEDANCE has built-in functionality related to discovery and enumeration. For process enumeration (Function 0x9), it leverages the CreateToolhelp32Snapshot function to retrieve the process details. The function returns the process ID, the name of the process, the architecture of the process, whether a process is tied to a system (Session represented as a 0) or user session (Session represented as a 1), and the username associated with the process.

PIPEDANCE performing process enumeration

Interestingly, in our observations with a few different modules, the results are mangled by the developer due to formatting the data with the C runtime library function vsprintf_s when working with Unicode data. This can be observed below in the process discovery module where the process name output gets mangled whereas PIPEDANCE only returns the first character of the process, architecture, and usernames. Below is the output table returned to the operator. In this example, PID 564 with a (mangled) “Name” of w is actually PID 564 with a full process name of winlogon.exe, a full architecture name of x86, a session ID of 1, and a full user name of NT AUTHORITY\SYSTEM, etc.

Table of PIPEDANCE's enumeration output

PIPEDANCE implements a terminal-like concept where it has a current or working directory for its process. This enables the adversary to use functions directly tied to the working directory, such as the file enumeration modules. 

For file enumeration, PIPEDANCE will use a wildcard to pull back a file listing from the current working directory.

PIPEDANCE performs file and directory enumeration

PIPEDANCE also offers functionality for creating files and writing content to files on the victim machine (Function 0x6). It does this by first creating and naming a file on the victim machine, then it creates a new thread with a new instance of a named pipe that will then wait for and read incoming data over the pipe. This data is XOR’d with the previous RC4 key and then written to the file.

PIPEDANCE creates and writes a file on the victim machine

PIPEDANCE also has various administrator or maintenance commands used to terminate processes, terminate threads, disconnect pipes, clear global variables from memory, etc.

Network connectivity checks

As adversaries pivot and move through a network, one of their objectives is understanding where the endpoint sits inside the network and determining what protocols are available for shipping data laterally or externally. PIPEDANCE is specifically built to identify exit points on an endpoint by checking DNS, ICMP, TCP, and HTTP protocols.

PIPEDANCE performing protocol connectivity checks

As an example, PIPEDANCE will make a DNS request to bing[.]com when providing a DNS server as an argument, the result of the query will be returned back to the operator indicating success or not. For ICMP, PIPEDANCE will generate fake data for the ICMP request by looping over the alphabet and sending it to a provided IP address.

PIPEDANCE performing ICMP checks
PIPEDANCE generating ICMP data from the US alphabet

Similarly for HTTP, the operator can provide a domain where PIPEDANCE will perform a vanilla HTTP GET request over port 80 and then return a boolean value for success or not.

PIPEDANCE performing an HTTP check

These are straightforward functions, but they provide great insight into the developer’s mindset and the type of objectives they are trying to achieve. These checks are likely used in a multi-stage process where these protocols are verified first in a lightweight method then additional shellcode/payloads are launched afterward.

Process injection techniques

In a similar fashion to many post-exploitation frameworks, PIPEDANCE leverages different forms of process injection to execute shellcode and launch additional implants. Depending on the process architecture, the malware will perform injection using a standard thread execution hijacking technique or the Heaven’s Gate technique.

PIPEDANCE performing process injection

PIPEDANCE utilizes defense evasions to obscure their activity by randomly picking a Windows program from a hardcoded list to use as an injection target.

This method generates a seed value based on the current time and passes it to a pseudorandom number generator that returns a value between 0 and 5. This value determines which of 6 hard-coded binaries (makecab.exe, typeperf.exe, w32tm.exe, bootcfg.exe, diskperf.exe, esentutl.exe) is used.

Hardcoded binaries that PIPEDANCE can use as injection targets

Below is an example of the Windows APIs used with the thread hijacking technique when PIPEDANCE is running under a 32-bit architecture.

PIPEDANCE performs thread hijacking

If the processor architecture is 64-bit, PIPEDANCE will use the Heaven’s Gate technique calling Native API functions (NtGetContextThread, NtWriteVirtualMemory, RtlCreateUserThread), switching the CPU to 64-bit, and executing shellcode.

PIPEDANCE using Heaven’s Gate for 64-bit architectures
PIPEDANCE calling NtWriteVirtualMemory for injection

PIPEDANCE also supports other methods of injection using CreateRemoteThread or through a Heaven’s Gate call to RtlCreateUserThread. With this function, instead of choosing from the previously hardcoded list, the operator provides the PID for the injection target.

PIPEDANCE allowing operator-supplied injection targets


PIPEDANCE is designed to conduct covert operations using named pipes and has various features to enable the post-compromise stage. In terms of capabilities, it reminds us of an offensive attack framework's SMB module, but with its own customization. While leveraging named pipes is not a novel technique, it's interesting to see how it's been implemented as a command and control internal proxy and represents an in-house development capability.

Detection logic


  • Memory Threat Prevent Alert: Shellcode Injection

Hunting queries

The events for both KQL and EQL are provided with the Elastic Agent using the Elastic Defend integration. Hunting queries could return high signals or false positives. These queries are used to identify potentially suspicious behavior, but an investigation is required to validate the findings.

KQL queries

Using the Discover app in Kibana, the below query will identify network connections coming from the hardcoded injection targets within PIPEDANCE."makecab.exe" or "typeperf.exe" or  "w32tm.exe" or "bootcfg.exe" or "diskperf.exe" or "esentutl.exe") and event.dataset:


Elastic Security has created a YARA rule to identify this activity. Below is the YARA rule to identify PIPEDANCE.

rule Windows_Trojan_PipeDance {
        author = "Elastic Security"
        creation_date = "2023-02-02"
        last_modified = "2023-02-02"
        os = "Windows"
        arch = "x86"
        category_type = "Trojan"
        family = "PipeDance"
        threat_name = "Windows.Trojan.PipeDance"
        license = "Elastic License v2"
        $str1 = "%-5d %-30s %-4s %-7d %s" wide fullword
        $str2 = "PID   Name                           Arch Session User" wide fullword
        $str3 = "%s %7.2f B" wide fullword
        $str4 = "\\\\.\\pipe\\%s.%d" ascii fullword
        $seq_rc4 = { 8D 46 ?? 0F B6 F0 8A 14 3E 0F B6 C2 03 C1 0F B6 C8 89 4D ?? 8A 04 0F 88 04 3E 88 14 0F 0F B6 0C 3E 0F B6 C2 03 C8 0F B6 C1 8B 4D ?? 8A 04 38 30 04 0B 43 8B 4D ?? 3B 5D ?? 72 ?? }
        $seq_srv_resp = { 8B CE 50 6A 04 5A E8 ?? ?? ?? ?? B8 00 04 00 00 8D 4E ?? 50 53 8B D0 E8 ?? ?? ?? ?? B8 08 02 00 00 8D 8E ?? ?? ?? ?? 50 57 8B D0 E8 ?? ?? ?? ?? }
        $seq_cmd_dispatch = { 83 FE 29 0F 87 ?? ?? ?? ?? 0F 84 ?? ?? ?? ?? 83 FE 06 0F 87 ?? ?? ?? ?? 0F 84 ?? ?? ?? ?? 8B C6 33 D2 2B C2 0F 84 ?? ?? ?? ?? 83 E8 01 }
        $seq_icmp = { 59 6A 61 5E 89 45 ?? 8B D0 89 5D ?? 2B F0 8D 04 16 8D 4B ?? 88 0A 83 F8 77 7E ?? 80 E9 17 88 0A 43 42 83 FB 20 }
        4 of ($str*) or 2 of ($seq*)
}Read more

Observed adversary tactics and techniques

Elastic uses the MITRE ATT&CK framework to document common tactics, techniques, and procedures that advanced persistent threats use against enterprise networks.


Tactics represent the why of a technique or sub-technique. It is the adversary’s tactical goal: the reason for performing an action.


All observables are also available for download in both ECS and STIX format in a combined zip bundle.

The following observables were discussed in this research.

9d3f739e35182992f1e3ade48b8999fb3a5049f48c14db20e38ee63eddc5a1e7SHA-256PIPEDANCE server-side component
805a4250ec1f6b99f1d5955283c05cd491e1aa378444a782f7bd7aaf6e1e6ce7SHA-256Cobalt Strike beacon
exl.officeappsreviews[.]com/lanche-334e58sfj4eeu7h4dd3sss32dURLCobalt Strike C2 server
  • Elastic Security Labs Newsletter