Event Details

EFS Ransomware

January 21st

Amit Klein, VP Security Research

Safebreach Labs


Ransomware is a serious threat to individuals, SOHOs/SMBs and large enterprises. Consequently, many security solutions are now available, which attempt to address the ransomware threat. In this blog post we describe EFS-based ransomware (ransomware which abuses the Windows Encrypting File System), which is a new concept we developed in Safebreach Labs. We put 3 anti-ransomware solutions from well-known vendors to the test against our EFS ransomware. All 3 solutions failed to protect against this threat. We then notified 17 major anti-malware and anti-ransomware vendors for Windows endpoints, provided them our PoC, and discovered that many products were affected. Most affected vendors deployed updates to address this new technique. We conclude that the EFS ransomware is an alarming concept and a possible new threat in the ransomware horizon.


Ransomware is a type of malicious software […] that threatens to publish the victim's data or perpetually block access to it unless a ransom is paid. [Modern ransomware] uses a technique called cryptoviral extortion, in which it encrypts the victim's files, making them inaccessible, and demands a ransom payment to decrypt them.” (from Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ransomware).

Here are several high-profile examples of the damage ransomware has inflicted::

EFS Ransomware Explained

EFS background

The Windows operating system (starting with Windows 2000) offers a feature called EFS (Encrypting File System) for its business users (the Pro, Professional, Business, Ultimate, Enterprise and Education editions, depending on the Windows version). This feature enables the encryption of specific folders and files, keyed to the Windows user. The encryption/decryption is carried out in the NTFS driver, under the file system filter drivers. Encryption/decryption is transparent to the user – part of the key is stored in a file that is accessible to the user and part of the key is computed from the user’s account password. Thus the user does not need to provide a password for EFS to work.

EFS is not to be confused with BitLocker. BitLocker is a full disk encryption feature, while EFS selectively encrypts folders and files. With BitLocker, the disk needs to be decrypted prior to booting and in order to decrypt the disk, the user needs to type the password (or plug in a USB key or have BitLocker use TPM if the device has one) during the pre-boot stage. .

EFS ransomware basics

EFS can be used to implement the following interesting kind of ransomware:

  1. The ransomware generates a key (using AdvApi32!CryptGenKey) to be used by EFS and records the file name used by CAPI for this key.
  2. The ransomware generates a certificate for this key, using Crypt32!CertCreateSelfSignCertificate, and adds it to the personal (“MY”) certificate store using Crypt32!CertAddCertificateContextToStore.
  3. The ransomware sets the current EFS key to this certificate using AdvApi32!SetUserFileEncryptionKey.
  4. Now the ransomware can invoke AdvApi32!EncryptFile on every file/folder to be encrypted.
  5. The ransomware saves the key file (whose name was recorded in step 1) to memory and deletes it from the following two folders:
    • %APPDATA% \Microsoft\Crypto\RSA\sid\ (where sid is the user SID)
    • %ProgramData% \Microsoft\Crypto\RSA\MachineKeys\
  6. The ransomware flushes the EFS data from memory using the undocumented AdvApi32!FlushEfsCache (available since Windows Vista). At this time, the encrypted files become unreadable to the user (and operating system).
  7. Ideally, the ransomware wipes the slack parts of the disk to ensure that data from the deleted the EFS key files and temporary files used by EncryptFile cannot be salvaged. This can also be done before the previous step.
  8. The ransomware can now encrypt the key file data collected in step 5, for example, using an asymmetric (public) key hard-wired into the ransomware and send the encrypted data to the attacker directly (or instruct the victim to do so).

To restore the files, the attacker needs to decrypt the key files using the attacker’s private key and have the malware restore them to their original position. Once this takes place, Windows can once again read the user files.

Note that one of the key files is under %APPDATA%, that is, under the user’s profile. If the user has a roaming profile defined, the files in the user’s profile are merged back to the central network server upon logout (https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/bb776892(v=vs.85).aspx). However, the EFS ransomware deletes this key file before logout so the key file is not saved to the network.

The EFS ransomware was tested with Windows 10 64-bit versions 1803, 1809 and 1903, but should also work on Windows 32-bit operating systems, and on earlier versions of Windows (probably Windows 8.x, Windows 7 and Windows Vista).


  • EFS ransomware works at a very deep level of the kernel. The files are encrypted at the NTFS driver level, and this modification goes unnoticed by file-system filter drivers.
  • EFS ransomware doesn’t require administrator rights. It works well in limited user accounts.
  • EFS ransomware doesn’t require human interaction.


  • When files/folders are encrypted, a small yellow padlock icon is displayed at the top right corner of the file/folder main icon. Thus, there is a minor visible indication that something is not going as usual.
  • If a Data Recovery Agent is defined for the machine (this is not the default for standalone/workgroup machines, but it is the default for domain-joined machines), then recovery is trivial using the Data Recovery Agent.
  • EFS can be turned off for a machine by setting the registry key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\EFS\EfsConfiguration to 1. Note: accessing this key requires administrator rights.

EFS-Ransomware vs. Anti-Ransomware Solutions

We tested the following anti-ransomware solutions/features:

  • ESET Internet Security
  • Kaspersky Anti Ransomware Tool for Business
  • Microsoft Windows 10 Controlled Folder Access on Windows 10 64-bit version 1809 (Build 17763)

We ran our EFS ransomware on virtualized Windows 10 machines, each with a folder of ~600MB of user files (a combination of JPG, PNG, MP4, DOC, XLS, DOCX, XLSX, SQL, CSV files of various names and sizes, with meaningful data in them), which was designated for protection (if relevant for the tested solution/feature).

All 3 products failed to protect the files from our EFS ransomware.

Based on these results, we decided to contact major vendors in the endpoint (Windows) and anti-ransomware (and anti-malware) market. We provided them with our advisory and PoC code, so that they could test their products and ensure they’re providing adequate protection against this new technique. The results are summarized below. Kudos to Avast who decided to award us with a $1000 bounty, even though we didn’t apply for one.

Vendor Status

Vendor Products/Services/Features Status
Avast/AVG Anti Virus From a vendor email (September 26th, 2019): “we implemented a workaround for version 19.8” (https://forum.avast.com/index.php?topic=229461.0)
Avira Anti Virus From a vendor email (November 20th, 2019): “Avira statement - EFS Encryption:
Avira is deeply appreciative of the work performed by external testers and bug hunters. This process of uncovering vulnerabilities, informing developers about them, and remediating the issue within a given timeframe makes the internet a safer place to work and play. On a local level, we value – and have rewarded – those uncovering bugs within Avira products.
As software continues to become more complex, we realize that cooperation and automation are essential. This is why we value the work of the Open Security Consortium (OCA), as part of the OASIS open source standards organization, to come up with common standards for security tools to present data and communicate with one another. Automated breach and attack simulation tools such as those developed by SafeBreach can also be an important way to cut through the plethora of software and potential vulnerabilities.
Thanks to the SafeBreach proof of concept for using EFS Encryption to bypass Avira, we have taken an exhaustive look at this potential vulnerability.
Avira takes a wide-ranging look what malware looks like, how it might behave, and the various scenarios under which users will encounter it as we develop our detection strategies. While we value the reports of this potential vulnerability, we believe that this potential bypass which is dependent upon a customized use scenario is not a realistic ‘failure point.’ “
Bitdefender Bitdefender Free Edition
Bitdefender Antivirus
Bitdefender Internet Security
Bitdefender Total Security
From a vendor email (January 10th, 2020): “As of today, the fix started rolling out on Bitdefender Antivirus, Bitdefender Total Security and Bitdefender Internet Security on version
On Bitdefender Free Edition the fix is in reporting mode only, being necessary for fine tunning [sic] in the future.”
SandBlast Agent
Corporate Endpoint Client
Zone Alarm Anti-Ransomware
From a vendor email (January 20th, 2020): “Check Point has resolved the issue and the fix is currently available with the latest Corporate Endpoint Client E82.30 and will be available in the latest release of Zone Alarm Anti-Ransomware in the next couple of days.”
D7xTech CryptoPrevent Anti Malware Vendor notified July 5th, product status unknown.
ESET Products containing Ransomware Shield technology From a vendor email (January 19th, 2020), “In June of 2019, ESET was made aware of a possible security bypass of its consumer, business and server products for Windows via the standard Windows API EncryptFile. ESET was able to validate the underlying method used to administer this attack. We are now rolling out an update to mitigate the bypass and would like to kindly ask all customers to refer to Customer Advisory 2020-0002 for more information on mitigation options regarding the bypass published in this report.”
F-Secure F-Secure Internet Security (with DeepGuard)

F-Secure SAFE

According to a vendor email (July 31st, 2019), this is already detected as Suspicious:W32/Malware!Online and Trojan.TR/Ransom.Gen.
GridinSoft GS Anti-Ransomware [beta] From a vendor email (October 9th, 2019): “We have a free beta-test version of the program released in 2016. Since then it has not been updated and the main release version of the product has not been published. Since the program was last updated in 2016, it is more than logical that it protects against those ransomware families that were popular until 2016.”
IObit Malware Fighter According to a vendor email (October 9th, 2019), a fix is now available in version 7.2.
Kaspersky Kaspersky Anti-Virus

Kaspersky Internet Security

Kaspersky Total Security

Kaspersky Free Anti-Virus

Kaspersky Small Office Security

Kaspersky Security Cloud

Kaspersky Endpoint Security

Kaspersky Anti-Ransomware Tool for Business

According to a vendor email (October 7th, 2019), all the products were updated to protect against the technique.
McAfee Endpoint products From a vendor email (January 17th, 2020): “McAfee released protection against the sample code provided by the reporter in the Anti-Virus (AV) DATs released on 10th January. This covers both our Enterprise and Consumer products. The AV DATs are automatically updated and Customers can check the version of the DATs through the product User Interface.
Enterprise Customers using MVision EDR have a detection rule available from 10th January which will trigger when some variations of this Proof of Concept are executed. Through EDR the administrator can scan their machines for other instances of the malware and then block execution or delete the malware.
Enterprise Customers using ENS can configure an Endpoint Protection Access Protection rule which will prevent the sample deleting the keys it generates to encrypt the files. By preventing the deletion of the keys the files remain accessible to that user. Other users on the same machine would not have access to the files.”
Microsoft Windows Controlled Folder Access From a vendor email (October 7th, 2019): "Microsoft considers Controlled Folder Access a defense-in-depth feature. We assessed this submittal to be a moderate class defense in depth issue, which does not meet the Microsoft Security Servicing Criteria for Windows (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/msrc/windows-security-servicing-criteria?rtc=1). Microsoft may consider addressing this in a future product".
Panda Security Panda Adaptive Defense

Panda Dome Advanced

From vendor emails (September 26th, 2019, October 11th, 2019): “Our protection approach for the Panda Adaptive Defense product line is not based on patterns but on classifying all the files/processes running at the end-point. Thus, any attack using unknown files/processes will be detected and blocked.”

“The way the “protection against ransomware” works in Panda Dome is by selecting the directories to protect. At those directories, only processes classified as goodware at our Panda detection cloud can modify the included/protected files. Thus, any unknown process/file accessing the protected directory will be blocked.”

Sophos Sophos Intercept X From a vendor email (January 17th, 2020): “We’ve updated Sophos Intercept X, and all customers using this product are protected. Thanks again for your help on this.”
Symantec Symantec Endpoint Protection From a vendor email (October 7th, 2019): “We pushed out two detection signatures (SONAR.SuspBeh!gen697 and SONAR.SuspBeh!gen699 ) to mitigate the issue. Both of these signatures have been pushed out to all endpoints via our live update.”
TrendMicro Apex One


From a vendor email (January 10th, 2020): “Trend Micro is currently researching and working on implementing some enhancements to our endpoint protection products with anti-ransomware capabilities to try and prevent these types of attacks (ETA still in development). In the meantime, we recommend disabling EFS if it is not in in [sic] use.”
Webroot SecureAnywhere AV From a vendor email (September 30th, 2019): “We appreciate SafeBreach bringing this new technique to our attention. At Webroot, security is our top priority and we analyse malware on a perpetual basis to ensure we’re aware of the ever changing tactics, techniques and processes used by cybercriminals. Our threat discovery process and the various protection shields within the Webroot endpoint solution leverage this threat intelligence. While we haven’t seen this technique used in the wild yet, we now can arm our threat researchers with intel to combat it in the future. We know collaboration is key and we openly engage with the cybersecurity community.”


A user with administrator rights for a Windows machine can turn off EFS by setting the registry key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\EFS\EfsConfiguration to 1 (https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/openspecs/windows_protocols/ms-gpef/0382ec4d-bfa9-46c9-a99a-1f2e042938c0). Group Policy can be used for enterprise-wise disabling of EFS.

Of course, this will disable EFS for the entire machine, so if EFS was used (legitimately), it too will be disabled.


In this research we demonstrated that ransomware can evolve in an alarming direction, including using built-in file encryption features in the operating system – namely abusing Windows EFS. Many security offerings from major Windows endpoint security vendors are affected, and needed updates to address this new technique.

It is clear, therefore, that in the face of the expected evolution of ransomware, that new anti-ransomware technologies need to be developed if the ransomware threat is to be contained and kept at bay. Signature-based solutions are not up to this job, heuristics-based (and even more so – generic technology-based) solutions seem more promising, but additional proactive research is required in order to “train” them against future threats.

Related work


Many thanks to Itai Browarnik and Peleg Hadar for their help in testing the EFS ransomware against the anti-ransomware solutions/features.