The story of a Linux miner bundled with pirated copies of VST (Virtual Studio Technology) software for and macOS

LoudMiner is an unusual case of a persistent cryptocurrency miner, distributed for macOS and Windows since August 2018. It uses virtualization software – QEMU on macOS and VirtualBox on Windows – to mine cryptocurrency on a Tiny Core Linux virtual machine, making it cross platform. It comes bundled with pirated copies of VST software. The miner itself is based on XMRig (Monero) and uses a mining pool, thus it is impossible to retrace potential transactions.

At the time of writing, there are 137 VST-related applications (42 for Windows and 95 for macOS) available on a single WordPress-based website with a domain registered on 24 August, 2018. The first application – Kontakt Native Instruments 5.7 for Windows – was uploaded on the same day. The size of the apps makes it impractical to analyze them all, but it seems safe to assume they are all Trojanized.

The applications themselves are not hosted on the WordPress-based site, but on external servers, which can be found in the IoCs section. The admins of the site also frequently update the applications with newer versions, making it difficult to track the very first version of the miner.

Regarding the nature of the applications targeted, it is interesting to observe that their purpose is related to audio production; thus, the machines that they are installed on should have good processing power and high CPU consumption will not surprise the users. Also, these applications are usually complex, so it is not unexpected for them to be huge files. The attackers use this to their advantage to camouflage their VM images. Moreover, the decision to use virtual machines instead of a leaner solution is quite remarkable and this is not something we routinely see.

Here are some examples of applications, as well as some comments you can find on the website:

  • Propellerhead Reason
  • Ableton Live
  • Sylenth1
  • Nexus
  • Reaktor 6
  • AutoTune
- Figure 1 1 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 1. Comment #1 from the “admin

- Figure 2 2 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 2. Comment #2 from the “admin”

We found several forum threads of users complaining about a qemu-system-x86_64 process taking 0% of their CPU on their Mac:

- Figure 3 1 1024x606 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 3. User report #1 (https://discussions.apple.com/thread/250064603)

- Figure 4 1 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 4. User report #2 (https://toster.ru/q/608325)

A user named “Macloni” (https://discussions.apple.com/thread/8602989) said the following:

“Unfortunately, had to reinstall OSX, the problem was that Ableton Live 10, which I have downloaded it from a torrent site and not from the official site, installs a miner too, running at the background causing this.” The same user attached screenshots of the Activity Monitor indicating 2 processes – qemu-system-x86_64 and tools-service – taking 25% of CPU resources and running as root.”

The general idea of both macOS and Windows analyses stays the same:

  1. An application is bundled with virtualization software, a Linux image and additional files used to achieve persistence.
  2. User downloads the application and follows attached instructions on how to install it.
  3. LoudMiner is installed first, the actual VST software after.
  4. LoudMiner itself and becomes persistent on reboot.
  5. The Linux virtual machine is launched and the mining starts.
  6. Scripts inside the virtual machine can contact the C&C server to update the miner (configuration and binaries).

While analyzing the different applications, we’ve identified four versions of the miner, mostly based on how it’s bundled with the actual software, the C&C server domain, and something we believe is a version string created by the author.

macOS

We’ve identified three macOS versions of this so far. All of them include dependencies needed to run QEMU in installerdata.dmg from which all files are copied over to /usr/local/bin and have appropriate permissions set along the way. Each version of the miner can run two images at once, each taking 128 MB of RAM and one CPU core. Persistence is achieved by adding plist files in /Library/LaunchDaemons with RunAtLoad set to true. They also have KeepAlive set to true, ensuring the process will be restarted if stopped. Each version has these components:

  1. QEMU Linux images.
  2. Shell scripts used to launch the QEMU images.
  3. Daemons used to start the shell scripts at boot and keep them running.
  4. A CPU monitor shell script with an accompanying daemon that can start/stop the mining based on CPU usage and whether the Activity Monitor process is running.

The CPU monitor script can start and stop the mining by loading and unloading the daemon. If the Activity Monitor process is running, the mining stops. Otherwise, it checks for how long the system has been idle in seconds:

If it’s been longer than 2 minutes, it starts the mining. If it’s been less than 2 minutes, it checks the total CPU usage:

divides that by the number of CPU cores:

and if it’s greater than 85%, it stops the mining. The script itself is a bit different across versions, but the general idea stays the same.

After the installation is done, all miner-related installation files are deleted.

- Figure 5 1 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 5. Installation of Polyverse.Music.Manipulator.v1.0.1.macOS.dmg

- Figure 6 1 - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 6. Polyverse.Music.Manipulator.v1.0.1.macOS.dmg setup instructions

Version 1

The miner files in the downloaded application package are not obfuscated in any way or placed in another package; they are installed alongside the software in the following places:

  • /Library/Application Support/.Qemusys
    • qemu-system-x86_64 – clean QEMU binary
    • sys00_1-disk001.qcow2 – Linux image (first)
    • qemuservice – shell script that launches the first image via the qemu-system-x86_64 binary (see Script 1 listing)
  • /Library/Application Support/.System-Monitor
    • system-monitor.daemon – launches first image via system-monitor binary
  • /usr/local/bin
    • .Tools-Service
      • sys00_1-disk001.qcow2 – Linux image (second)
      • tools-service.daemon – launches second image via tools-service binary
    • cpumonitor – starts/stops mining based on idle time and CPU usage
    • system-monitor – copy of qemu-system-x86_64 binary
    • tools-service – copy of qemu-system-x86_64 binary
  • /Library/LaunchDaemons
    • buildtools.system-monitor.plist – launches system-monitor.daemon
    • buildtools.tools-service.plist – launches tools-service.daemon
    • modulesys.qemuservice.plist – launches qemuservice
    • systools.cpumonitor.plist – launches cpumonitor

Script 1. qemuservice shell script

After the dependencies are copied over, all miner-related daemons are launched and then the actual software is installed:

  • qemuservice won’t launch the image if the Activity Monitor process is running. In fact, if it is running, it will unload the plist that it was launched by.
  • tools-service.daemon will launch the image only when qemu-system-x86_64 process is not running and after sleeping for 45 minutes.
  • System-monitor.daemon will launch the image only if Intel i5, i7 or i9 CPU is detected.

These scripts use the same command to launch the QEMU image, only differing in names and the image .

We’ve found the following screenshot related to version 1 of the miner:

- Figure 7 Wm - LoudMiner: Cross-platform mining in cracked VST software

Figure 7. CPU consumption of QEMU with Little Snitch (source: https://imgur.com/a/sc3u6kk)

It is from Little Snitch indicating that some connections from the process qemu-system-x86_64 were blocked. Specifically, hopto[.]org (a hostname service) is a C&C used by version 1 of the miner.

Version 2

Miner files are in data_installer.pkg inside the downloaded application package. data_installer.pkg is installed first, then the VST software. Before installation, version 1 of the miner is removed along with executing the command:

As seen in the listing in Script 2, it only does so when it detects a running qemu-system-x86_64 process.

Script 2. data_installer.pkg preinstall script that removes version 1

The following temporary files are created:

  • /Users/Shared
    • z1 – QEMU binary
    • z1.daemon – launches the QEMU image with the QEMU binary
    • z1.qcow2 – QEMU image
    • z1.plist – launches z1.daemon
    • z3 – CPU monitor script, little change from version 1 cpumonitor
    • z3.plist – used to launch z3
    • randwd – generates random names

After dependencies are copied over, the miner is installed. This time the names of QEMU binaries, plists and directories are randomized with the randwd script. The miner installation creates two copies of z1, z1.daemon, z1.qcow2 and z1.plist. For each copy, the following happens:

  • A directory with a random name is created in /Library/Application Support
  • The QEMU binary z1 carries the same name as the directory and is copied into /usr/local/bin
  • z1.daemon (see listing in Script 3) and z1.qcow2 are copied into this directory under their random names
  • z1.plist is copied with the name com.<random_name>.plist into /Library/LaunchDaemons

z1.daemon, z1.plist, z3 and z3.plist files serve as templates. References to other scripts, binaries, plists, etc. in these files are replaced by their corresponding generated random name.

A random name is also chosen for the CPU monitor (z3) shell script and its accompanying plist file. z3 is copied into /usr/local/bin and the plist into /Library/LaunchDaemons under the name com.<random_name>.plist.

Script 3. z1.daemon shell script

Version 2 is a bit cleaner and/or simpler than version 1. There is only one QEMU image, with two copies made; same for the image launcher scripts, daemons and the cpumonitor. Even though version 2 randomizes its filenames and directories, it can only be installed once because the installation checks for running processes with accel=hvf in their command line.

From the version 2 applications we’ve checked so far, the SHA1 hash of the data_installer.pkg is always 39a7e86368f0e68a86cce975fd9d8c254a86ed93.

Version 3

The miner files are in an encrypted DMG file, called do.dmg, inside the application package. The DMG is mounted with the following command:

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