Velociraptor vs. PrintNightmare

Hunting a Zero day!

By Matthew Green and Mike Cohen
Monday, July 26th, 2021

Velociraptor is an advanced open source endpoint visibility framework based on a flexible query language called VQL. What makes Velociraptor unique from other endpoint tools is the flexibility to develop new queries to address emerging threats.

This post walks through a common use case for Velociraptor’s VQL: detecting exploitation of a new zero day (A newly announced vulnerability without a patch available). Once a zero day has been announced, time is of the essence! Defenders must scramble to determine possible remediations and detect exploitation on their network.

This is when Velociraptor’s quick and flexible approach shines: As defenders we can develop a query to detect past exploitation of the vulnerability, ensure hardening or patching has been applied to prevent future exploitation. Additionally, Velociraptor provides a mechanism for ongoing real-time monitoring using VQL queries, therefore allowing us to use it for real time detection or future attacks.


On the 29th of June a POC exploit for a critical vulnerability was accidentally released by a researcher that targeted the Microsoft Print Spooler service. The “PrintNightmare” vulnerability (CVE-2021-1675/34527), could be used to remotely compromise a Windows system with SYSTEM privileges. While a patch was initially released during the June 8 patch cycle, security researchers quickly discovered it was incomplete and exploitation was still available on fully patched windows hosts.

At this time, we wanted to rapidly develop a VQL query that would indicate if any endpoint had been exploited through this vector. Our first task was to learn more about the issue and particularly try to understand what Digital Forensic artifacts were left behind on the system after a successful exploitation attempt.

While many other researchers were focusing solely on windows event logs, Velociraptor provides access to many more forensically significant artifacts, because it is running on the endpoint. This allows us to explore a richer and more accurate set of artifacts in order to detect exploitation attempts.


We will first begin by replicating the issue using a couple of the open source POC exploits. For our testing we used the MimiKatz PrintNightmare capability and a local privilege escalation powershell POC available here.

Figure 1
Mimikatz PrintNightmare
Figure 2
Invoke-Nightmare - LPE POC

An excellent walk through of the vulnerability can be found here and here, but what does the exploit actually do?

  1. Attackers connect to the Print Spooler Service by sending a request to add a printer using a windows API (AddPrinterDriverEx) over SMB, or RPC.
Figure 3
  1. When installing a new “print driver” the attacker can configure several module paths and configuration inside pDriverContainer and these paths are copied to the print spool folder during installation.
Figure 4
Invoke-Nightmare: powershell is easy to read
  1. Some of the POC variations copied files in slightly different ways but each ended up with an attacker controlled module being executed by the spoolsv.exe as a driver datafile, enabling the Remote Code Execution or Local Privilege Elevation.

We can use Procmon to see what files were modified on the system.

Figure 5
Procmon: Mimikatz PrinterNightmare exploitation. Payload mimilib.dll

Detecting new files in the spool directory

As a first iteration, let's use Velociraptor to recursively list all the binaries in the spool/drivers directory. We can use the regular OS APIs to list the directory, but in our case we will scan the entire filesystem by parsing the NTFS internal structures (Analysis of the NTFS may even reveal presently deleted files).

Figure 6

The above query parses the entire master file table (MFT) and returns information about those files in the spool directory.

Figure 7
PE listing in Windows\System32\spool\drivers**

While the proof of concept malicious drivers are immediately recognizable by name (mimilib.dll and nightmare.dll) we don't want to rely on name alone since that is easily changed by a real attacker. Let’s add to this query some more information about the executable file itself, such as PE attributes (like export table, import tables) hashes and specifically, if the file is signed or not (i.e. its authenticode signature verification). An example query is shown below.

Figure 8

The additional information about any modules found is critical in allowing analysts to quickly discount legitimate binaires and speed up the triage process.

Figure 9
Mimikatz payload: PE attributes and authenticode

In the example above, we can see the Mimikatz exploit loads the mimikatz DLL into the spools directory. The DLL is easily recognizable by its authenticode signature which in most environments would immediately designate it as suspicious.

We can also view obvious malicious PE exports or similarly, an absence of print function related imports as a good signal that the binary is not a legitimate printer driver. Finally time based filters for the time period of exposure can be used as data points for potential exploitation.

The Mimikatz POC loaded a signed component, but many other exploits will load an unsigned binary. A binary with an untrusted Authenticode signature is a valuable data point in detecting malicious code. See this previous post for information on Authenticode. Below we see the dll loaded by the second exploit POC we tried, based on powershell.

Figure 10
PrintNightmare payload: PE attributes and authenticode

Because Velociraptor is running on the endpoint, its Authenticode verification code can verify catalog based signatures. Most Microsoft authored print drivers are signed via catalogs - meaning there is no authenticode signature section in the file itself! One has to verify the hash in a system wide hash “catalog” file, itself signed by the developer.

Many binary classification services are not able to verify catalog signatures, therefore displaying the file as unsigned. This can be confusing for analysts who can not quickly triage the file as legitimate. The below screenshot shows a VirusTotal search for a legitimate Microsoft print driver. Although the file is not detected as malicious, it is not shown as signed either.

Figure 11
mxdwdrv.dll: not by verified signature - virusTotal trusted tag by hash

All original Microsoft printer drivers are trusted and properly signed via catalog, as shown by Velociraptor. Note that Velociraptor is also able to indicate who signed the respective catalog file.

Figure 12
mxdwdrv.dll: validated Authenticode signature by catalog


In this post we developed a VQL artifact to detect exploited systems by searching for residual printer drivers in the spools directory. We enriched our detection using Authenticode signature verification, file timestamps, file hashes and PE attributes (like the import/export table) to quickly determine which drivers were legitimate and which could indicate past exploitation.

We can collect this information from the entire Velociraptor fleet in minutes by simply running a “hunt” over the deployment.

We have uploaded our query in the form of a VQL artifact to the Velociraptor “Artifact Exchange” - a central place for the community to share Velociraptor artifacts. This saves time for other Velociraptor users, who can simply reuse our work and quickly hunt the artifact across their entire deployment to determine if they were previously exploited by this vulnerability.

If you would like to try hunting for this indicator, take Velociraptor for a spin! It is available on GitHub under an open source license. As always, please file issues on the bug tracker or ask questions on our mailing list You can also chat with us directly on discord at