Chapter 05: Detecting the sandbox – Malware’s quest

In the ever-evolving world of cybersecurity, threat actors employ ingenious techniques to identify the presence of a sandbox environment. This chapter delves into the cat-and-mouse game between malware and sandbox technologies, highlighting the methods used by cybercriminals to detect an artificial environment.

Detecting an Artificial Environment

One of the fundamental tactics employed by malware is to discern whether it resides in an artificial environment set up for analysis rather than a genuine computer system. This distinction allows malicious software to evade detection and analysis. The following properties are among the telltale signs that malware looks for:

Hardware and Software Properties:

Sandboxes often lack the diversity of hardware, software, and user properties found in real-world systems. Malware detects anomalies such as small screen resolutions, the absence of USB 3.0 drivers, limited 3D rendering capabilities, solitary virtual CPUs, modest hard drive and memory sizes, and atypical software stacks devoid of instant messaging or email clients.

System Uptime and Network Traffic:

Malware scrutinizes the system’s uptime and network traffic patterns. If the system claims to have restarted moments ago but has transmitted only a negligible amount of data, it raises suspicions. Similarly, the absence of printers or the presence of only default printers can hint at sandbox usage.

Filesystem and User Activity:

Sandboxes tend to exhibit clean desktops, devoid of cookies, recent files, or user-generated content. Malware leverages these deviations from normal user behavior for detection.

For instance, malware may not only check for the presence of a virtual machine (VM) but also search for specific software like Wine, a software emulator. By executing a query and attempting to determine expected results in a Wine environment, the malware fine-tunes its detection capabilities.

Timing-Based Detection

Timing becomes another weapon in malware’s arsenal for detecting sandboxes. As sandboxes impose timing penalties when monitoring application behavior, malware assesses these delays to spot sandbox environments. Techniques such as the RDTSC (Read Time-Stamp Counter) and time manipulation tactics come into play.


Malware checks the system’s time-stamp counter (RDTSC) to identify timing discrepancies caused by sandbox monitoring. However, sandboxes employ countermeasures to deceive malware by altering these counters.

Time Manipulation:

Some sandboxes manipulate system time to deceive malware, making it believe that more time has passed than it actually has. However, savvy malware can sometimes bypass these tricks by incorporating external time sources like Network Time Protocol (NTP).

In the next chapter, we will explore these evasion techniques in greater detail, shedding light on methods to outsmart even the most sophisticated malware that leverages advanced evasion techniques. Specifically, we will delve into the world of malware attacks on sandbox technology weaknesses. Stay with us on this journey through the intricate world of sandbox detection and evasion. Your cybersecurity expertise is about to level up.