socat as a handler for multiple reverse shells

I was looking for a new way to handle multiple incoming reverse shells. My shells needed to be encrypted and I preferred not to use Metasploit in this case. Because of the way I was deploying my implants, I wasn’t able to use separate incoming port numbers or other ways of directing the traffic to multiple listeners.

Obviously, it’s important to keep each reverse shell separated, so I couldn’t just have a listener redirecting all the connections to STDIN/STDOUT. I also didn’t want to wait for sessions serially – obviously I wanted to be connected to all of my implants simultaneously. (And allow them to disconnect/reconnect as needed due to loss of network connectivity.)

As I was thinking about the problem, I realized that I basically wanted tmux for reverse shells. So I began to wonder if there was some way to connect openssl s_server or something similar to tmux. Given the limitations of s_server, I started looking at socat. Despite it’s versatility, I’ve actually only used it once or twice before this, so I spent a fair bit of time reading the man page and the examples.

I couldn’t find a way to get socat to talk directly to tmux in a way that would spawn each connection as a new window (file descriptors are not passed to the newly-started process in tmux new-window), so I ended up with a strange workaround. I feel a little bit like Rube Goldberg inventing C2 software (and I need to get something more permanent and featureful eventually, but this was a quick and dirty PoC), but I’ve put together a chain of socat to get a working solution.

My implementation works by having a single socat process receive the incoming connections (forking on incoming connection), and executing a script that first starts a socat instance within tmux, and then another socat process to copy from the first to the second over a UNIX domain socket.

Yes, this is 3 socat processes. It’s a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t find a better approach. Roughly speaking, the communications flow looks a little like this:

TLS data <--> socat listener <--> script stdio <--> socat <--> unix socket <--> socat in tmux <--> terminal window

Getting it started is fairly simple. Begin by generating your SSL certificate. In this case, I’m using a self-signed certificate, but obviously you could go through a commercial CA, Let’s Encrypt, etc.

openssl req -newkey rsa:2048 -nodes -keyout server.key -x509 -days 30 -out server.crt
cat server.key server.crt > server.pem

Now we will create the script that is run on each incoming connection. This script needs to launch a tmux window running a socat process copying from a UNIX domain socket to stdio (in tmux), and then connecting another socat between the stdio coming in to the UNIX domain socket.


SOCKDIR=$(mktemp -d)

# Start tmux, if needed
tmux start
# Create window
tmux new-window "socat UNIX-LISTEN:${SOCKF},umask=0077 STDIO"
# Wait for socket
while test ! -e ${SOCKF} ; do sleep 1 ; done
# Use socat to ship data between the unix socket and STDIO.

The while loop is necessary to make sure that the last socat process does not attempt to open the UNIX domain socket before it has been created by the new tmux child process.

Finally, we can launch the socat process that will accept the incoming requests (handling all the TLS steps) and execute our per-connection script:

socat OPENSSL-LISTEN:8443,cert=server.pem,reuseaddr,verify=0,fork EXEC:./

This listens on port 8443, using the certificate and private key contained in server.pem, performs a fork() on accepting each incoming connection (so they do not block each other) and disables certificate verification (since we’re not expecting our clients to provide a certificate). On the other side, it launches our script, providing the data from the TLS connection via STDIO.

At this point, an incoming TLS connection connects, and is passed through our processes to eventually arrive on the STDIO of a new window in the running tmux server. Each connection gets its own window, allowing us to easily see and manage the connections for our implants.