Wajam: From start-up to massively-spread adware

How a Montreal-made “social search engine” application has managed to become a widely-spread adware, while escaping consequences

Wajam Internet Technologies is a start-up founded in December 2008 by Martin-Luc Archambault (a famous entrepreneur in Quebec) and based in Montreal, Canada. The core product of the company is a social search engine application (i.e. it allows searching through the content shared by your contacts on social networks). Figure 1 illustrates an example of what Wajam displays when performing a Google search.

Figure 1. Wajam search results from a Google search (official example from Wajam)

The software itself is free to install; however, it generates revenues through the display of contextual advertising. Regarding its distribution, a browser extension was initially available from the Wajam official website until 2014 (see Figure 2), but it is now primarily distributed using the Pay-Per-Install (PPI) distribution model. According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) of Canada, Wajam has used more than 50 different PPI providers between 2011 and 2016. This model has been criticized several times for its usage of fake Adobe Flash Player, antivirus, and many other popular software installers to deceive the user, and for the heavy presence of adware and malware in the installers provided.

Figure 2. Website wajam[.]com in April 2012 (with download link)

The history of Wajam as a company is rather curious according to the 2017 report of the OPC and some press investigations (here and here in French):

  • The company progressively and silently removed the ability to link Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ accounts to their software between 2012 and 2014, although its main feature depends on it.
  • A lot of users started to complain as of 2012 about the heavy display of ads in the web browser and the difficulty to uninstall Wajam (see Figures 3, 4 and 5). According to D&B Hoovers, the company generated around USD 4.2M of net profits in 2013.

Figure 3. User complaint #1 about Wajam

Figure 4. User complaint #2 about Wajam

Figure 5. User complaint #3 about Wajam

  • While the OPC was investigating the company for breaching the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) because of its usage of users’ personal information, the company was sold to a newly-created company headquartered in Hong Kong, called Iron Mountain Technology Limited (IMTL).

The timeline in Figure 6 sums up some remarkable events in the history of the company.

Figure 6. History of Wajam Internet Technologies Incorporated

In parallel to the company history, Figure 7 exposes the timeline of the anti-detection and anti-analysis features added to the software.

Figure 7. Timeline of the anti-detection and anti-analysis features added to Wajam

Multiple versions of Wajam have been developed over the years. Since the developers used internal names and version numbering to distinguish the different variants and builds, it was possible to classify the collection of samples collected. The following table sums up the versions identified; note that the dates are based on the time the samples were observed in the wild and it is possible they were available earlier.

Internal name(s) Major version number Type Period of distribution
Priam 1 Browser extension Late-2011 to 2014
Wajam Internet Enhancer, Wajam Network Enhancer 2 Windows application 2013 to 2016
Wajam Web Enhancer, Social2Search 1 and 9 Windows application 2014 to 2017
Wajam Browser Enhancer, Social2Search, SearchAwesome 3, 11 and 13 Windows application 2016 to present
SearchPage N/A macOS application 2017 to present

Traffic injection

Each version of Wajam injects the same payload into the user’s web traffic, so the difference resides in the technique used to make the interception and the injection. However, the techniques they used became more and more similar to techniques typically used by malware developers. Once Wajam is installed on a machine and the web traffic is ready to be intercepted, the software acts as follows:

  1. It downloads a list of supported websites (see Figure 8) from a remote server; this list maps a domain name to the path of the corresponding JavaScript file to be injected. There are also some site-specific settings.

Figure 8. Snippet of the supported websites list

  1. If a URL requested by the user matches one of the patterns (103 in the latest version at the time of writing), it injects the corresponding JavaScript file (see Figure 9). This script performs the injection of contextual advertising and, if the webpage is a search engine, also displays tweets corresponding to the search keywords entered by the user.

Figure 9. Snippet of the injected script

  1. Finally, it tries to update the list from the Wajam remote server.

Personal information leaks

Wajam progressively collected more and more information about its users, either during installation or when the software runs:

  • Some IDs are used to identify a particular user (see Figure 9);
  • A lot of logs are sent to Wajam servers during the installation process to ensure it is done properly (see the network capture in Figure 10);
  • Some information specific to the setup of the user – like the list of software installed and the model of the machine – are also sent to the Wajam servers.

Figure 10. HTTP queries made by Wajam during the installation process

Distribution mechanism

Except for the browser extension, all the versions were distributed as NSIS installers by Pay-Per-Install providers. Also, the PDB paths show how the developers gradually obfuscated their software over the years. One can see that the later versions mostly have much longer PDB paths that contain only random characters.

Version Year PDB Path
1.24 2012 C:UsersguillaumeDesktopbranchesWajamguillaume-installer-ie11-fixClientsExtensionsIE_BHOsourcewajamReleasepriam_bho.pdb
1.0 2014 D:jenkinsworkspacedll_injectionsrcReleasewajam.pdb
2.12 d:jenkinsworkspacewajam-proxy-2.12-special-build-for-avsWJProxyobjx86ReleaseWajamInternetEnhancer.pdb
1.71 2016 D:jenkinsworkspacestable-1.71-updatessrcReleasewajam.pdb
2.40 D:jenkinsworkspacestable-2.40-updatebuild-toolsbrhReleasebrh.pdb
3.5 D:jenkinsworkspacestable-ndi-3.5serviceWin32Releaseservice.pdb
1.75 2017 JTBEFHYO.pdb
9.68 213.pdb
13.14 2018 K:ga3ENOmcbYZO5KSWLXp8N8PAW5GqjilgGJGNwpoaCyFgPCryX9i9P5jRrWyaG9wzTAvevv8Co9rukntHIFkVb9h7WLCJhFhGGbCeCm1swYV.pdb
13.14 2019 C:D6IMFxtAMIrsnBhaB8LpY2EgA6h6GILyxnyDwtB6hQ5AYqFBonqUMf6rO3gJCEu6cAFDkjWdwiWFUHutqEywARjkktLo4m0i4r6psP3EHIIy.pdb

Priam: the browser extension

Through 2011 to late 2013, Wajam was distributed as a browser extension. In a web browser extension, the manifest file describes the webpages to be injected, and how the JavaScript code is injected into those pages if they are visited by the user. As one can see in Figure 11, all webpages are matched here, so the scripts can be potentially injected in every webpage visited by the user.

Figure 11. Snippet of configuration from manifest.json file

The older versions of the browser extension contain traces of a screen capture plugin (see Figure 12) in a DLL accompanying the extension. The latter uses either the Netscape Plugin API (for Chrome and Firefox) or a Browser Helper Object (for Internet Explorer).

Figure 12. Snippet of assembly code in a plugin of the Wajam browser extension

In the same versions, JavaScript code is used to send the browser’s bookmarks to Wajam servers. Whether it is screenshots or bookmarks, both can contain sensitive personal information about a user and one may wonder what Wajam does with this kind of information. Neither function is present in the current version of the extension.

As their software was detected as adware by various security products, Wajam first tried to have the detections removed by asking the security vendors directly (see Figures 13 and 14).

Figure 13. Attempt of Wajam to remove a McAfee detection of the browser extension

Figure 14. Another attempt by Wajam to remove detection of their browser extension


In 2014, we observed a change in Wajam’s strategy. Their software was no longer available as a browser extension; its download links were removed from their official website (wajam[.]com) and a new version for Windows, using the Fiddler web proxy, was distributed by PPI providers.

Among the features of this new version, the most remarkable ones are:

  • It uses the SeDebugPrivilege to start the main executable with administrator access rights.
  • It generates a certificate and adds it to the root certificate list to intercept SSL/TLS traffic and hence avoids security warnings when injecting JavaScript code into webpages.
  • It sets up a proxy to intercept all web traffic and the preferences of installed web browsers and the Windows registry is tampered with to use the proxy.

Wajam in the Warhammer fantasy

At the same time WJProxy was observed, another version with DLL injection capabilities was found in the wild. Instead of using a third-party proxy, it injects a DLL into web browsers in order to hook the functions that manipulate non-encrypted traffic. Figure 15 depicts the functional architecture of this version.

Figure 15. Architecture of Warhammer Wajam

Interestingly, this version uses some obfuscation techniques like string encryption (see Figures 16 and 17).

Figure 16. Decryption of NtLoadDriver string (Hex-Rays output)

Figure 17. String decryption routine (Hex-Rays output)

Also, the files containing the list of supported websites and the addresses of the functions to hook (see Figure 18) are both encrypted (AES-256 CFB). One might note that the names of these files (respectively waaaghs and snotlings) might be a reference to the Warhammer fantasy universe. There are also other (sub)strings, such as in the name of the injected DLL, wajam_goblin.dll, and others inside the binaries, suggesting Wajam’s authors were interested in fantasy games or fiction.

Figure 18. File containing the hooks of the web browsers’ functions

Regarding the DLL injection process itself, it can be achieved in different ways depending on the parameter given to the injector. The following table sums up the different options.

Option flag Technique used to inject the DLL
–set-windows-hook SetWindowsHookEx technique
–inject CreateRemoteThread technique
–manual_mapping_inject Blackbone memory hacking library

Once the DLL is injected, the injector checks if the targeted process is a web browser and if so uses MinHook and the decrypted snotlings file to hook the functions manipulating non-encrypted web traffic such as Firefox’s PR_Write, PR_Read, Win32 APIs send, recv, and so on.

As the techniques described above are usually employed by malicious software, Wajam uses several techniques to protect itself from detection by security products:

  • It checks the Windows registry for antivirus keys (see an example listing in Figure 19) and sends any it finds to Wajam servers.

Figure 19. Antivirus Windows registry keys checked by Wajam

  • Depending on the sample, the name of the executable is slightly modified, such as WajWEnhance.exe, WaWEn.exe, WebEnhancer.exe, etc.
  • From late 2015, a minifilter driver is included to hide the software’s files on the disk from all processes except whitelisted ones (see Figure 20).

Figure 20. List of whitelisted processes for Wajam minifilter driver

  • It regularly modifies itself with patches downloaded from Wajam servers (these are variously RC4 or XOR encrypted).

Chrome and Firefox have recently blocked third-party code injections in their respective web browsers, so this version of Wajam won’t work anymore if a victim uses the current version of either of these browsers.

Wajam goes deeper in the kernel

To face new security mechanisms, another version of Wajam was released in mid 2016 that added considerable new features, including a NetFilter driver to intercept and inject traffic directly into kernel space.

Figure 21. Architecture of Wajam NetFilter version

One of the other many changes with this version is the protection against detection:

  • It uses heavy code and data obfuscation (see Figures 22 and 23); some techniques look like the Stunnix C/C++ obfuscator.

Figure 22. Decoding of a Windows API name (Hex-Rays output)

Figure 23. String decoding routine (Hex-Rays output)

  • Adds exclusions to Windows Defender (-command Add-MpPreference -ExclusionPath in the command line);
  • Sets registry entries DontReportInfectionInformation and DontOfferThroughWUAU to 1 that disable the infection report to Microsoft and MSRT (Malicious Software Removal Tool) updates, respectively.
  • The executables are signed by certificates whose names are domain names belonging to Wajam and change very regularly (see Figures 24 and 25).

Figure 24. Digital certificate of a Wajam executable found on VirusTotal

Figure 25. Digital certificate of another Wajam executable found on VirusTotal

Those domain names are trademarks of Wajam according to the Quebec Enterprise Register (see Figure 26). Also, some of the domain names (more examples in the IoCs section) are related to Montreal street names (like “Adrien Provencher”, “Bernard”, “Mont-Royal”, etc.).

Figure 26. Quebec Enterprise Register with some Wajam domain names

SearchPage: Apple-flavored Wajam

Starting in 2017, new Wajam-authored adware called SearchPage and targeting macOS systems was detected. Analysis shows that it used some domain names also used in the latest Windows versions (see Figure 24).

Figure 27. Snippet of the Info.plist showing the Wajam-registered domain name

It is distributed as a macOS application bundle called spiinstall.app, which installs a Safari plugin and a certificate in the keychain (the root certificate placeholder on macOS). This plugin injects traffic in a similar way to the Windows versions.

Another version found in mid 2018 uses mitmproxy (a web proxy written in Python) instead of the Safari extension to intercept web traffic. Figure 28 shows how the proxy is used as well as the presence of the Wajam-registered URL hardcoded in the script.

Figure 28. Usage of mitmproxy to inject JavaScript

As this malware has already been documented by MalwareBytes, further details can be found in their analysis.

This research reveals that despite the transfer of ownership to a Hong Kong company, Wajam is still very active and under multiple names, such as SearchAwesome, Social2Search, SearchPage, etc. We suppose this is used to cover their tracks and expand their presence with the help of PPI distribution.

Our analysis shows that the techniques used by Wajam to inject traffic became more and more devious and persistent as newer versions were released. They started with a simple browser extension (2011), switched to a proxy method in late-2013, then from 2014 they directly injected code into the web browsers to hook network communications functions, and are now using a driver to intercept traffic directly in kernel space. These multiple changes have largely been in response to enhancements in the security protections built into browsers or the OS through the years.

Using these kinds of techniques implies there are chances to be detected by security products, and this has happened to Wajam. Even if the history of the company shows they first tried to ask for detection removal (2012-2013), they quickly changed their strategy (2014) to preferring the use of obfuscation, code protection and anti-detection techniques that hide the true behavior of their software.

The Wajam case reminds us there is still a grey area when speaking about adware and PUAs (Potentially Unwanted Applications). Indeed, even if they use techniques to hide their behavior from users and security products, displaying advertisements is still more annoying than harmful to the user. However, one should be aware of the persistence level used by some of this software.


SHA-1 Detection name
6a393ecb2861a27240d322dd407f6adb7218b0a5 Win32/Adware.Wajam.A
4793f3bdab6df0ac6481b3780a10bec0ac10dce1 Win32/Adware.Wajam.BH
7a45f4c7a7eeaa6ef97c036a7bfc992d405cd270 Win32/Adware.Wajam.G
89d03d810345f491e7999af04873932ce77f7cd1 MSIL/Wajam.F
f0c78bece6e447333bcb21972dc440aee723f12d Win32/Adware.Wajam.AC
b6733a21f5fbf34286374ed5cd02e86b6c369db1 Win32/Adware.Wajam.BH
3d29d74b68d749d45596eb04063c4640a523c0ba Win32/Adware.Wajam.BH
f216d986f3fdc838aaca05fafb8e5b728e36513b Win32/Adware.Wajam.AN
34ce5529ad0f9d0101f2ca635876082830b48b83 Win32/Adware.Wajam.AL
f5f71c6f6924fa94eb1f5a8c4a4b1775d64e9e87 Win32/NetFilter.A
336efd61ab265977144ca308e635cfbee29b86a8 Win32/NetFilter.N
a61a9262bc13c023750af89a483cb571663c8a0e Win32/Adware.Zdengo.CA
83e05c610d0fe6488183b7db812c69962180aabb Win32/Adware.Zdengo.CPZ
ae97c477f803121185f3c9f44c22934941df7e94 Win64/Riskware.NetFilter.AA
6da090ad4a324e12b03a492b62cb47d274b3cd6e Win32/Adware.Zdengo.DED
35530aa44220ae7e96de05fd90dd1e64bb6cd199 Win32/Adware.Zdengo.COT
6b626695d5d1c64376af81cef441e17cdc92f006 Win32/Adware.Zdengo.CXG
6725a7c721bea20494e2e6036b11bb6d0531f829 Win32/Adware.Zdengo.CRR
fb26f538384cd50988a2a5f27b6443f16a92cee1 Win32/RiskWare.NetFilter.AY
ecd1e57c1fdc32052f0be1241691e91f869ef026 OSX/Adware.SearchPage.B
ff6c756fc3cfa06c53fe9458d7608c7c350c83bb OSX/Adware.SearchPage.B
fea551bcfbdbaba20b0b6556649029928888faf2 OSX/Adware.SearchPage.A

IP addresses ranges

Domain names (partial list)


Tactic ID Name Description
Persistence T1179 Hooking Use MinHook to hook web browser functions and intercept web traffic.
Privilege Escalation T1134 Access Token Manipulation Obtain user token to execute itself with API call CreateProcessAsUserA under user’s context.
Defense Evasion T1014 Rootkit Use minifilter and NetFilter drivers to respectively hide its files and intercept web traffic.
T1116 Code Signing Some samples are signed with different digital certificates.
T1089 Disabling Security Tools Add exclusions in Windows Defender and disable MRT updates.
T1130 Install Root Certificate Install a root certificate to aid in man-in-the-middle actions.
T1027 Obfuscated Files or Information Most of the strings are encrypted with an XOR-based algorithm and some payloads are encrypted with AES-256 or RC4.
T1055 Process Injection Inject a DLL in web browsers (CreateRemoteThread, SetWindowsHookEx or BlackBone library) to intercept web traffic.
Discovery T1063 Security Software Discovery Attempt to detect several antivirus products.

5 Jun 2019 – 11:30AM

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