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How Do Rootkits Work?

Rootkits work using a simple concept called modification. In general, software is designed to make specific decisions based on very specific data. A rootkit locates and modifies the software so it makes incorrect decisions.

There are many places where modifications can be made in software. Some of them are discussed in the following paragraphs.


Executable code (sometimes called a binary) consists of a series of statements encoded as data bytes. These bytes come in a very specific order, and each means something to the computer. Software logic can be modified if these bytes are modified. This technique is sometimes called patching—like placing a patch of a different color on a quilt. Software is not smart; it does only and exactly what it is told to do and nothing else. That is why modification works so well. In fact, under the hood, it's not all that complicated. Byte patching is one of the major techniques used by "crackers" to remove software protections. Other types of byte patches have been used to cheat on video games (for example, to give unlimited gold, health, or other advantages).

Easter Eggs

Software logic modifications may be "built in." A programmer may place a back door in a program she wrote. This back door is not in the documented design, so the software has a hidden feature. This is sometimes called an Easter Egg, and can be used like a signature: The programmer leaves something behind to show that she wrote the program. Earlier versions of the widely used program Microsoft Excel contained an easter-egg that allowed a user who found it to play a 3D first-person shooter game similar to Doom [13] embedded inside a spreadsheet cell.

Spyware Modifications

Sometimes a program will modify another program to infect it with "spyware." Some types of spyware track which Web sites are visited by users of the infected computer. Like rootkits, spyware may be difficult to detect. Some types of spyware hook into Web browsers or program shells, making them difficult to remove. They then make the user's life hell by placing links for new mortgages and Viagra on their desktops, and generally reminding them that their browsers are totally insecure. [14]

Source-Code Modification

Sometimes software is modified at the source—literally. A programmer can insert malicious lines of source code into a program she authors. This threat has caused some military applications to avoid open-source packages such as Linux. These open-source projects allow almost anyone ("anyone" being "someone you don't know") to add code to the sources. Granted, there is some amount of peer review on important code like BIND, Apache, and Sendmail. But, on the other hand, does anyone really go through the code line by line? (If they do, they don't seem to do it very well when trying to find security holes!) Imagine a back door that is implemented as a bug in the software. For example, a malicious programmer may expose a program to a buffer overflow on purpose. This type of back door can be placed on purpose. Since it's disguised as a bug, it becomes difficult to detect. Furthermore, it offers plausible deniability on the part of the programmer!

Okay, we can hear you saying "Bah! I fully trust all those unknown people out there who authored my software because they are obviously only three degrees of separation from Linus Torvalds [15] and I'd trust Linus with my life!" Fine, but do you trust the skills of the system administrators who run the source-control servers and the source-code distribution sites? There are several examples of attackers gaining access to source code. A major example of this type of compromise took place when the root FTP servers for the GNU Project (gnu.org), source of the Linux-based GNU operating system, were compromised in 2003. [16] Modifications to source code can end up in hundreds of program distributions and are extremely difficult to locate. Even the sources of the very tools used by security professionals have been hacked in this way. [17]

The Legality of Software Modification

Some forms of software modification are illegal. For example, if you use a program to modify another program in a way that removes copyright mechanisms, you may be in violation of the law (depending on your jurisdiction). This applies to any "cracking" software that can commonly be found on the Internet. For example, you can download an evaluation copy of a program that "times out" and stops functioning after 15 days, then download and apply a "crack," after which the software will run as if it had been registered. Such a direct modification of the code and logic of a program would be illegal.

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