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What a Rootkit Is Not

Okay, so we've described in detail what a rootkit is and touched on the underlying technology that makes a rootkit possible. We have described how a rootkit is a powerful hacker tool. But, there are many kinds of hacker tools—a rootkit is only one part of a larger collection. Now it's time to explain what a rootkit is not.

A Rootkit Is Not an Exploit

Rootkits may be used in conjunction with an exploit, but the rootkit itself is a fairly straightforward set of utility programs. These programs may use undocumented functions and methods, but they typically do not depend on software bugs (such as buffer overflows).

A rootkit will typically be deployed after a successful software exploit. Many hackers have a treasure chest of exploits available, but they may have only one or two rootkit programs. Regardless of which exploit an attacker uses, once she is on the system, she deploys the appropriate rootkit.

Although a rootkit is not an exploit, it may incorporate a software exploit. A rootkit usually requires access to the kernel and contains one or more programs that start when the system is booted. There are only a limited number of ways to get code into the kernel (for example, as a device driver). Many of these methods can be detected forensically.

One novel way to install a rootkit is to use a software exploit. Many software exploits allow arbitrary code or third-party programs to be installed. Imagine that there is a buffer overflow in the kernel (there are documented bugs of this nature) that allows arbitrary code to be executed. Kernel-buffer overflows can exist in almost any device driver (for example, a printer driver). Upon system startup, a loader program can use the buffer overflow to load a rootkit. The loader program does not employ any documented methods for loading or registering a device driver or otherwise installing a rootkit. Instead, the loader exploits the buffer overflow to install the kernel-mode parts of a rootkit.

The buffer-overflow exploit is a mechanism for loading code into the kernel. Although most people think of this as a bug, a rootkit developer may treat it as an undocumented feature for loading code into the kernel. Because it is not documented, this "path to the kernel" is not likely to be included as part of a forensic investigation. Even more importantly, it won't be protected by a host-based firewall program. Only someone skilled in advanced reverse engineering would be likely to discover it.

A Rootkit Is Not a Virus

A virus program is a self-propagating automaton. In contrast, a rootkit does not make copies of itself, and it does not have a mind of its own. A rootkit is under the full control of a human attacker, while a virus is not.

In most cases, it would be dangerous and foolish for an attacker to use a virus when she requires stealth and subversion. Beyond the fact that creating and distributing virus programs may be illegal, most virus and worm programs are noisy and out of control. A rootkit enables an attacker to stay in complete control. In the case of a sanctioned penetration (for example, by law enforcement), the attacker needs to ensure that only certain targets are penetrated, or else she may violate a law or exceed the scope of the operation. This kind of operation requires very strict controls, and using a virus would simply be out of the question.

It is possible to design a virus or worm program that spreads via software exploits that are not detected by intrusion-detection systems (for instance, zero-day exploits [18] ). Such a worm could spread very slowly and be very difficult to detect. It may have been tested in a well-stocked lab environment with a model of the target environment. It may include an "area-of-effect" restriction to keep it from spreading outside of a controlled boundary. And, finally, it may have a "land-mine timer" that causes it to be disabled after a certain amount of time—ensuring that it doesn't cause problems after the mission is over. We'll discuss intrusion-detection systems later in this chapter.

The Virus Problem

Even though a rootkit is not a virus, the techniques used by a rootkit can easily be employed by a virus. When a rootkit is combined with a virus, a very dangerous technology is born.

The world has seen what viruses can do. Some virus programs have spread through millions of computers in only a few hours.

The most common operating system, Microsoft Windows, has historically been plagued with software bugs that allow viruses to infect computers over the Internet. Most malicious hackers will not reveal software bugs to the vendor. In other words, if a malicious hacker were to find an exploitable bug in Microsoft Windows, she would not reveal this to Microsoft. An exploitable bug that affects the default installation of most Windows computers is like a "key to the kingdom"; telling the vendor about it would be giving away the key.

Understanding rootkit technology is very important for defending against viruses. Virus programmers have been using rootkit technology for many years to "heat up" their viruses. This is a dangerous trend. Algorithms have been published for virus propagation [19] that can penetrate hundreds of thousands of machines in an hour. Techniques exist for destroying computer systems and hardware. And, remotely exploitable holes in Microsoft Windows are not going away. Viruses that use rootkit technology are going to be harder to detect and prevent.

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