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Offensive Rootkit Technologies

A good rootkit should be able to bypass any security measures, such as firewalls or intrusion-detection systems (IDSes). There are two primary types of IDSes: network-based (NIDS) and host-based (HIDS). Sometimes HIDSes are designed to try to stop attacks before they succeed. These "active defense" systems are sometimes referred to as a host-based intrusion-prevention systems (HIPSes). To simplify the discussion, we refer to these systems as HIPS from now on.


HIPS technology can be home-grown or bought off-the-shelf. Examples of HIPS software include:

For the rootkit, the biggest threat is HIPS technology. A HIPS can sometimes detect a rootkit as it installs itself, and can also intercept a rootkit as it communicates with the network. Many HIPSes will utilize kernel technology and can monitor operating systems. In a nutshell, HIPS is an anti-rootkit. This means that anything a rootkit does on the system most likely will be detected and stopped. When using a rootkit against a HIPS-protected system, there are two choices: bypass the HIPS, or pick an easier target.

Chapter 10 in this book covers the development of HIPS technology. The chapter also includes examples of anti-rootkit code. The code can help you understand how to bypass a HIPS and can also assist you in constructing your own rootkit-protection system.


Network-based IDS (NIDS) is also a concern for rootkit developers, but a well-designed rootkit can evade a production NIDS. Although, in theory, statistical analysis can detect covert communication channels, in reality this is rarely done. Network connections to a rootkit will likely use a covert channel hidden within innocent-looking packets. Any important data transfer will be encrypted. Most NIDS deployments deal with large data streams (upward of 300 MB/second), and the little trickle of data going to a rootkit will pass by unnoticed. The NIDS poses a larger detection threat when a publicly known exploit is used in conjunction with a rootkit. [30]

Bypassing the IDS/IPS

To bypass firewalls and IDS/IPS software, there are two approaches: active and passive. Both approaches must be combined to create a robust rootkit. Active offenses operate at runtime and are designed to prevent detection. Just in case someone gets suspicious, passive offenses are applied "behind the scenes" to make forensics as difficult as possible.

Active offenses are modifications to the system hardware and kernel designed to subvert and confuse intrusion-detection software. Active measures are usually required in order to disable HIPS software (such as Okena and Entercept). In general, active offense is used against software which runs in memory and attempts to detect rootkits. Active offenses can also be used to render system-administration tools useless for detecting an attack. A complex offense could render any security software tool ineffective. For example, an active offense could locate a virus scanner and disable it.

Passive offenses are obfuscations in data storage and transfer. For example, encrypting data before storing it in the file system is a passive offense. A more advanced offense would be to store the decryption key in non-volatile hardware memory (such as flash RAM or EEPROM) instead of in the file system. Another form of passive offense is the use of covert channels for exfiltration of data out of the network.

Finally, a rootkit should not be detected by a virus scanner. Virus scanners not only operate at runtime, they can also be used to scan a file system "offline." For example, a hard drive on a lab bench can be forensically analyzed for viruses. To avoid detection in such cases, a rootkit must hide itself in the file system so that it cannot be detected by the scanner.

Bypassing Forensic Tools

Ideally, a rootkit should never be detected by forensic scanning. But the problem is hard to solve. Powerful tools exist to scan hard drives. Some tools, such as Encase, [31] "look for the bad" and are used when a system is suspected of an infection. Other tools, such as Tripwire, "look for the good" and are used to ensure that a system remains uninfected.

A practitioner using a tool like Encase will scan the drive for byte patterns. This tool can look at the entire drive, not just regular files. Slack space and deleted files will be scanned. To avoid detection in this case, the rootkit should not have easily identifiable patterns. The use of steganography can be powerful in this area. Encryption can also be used, but tools used to measure the randomness of data may locate encrypted blocks of data. If encryption is used, the part of the rootkit responsible for decryption would need to stay un-encrypted (of course). Polymorphic techniques can be used to mutate the decryptor code for further protection. Remember that the tool is only as good as the forensic technicians who drive it. If you think of some way to hide that they have not, you might escape detection.

Tools that perform cryptographic hashing against the file system, such as Tripwire, require a database of hashes to be made from a clean system. In theory, if a copy of a clean system (that is, a copy of the hard drive) is made before the rootkit infection takes place, an offline analysis can be performed that compares the new drive image to the old one. Any differences on the drive image will be noted. The rootkit will certainly be one difference, but there will be others as well. Any running system will change over time. To avoid detection, a rootkit can hide in the regular noise of the file system. Additionally, these tools only look at files, and, they may only look at some files—maybe just files considered important. They don't address data stored in non-conventional ways (for example, in bad sectors on a drive). Furthermore, temporary data files are likely to be ignored. This leaves many potential places to hide that will not be checked.

If an attacker is really worried that the system administrator has all things hashed and the rootkit will be detected, she could avoid the file system altogether—perhaps installing a rootkit into memory and never using the drive. One drawback, of course, is that a rootkit stored in volatile memory will vanish if the system reboots.

To take things to an extreme, perhaps a rootkit can install itself into firmware present in the BIOS or a flash RAM chip somewhere.

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