Why Do Rootkits Exist?

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Rootkits are a relatively recent invention, but spies are as old as war. Rootkits exist for the same reasons that audio bugs exist. People want to see or control what other people are doing. With the huge and growing reliance on data processing, computers are natural targets.

Rootkits are useful only if you want to maintain access to a system. If all you want to do is steal something and leave, there is no reason to leave a rootkit behind. In fact, leaving a rootkit behind always opens you to the risk of detection. If you steal something and clean up the system, you may leave no trace of your operation.

Rootkits provide two primary functions: remote command and control, and software eavesdropping.

Remote Command and Control

Remote command and control (or simply "remote control") can include control over files, causing reboots or "Blue Screens of Death," and accessing the command shell (that is, cmd.exe or /bin/sh). Figure 1-1 shows an example of a rootkit command menu. This command menu will give you an idea of the kinds of features a rootkit might include.

Figure 1-1. Menu for a kernel rootkit.
 Win2K Rootkit by the team rootkit.com Version 0.4 alpha ----------------------------------------- command       description ps            show process list help          this data buffertest    debug output hidedir       hide prefixed file or directory hideproc      hide prefixed processes debugint      (BSOD)fire int3 sniffkeys     toggle keyboard sniffer echo <string> echo the given string *"(BSOD)" means Blue Screen of Death   if a kernel debugger is not present! *"prefixed" means the process or filename   starts with the letters '_root_'. *"sniffer" means listening or monitoring software. 

Software Eavesdropping

Software eavesdropping is all about watching what people do. This means sniffing packets, intercepting keystrokes, and reading e-mail. An attacker can use these techniques to capture passwords and decrypted files, or even cryptographic keys.


While rootkits have applications in waging digital warfare, they are not the first application of the concept.

Wars are fought on many fronts, not the least of which is economic. From the end of World War II through the Cold War, the USSR mounted a large intelligence-gathering operation against the U.S. to obtain technology.[7]

Having detected some of these operations, the US planted bogus plans, software, and materials into the collection channel. In one reported incident, malicious modifications to software (so-called "extra ingredients") were credited for a Siberian gas pipeline explosion.[8] The explosion was photographed by satellites and was described as "the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space."[9]

[7] G. Weiss, "The Farewell Dossier," in Studies in Intelligence (Washington: Central Intelligence Agency, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1996), available from www.cia.gov/csi/studies/96unclass/farewell.htm.

[8] This implies that the explosion was caused by some sort of software subversion.

[9] D. Hoffman, "Cold War hotted up when sabotaged Soviet pipeline went off with a bang," Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 2004.

Legitimate Uses of Rootkits

As we alluded to already, rootkits can be used for legitimate purposes. For instance, they can be used by law-enforcement agencies to collect evidence, in an advanced bugging operation. This would apply to any crime in which a computer is used, such as computer trespass, creating or distributing child pornography, software or music piracy, and DMCA[10] violations.

[10] The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, PL 105-304, 17 USC § 101 et seq.

Rootkits can also be used to fight wars. Nations and their militaries rely heavily on computing machinery. If these computers fail, the enemy's decision cycle and operations can be affected. The benefits of using a computer (versus conventional) attack include that it costs less, it keeps soldiers out of danger, it causes little collateral damage, and in most cases it does not cause permanent damage. For instance, if a nation bombs all the power plants in a country, then those power plants will need to be rebuilt at great expense. But if a software worm infects the power control network and disables it, the target country still loses use of the power plants' output, but the damage is neither permanent nor as expensive.

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    Rootkits(c) Subverting the Windows Kernel
    Rootkits: Subverting the Windows Kernel
    ISBN: 0321294319
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2006
    Pages: 111

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