What Is a Rootkit?

June 17, 2024

Rootkits are a type of malicious software designed to gain unauthorized access to a computer system and maintain control while hiding its presence from the user and security software. Often used by cybercriminals to steal sensitive information, rootkits manipulate the operating system to avoid detection and removal.

what is rootkit

What Is a Rootkit?

A rootkit is a form of malicious software that enables unauthorized users to gain control over a computer system without being detected. It achieves this by embedding itself deeply within the operating system, often at the kernel level, and modifying system functionalities to hide its presence.

Rootkits can intercept and alter standard system calls, making their malicious activities invisible to both users and traditional security measures. Attackers typically use them to maintain long-term access to a compromised system, allowing them to remotely execute commands, steal data, monitor user activities, and install additional malware. The complexity and stealth of rootkits make them particularly challenging to detect and remove, which is why they pose a serious threat to the security and integrity of affected systems.

Types of Rootkits

Rootkits can be classified into several types based on their method of operation and the level at which they compromise the system:

  • Kernel-level rootkits. These rootkits target the core of the operating system, known as the kernel. By operating at this deep level, they intercept and modify system calls, making them extremely difficult to detect and remove. They have the highest level of privilege and control over the system.
  • User-mode rootkits. These rootkits operate at the user level, meaning they infect applications and processes that run with regular user privileges. While they are easier to detect and remove compared to kernel-level rootkits, they can still cause significant damage by intercepting system APIs and modifying application behavior.
  • Bootkits. A subset of kernel-level rootkits, bootkits target the boot sector or the Master Boot Record (MBR) of the hard drive. They load before the operating system starts, allowing them to evade detection by traditional antivirus software that runs at the OS level. Bootkits can persist through system reboots and even some OS reinstalls.
  • Memory-based rootkits. These rootkits reside in the system’s RAM and do not write any files to the hard drive. They are designed to disappear upon reboot, making them transient but harder to detect with traditional file-based antivirus solutions.
  • Firmware rootkits. These rootkits infect the firmware of hardware components such as the BIOS or network cards. Since firmware runs before the operating system, these rootkits can control the system at a very low level and are difficult to remove, often requiring hardware replacement or specialized tools.
  • Hypervisor rootkits (virtualized rootkits). These rootkits create a virtualized environment and run the original operating system as a guest. By controlling the hypervisor, they can intercept hardware calls made by the guest OS, making their activities almost invisible to the operating system and most security software.
  • Application rootkits. These rootkits replace standard application binaries with malicious versions or modify existing binaries to include backdoors. They can hijack commonly used applications to carry out their malicious activities, often without raising suspicion.

Rootkit Examples

Rootkits come in various forms and have been used in numerous high-profile cyberattacks. Here are some notable examples of rootkits that have made significant impacts on both consumer and enterprise systems.


HackerDefender is a well-known and widely deployed Windows rootkit that operates by intercepting system calls and hiding files, processes, and registry entries. It provides remote access to the attacker, allowing them to control the compromised system and execute malicious activities without being detected.


Necurs is a sophisticated rootkit primarily used to distribute other malware, such as ransomware and banking trojans. It operates by embedding itself in the kernel, making it difficult to detect and remove. Necurs also incorporates features to disable antivirus software and other security measures.


Stuxnet is a highly sophisticated rootkit that targeted industrial control systems, particularly those used in nuclear facilities in Iran. It exploited multiple zero-day vulnerabilities to infiltrate and manipulate the operations of its targets. Stuxnet's rootkit component was used to hide its presence and ensure the continued execution of its malicious payload.

Alureon (TDL-4)

Alureon, also known as TDL-4, is a rootkit designed to steal sensitive information such as login credentials and financial data. It infects the master boot record (MBR) of the hard drive, allowing it to load before the operating system and evade detection by antivirus programs. Alureon is known for its resilience and ability to update itself to avoid removal.


ZeroAccess is a rootkit that creates a hidden file system on the infected computer, allowing it to store and execute additional malware components. It is often used to conduct click fraud, Bitcoin mining, and other illicit activities. ZeroAccess is known for its ability to disable security software and spread rapidly across networks.

Sony BMG Rootkit

The Sony BMG rootkit was controversially included on music CDs by Sony to enforce digital rights management (DRM). It installed itself on users' computers without their knowledge and hid its presence to prevent removal. This rootkit caused significant public backlash due to its invasive nature and the security vulnerabilities it introduced.

How Does a Rootkit Work?

Rootkits work by embedding themselves deeply within a computer’s operating system to gain and maintain privileged access while concealing their presence from users and security software. Here's a step-by-step overview of how a rootkit operates:

  1. Gaining access. Attackers first need to gain access to the target system. This can be done through various methods, such as exploiting vulnerabilities, phishing attacks, or leveraging other malware to deliver the rootkit.
  2. Privilege escalation. Once on the system, the rootkit escalates its privileges to gain administrative or root-level access. This allows it to make changes to critical system components and evade detection.
  3. Embedding itself. The rootkit installs itself by embedding code into the operating system's core components, such as the kernel, drivers, or firmware. This deep integration allows it to intercept and manipulate system functions.
  4. Hiding its presence. Rootkits modify system behaviors to hide their presence. They intercept system calls, hide files, processes, registry entries, and network connections, making them invisible to standard monitoring tools and antivirus software.
  5. Maintaining control. The rootkit establishes a backdoor to allow the attacker to maintain control over the system. This backdoor can be used to execute commands, steal data, or install additional malware.
  6. Evasion techniques. To avoid detection, rootkits use various evasion techniques. These include disabling security software, using encryption to hide communications, and employing techniques like polymorphism and code obfuscation to change their appearance.
  7. Continuous operation. Rootkits are designed to remain active for extended periods. They continuously perform malicious activities, such as data theft, spying, or launching attacks, while staying hidden from the user and security defenses.

How to Detect a Rootkit?

Detecting a rootkit can be challenging due to its ability to hide within the operating system. However, there are several methods and tools that help identify the presence of a rootkit:

  • Behavioral analysis. Monitoring unusual system behavior can provide clues to a rootkit infection. Unusal behaviors include unexpected system slowdowns, frequent crashes, or unusual network activity.
  • Signature-based detection. Antivirus and anti-malware programs use signature databases to identify known rootkits. Regularly updating these programs helps detect previously identified rootkits.
  • Heuristic analysis. Heuristic analysis involves scanning for suspicious behavior or anomalies in system processes, files, and registry entries that deviate from normal patterns.
  • Integrity checking. Tools like Tripwire are used to compare the current state of system files and configurations against a known good baseline. Any unauthorized changes can indicate a rootkit's presence.
  • Memory dump analysis. Analyzing a memory dump helps identify rootkits that reside in system memory. Tools like Volatility perform memory forensics to uncover hidden processes and modules.
  • Boot-time scanning. Performing scans during system boot can detect rootkits that hide during normal operation. Tools like Windows Defender Offline or other bootable antivirus tools can be used.
  • Rootkit detection tools. Specialized rootkit detection tools such as GMER, RootkitRevealer, and chkrootkit (for Linux) are designed to identify hidden rootkits by scanning system memory, files, and registry entries.
  • Kernel module verification. On UNIX-like systems, commands like lsmod can list loaded kernel modules. Any unfamiliar or suspicious modules should be investigated further.
  • File system analysis. Tools that analyze the file system at a low level can detect hidden files and directories. Techniques like cross-view comparison, where different methods are used to list files and note discrepancies, can be effective.
  • Network traffic monitoring. Monitoring network traffic for unusual patterns or connections to known malicious IP addresses help identify rootkit-related activities. Tools like Wireshark are useful for this purpose.

Is it Hard to Detect a Rootkit?

Detecting a rootkit is notoriously difficult due to several factors:

  • Stealth mechanisms. Rootkits are designed to hide their presence by intercepting and modifying system calls and APIs, making it difficult for standard security tools to detect them. They can conceal files, processes, and registry entries, making their activities invisible to the user and most antivirus programs.
  • Deep integration. Rootkits often embed themselves deeply within the operating system, such as in the kernel or firmware. This deep integration allows them to manipulate core system functions and evade detection by most conventional scanning techniques.
  • Evasion techniques. Rootkits use various evasion techniques to avoid detection. These include polymorphism (changing their code to avoid signature detection), encryption (hiding their communication), and disabling security software. They can also employ rootkit-specific tactics like hiding in the master boot record (MBR) or using direct kernel object manipulation (DKOM).
  • Lack of symptoms. Rootkits can operate silently without causing noticeable symptoms, making it hard for users to notice their system is compromised. When symptoms do appear, they are often subtle and can be mistaken for normal system issues.
  • Advanced capabilities. Many rootkits come with advanced capabilities that allow them to disable or bypass security software, making detection even more challenging. They can also update themselves to counteract new security measures.
  • Cross-view discrepancies. Rootkits can create discrepancies between what is reported by standard system tools and the actual state of the system. For example, they may hide processes from task managers or files from file explorers, leading to an inconsistent view of the system's state.
  • Need for specialized tools. Detecting rootkits often requires specialized tools and techniques beyond standard antivirus software. Tools like GMER, RootkitRevealer, and memory forensics tools can help, but they require advanced knowledge to use effectively.

How to Prevent Rootkits?

Preventing rootkits requires a combination of good security practices, the use of reliable security software, and maintaining a vigilant approach to system management. Here are some key strategies:

  • Keep software updated. Regularly update your operating system, applications, and security software to patch vulnerabilities that could be exploited by rootkits. Enable automatic updates whenever possible.
  • Use antivirus and anti-malware software. Install reputable antivirus and anti-malware programs that include rootkit detection capabilities. Ensure they are regularly updated to recognize and protect against new threats.
  • Enable secure boot. Enable Secure Boot in your computer's BIOS or UEFI settings. Secure Boot ensures that only trusted software is loaded during the boot process, preventing rootkits from loading at startup.
  • Limit administrative privileges. Operate with the principle of least privilege. Use administrative accounts only when necessary and limit the use of root or admin access to reduce the risk of a rootkit gaining full control over the system.
  • Practice safe browsing and email habits. Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading attachments from unknown sources. Be cautious with email attachments and links, especially those from unsolicited messages.
  • Use a firewall. Enable and properly configure a firewall to monitor incoming and outgoing network traffic. Firewalls can help prevent unauthorized access and block potentially malicious connections.
  • Regular backups. Perform regular backups of important data and system configurations. In case of a rootkit infection, having recent backups allows for easier recovery and system restoration.
  • Disable autorun and autoplay. Disable autorun and autoplay features on removable media to prevent the automatic execution of potentially malicious software when external drives or devices are connected.
  • Employ network security measures. Implement network security measures such as intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), and regular network traffic monitoring to detect unusual activities that may indicate a rootkit infection.
  • Educate users. Educate users about the dangers of rootkits and best practices for avoiding malware. Awareness training help prevent social engineering attacks that often lead to rootkit infections.
  • Utilize endpoint detection and response (EDR). Consider using EDR solutions that provide advanced threat detection and response capabilities. EDR tools can help identify and respond to rootkit infections more effectively.

How to Remove Rootkits?

Removing rootkits is complex due to their ability to deeply integrate with the operating system and conceal their presence. Here are steps and methods to effectively remove rootkits:

  • Use specialized rootkit removal tools. There are several tools specifically designed to detect and remove rootkits. Some of the most popular ones include GMER, a tool that detects and removes hidden processes, services, and files, and Malwarebytes Anti-Rootkit, a comprehensive tool for detecting and eliminating rootkits.
  • Boot-time scanning. Performing scans during the system boot process is effective since rootkits often hide during normal operation. Use tools like Windows Defender Offline or bootable antivirus solutions to perform these scans.
  • Safe mode. Booting into Safe Mode can prevent many rootkits from loading, making them easier to detect and remove. Once in Safe Mode, run your antivirus and anti-rootkit tools.
  • System restore. If you suspect a recent rootkit infection, you can restore your system to a previous state before the infection occurred. Be cautious, however, as some rootkits can infect restore points.
  • Manual removal. Manual removal is risky and should only be attempted by experienced users or professionals. This process involves identifying and deleting rootkit files and cleaning up registry entries. Tools like Process Explorer identify suspicious processes.
  • Reinstall the operating system. In cases where the rootkit is deeply embedded and resistant to removal, reinstalling the operating system may be the most effective solution. Ensure you back up important data before proceeding and perform a clean installation to avoid reintroducing the rootkit.
  • Firmware and BIOS scans. Some advanced rootkits can infect firmware and BIOS. Use manufacturer-provided tools to scan and update the BIOS or firmware to remove these types of rootkits.
  • Network isolation. Isolate the infected system from the network to prevent the rootkit from communicating with its command-and-control server or spreading to other systems.
  • Professional assistance. In cases of severe infections, consider seeking professional help from cybersecurity experts who have the tools and expertise to effectively remove rootkits.
  • Post-removal actions. After removing a rootkit, perform a thorough scan with updated security tools to ensure no remnants are left. Change all passwords, update security policies, and monitor the system for any unusual activity to prevent reinfection.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.