This blog post gives an overview of three types of Linux rootkits, ordered by their complexity.


What is a rootkit? A rootkit is a program that is installed on a computer after it is breached. It allows the attacker to maintain a foothold on the system. Thus, it is a mechanism for achieving persistence. Consequently it should be stealthy, should survive reboots, and should offer a backdoor, so the attacker can again execute commands on the machine without repeating the steps that were taken in the initial compromise.

In the Linux world there are three main types of rootkits:

  • Simple Daemons
  • LD_PRELOAD Rootkits
  • Kernel Rootkits

1. Simple Daemons

Daemons are probably the easiest types of rootkits on Linux systems. They are simple jobs that are configured within the init system, such that they are started on boot. They have the form of an executable that is executed. An example is a systemd daemon, or an entry in /etc/rc.local.

Even though they are the easiest to program, they are also the easiest to detect. On this level, they can hardly offer any evasion capabilities. Consequently they can be found in the list of running processes, even though they may hide under a name that does not look suspicious.

2. LD_PRELOAD Rootkits

These rootkits are more complex to write than simple daemons. They are in the form of a library that is preloaded. As an example, if they are registered within /etc/, they are preloaded for any other executable in user space.

These types of rootkits can offer library hooking functionalities in order to hook functions in libc. As an example, it is trivially possible to hook a function such as open(), so that it hides files with special filenames. This way, the library can hide itself, and the existence of /etc/

A minimal viable LD_PRELOAD rootkit hooks at least stat(), open(), opendir(), readdir(), unlink() and its 64bit counterparts.

Rootkits making use of this technique are fairly easy to maintain, as they are compatible with lots of different versions of libc and lots of different distributions.

The sophistication of their evasion capabilities is between those of simple daemons and kernel rootkits. Hooking library calls can hide then from common tools such as ls, cat, vim, ps and others. However, if one decides to search for them, they can still be detected.

As they only hook dynamically linked executables, they can be found using statically linked binaries, such as busybox. Another way to detect them is dumping the file system using dd and restoring the index and comparing that index to the output of a suitable find command. A third way of detection is by searching for the LD_PRELOAD environment variable. If the rootkit performs unsetenv(), the environment variable LD_PRELOAD is hidden from the command env. This can be achieved by executing unsetenv() in the constructor of the library, so that it is executed when the library loads. For this purpose, when using gcc it suffices to prefix the function with __attribute__((constructor)). However, the environment variable is still persistent in the mapping of the binary in memory, and thus can be detected, e.g. by executing cat /proc/self/environ.

If you are interested in source code of LD_PRELOAD rootkits, you can take a look at the following links.

3. Kernel Rootkits

The main problem with LD_PRELOAD rootkits is that they still reside in user space and have to hide from other user space programs. Consequently their stealthiness is limited.

While LD_PRELOAD rootkits can only hook other library functions, kernel rootkits are able to hook syscalls. In user space it is theoretically also possible to hook syscalls using the ptrace syscall, but that is laborious and has to be performed for each process.

Consequently it makes sense to install a rootkit inside kernel space. Beyond hooking syscalls and thus outsmarting statically and dynamically linked binaries, kernel rootkits can also modify the list of processes that are managed by the kernel in order to stay undetected. However, installing a kernel rootkit is more invasive compared to an LD_PRELOAD rootkit and may thus be easier to detect. Still, once installed, a sophisticated kernel rootkit is hard to detect, especially if the detection mechanisms reside in user space.

A major drawback of kernel rootkits is that they have to be targeted towards specific versions of kernels. If a new kernel is released, then the rootkit may not work anymore, as some functions are not available anymore. In particular, around kernel 2.6, the calling convention for functions changed. Consequently, maintaining reliable code for a kernel rootkit is a more extensive task.

If you are interested in kernel rootkits, a good candidate to study is Drovorub (see its excellent analysis by xcellerator or the official NSA/FBI advisory). This is a rootkit by the Russian APT group Fancy Bear. It has a kernel and a user space component. The kernel component hooks some syscalls to remove processes, files, and network sockets that would indicate its presence. The user space component is used to communicate with the kernel component, by writing commands to /dev/null. As an example these commands can hide network connections or files. The output of these commands can again be read from /dev/null.

While the functionality of this rootkit may not seem impressive and can probably be recreated within some weeks, the hard part is to maintain compatibility with different kernel versions.


24 October 2023