Rootkits: What Are They & How Do You Remove Them?

In many cases, the most dangerous digital hazards are also the most misunderstood. Such is the case for rootkits, which play a critical role in many of today’s most devastating cyber-attacks.

Rootkits have delivered serious damage for over two decades, and yet, the average computer user remains as clueless about them as ever. Therefore, it’s high time that users get in the know about this serious threat – and take action to minimize its interference.

What Are Rootkits & Why Are They Dangerous?

Clandestine by nature, a rootkit is designed to obtain privileged access to a device while also concealing its presence. It can lie seemingly dormant for months or even years before the malware contained within takes over. This occurs, in part, due to rootkits’ common presence within software that seems perfectly functional.

Technically, rootkits themselves are not particularly harmful. However, the malware they unleash can quickly wreak havoc on vulnerable devices and networks. The term “rootkit” references root-level access that is typically only granted to a system’s privileged administration account. Unix operating system users commonly use the word “root” to describe the influential individual who, by default, holds access to all critical files and commands. This descriptor is then combined with an abbreviation for the word “toolkit” to describe the mechanism’s functionality for enabling the spread of malware.

Common Types of Rootkits

While all rootkits hold the same general purpose, they can take many forms. These include:

  • Kernel Rootkit – This common rootkit aims to alter operating system functionality. It runs at a core level known as the “kernel,” which makes it notoriously difficult to detect.
  • Application Rootkit – This type of rootkit works at the application level. It may lead to the replacement of application files or the targeted use of code to compromise important programs.
  • Memory Rootkit – Typically hidden within the computer’s random access memory (RAM), this rootkit can negatively impact computer processing. While its effects can be annoying, this characteristic actually makes it easier to detect.
  • Bootloader Rootkit – Sometimes referenced by the rhyming moniker “bootkit rootkit,” this version targets the master boot record, which ensures that the device’s operating system loads properly. Thankfully, many operating systems, such as Windows 10, have strong security features that have dramatically decreased the prevalence of this type of rootkit.

How to Prevent Rootkits

Rootkits are difficult to prevent, in part, because they can arise from a wide variety of sources. Many accompany seemingly ordinary software, while others arrive by way of email phishing scams. Rootkit-based phishing has also begun to take place over social media. For this reason, it’s important to avoid opening any emails or private messages that seem suspicious – especially if they contain attachments or links to downloadable content.

Unfortunately, rootkits can strike even the most vigilant users. In such situations, operating system and software upgrades provide a valuable layer of protection. Anti-malware software is especially important, as many solutions contain rootkit detection tools. A strong firewall offers yet another form of defense by analyzing traffic to prevent malicious behavior – or even highlighting the early signs of rootkits that might otherwise go undetected.

Identifying and Removing Rootkits

Unfortunately, the ease with which rootkits can be concealed allows them to remain present on computer systems for years before they are actually utilized. Therefore, you could implement strict security measures today and still remain vulnerable, as rootkits may already exist on your system. However, if you’re able to identify existing rootkits, it may be possible to remove them before they cause a devastating degree of damage. Watch for these key signs:

  • Operating system settings suddenly change without your authorization. Because rootkits hold administrative privileges, they are often able to alter security features.
  • Computer performance suffers, particularly if the device is impacted by a kernel or memory rootkit.
  • Modified files are detected from the perspective of an alternative operating system.

If, based on these signs, you suspect an infection, it’s well worth it to conduct a rootkit scan. Keep in mind, however, that the best rootkits are stealthy enough to operate successfully without exhibiting any of the signs highlighted above. Even if you don’t suspect an infection, a scan could reveal rootkits that you otherwise would have failed to detect on your own. Try the Windows Defender offline scan, which can run from a safe environment without relying on your operating system.

If the scanning process reveals a previously hidden rootkit, you may find it exceedingly difficult to eradicate. These malicious systems are nearly as challenging to get rid of as they are to detect in the first place. Start with turning on Safe Mode, under which many rootkits cannot run. Full reinstallation of the operating system may ultimately prove necessary. Because it’s so difficult to determine whether a rootkit has actually been eliminated, it’s best to work with a cybersecurity expert. An IT professional can provide computer virus and malware removal that leaves your device completely free of threats.

Look to NerdsToGo For Expert Business IT Solutions

If you’re still struggling to understand rootkits and other common security concerns, you’re certainly not alone. Today’s business leaders find it all but impossible to keep up with the myriad of emerging threats. Thankfully, there is no need to go it alone.

At NerdsToGo, we’re pleased to provide business cybersecurity services. Our custom services and managed IT solutions for businesses are carefully crafted based on the unique needs of each client. While the enterprises we work with occupy a wide variety of industries, all share the same desire for operational efficiency and exceptional data security. Get in touch today to learn more about our business IT services