McAfee sets Rootkit Detective free

New freeware offering helps protect end-users from rootkits, while returning data on malware attacks to researchers

On July 26, McAfee will begin offering a new application called Rootkit Detective, designed to detect and remove dangerous rootkit attacks. The software will also help end-users ward off the threats, as well as funnel new intelligence into the company's ongoing research operations.

Following in the footsteps of SiteAdvisor -- the free Web site security program acquired by McAfee in April 2006 that warns users about potentially dangerous sites and search results -- company officials said that the new tool will be offered at no charge from its Web site via download, with benefits for both end-users and its researchers.

The freeware program promises the ability to find and remove so-called rootkits -- self-cloaking malware attacks that install themselves as kernel modules or drivers and are most often used to hide other types of threats such as keyword-logging programs -- and send data about the attacks that are discovered back to McAfee.

As greater numbers of PC users have employed more sophisticated antimalware tools in recent years, hackers have rushed to adopt the rootkit model as a means for circumventing anti-virus systems and keeping their attacks hidden on people's computers.

According to the most recent estimates released by Santa Clara, Calif.-based McAfee, more than 7,325 new rootkit variants have been discovered since the beginning of 2007, a dramatic 100 percent increase over the 3,284 rootkits the company's researchers uncovered during all of 2006.

Rootkit Detective specifically promises to find hidden kernel processes and registry entries, as well as remove them when a user reboots their system. The tool also claims the ability to test the integrity of a PC's kernel memory and track any modifications that might also highlight rootkit activity.

As part of a beta program, Rootkit Detective -- which was developed within McAfee's Avert Labs -- has already been downloaded by more than 110,000 users, including businesses and consumers, company officials said.

"Dealing with rootkits will always be an arms race; the whole process is a game of challenge-and-response between the hackers and security community, and as the authors have advanced the complexity of their attacks, we need to continually update our own technologies to keep up," said Joe Telafici, vice president of operations at McAfee Avert Labs. "We started putting rootkit detectors into our products in 2006, and this is the next stage in advancing our detection technologies."

While most rootkit-fighting programs use what Telafici labeled a "tainted view" approach to finding the attacks -- that is, comparing results of system calls to the kernel to look for potential issues -- Rootkit Detector uses a variety of means to find hidden processes and registry keys that might evade such tactics, he said.

The approach is also particularly effective at helping McAfee find new rootkit variants, based on the detailed manner in which it monitors a machine's kernel and memory, according to the researcher.

Telafici goes as far as to claim that Rootkit Detector can find and remove every known rootkit reported to its researchers thus far.

"The bad guys are spending a lot of time trying to hide their work from simpler tools, but we can still see these programs making their calls, and we've already used the tool to find several new variations that we weren't previously aware of," he said. "We use a variety of means to detect processes, files, and registry keys that might otherwise remain hidden, and to bypass cloaking techniques employed by the rootkit authors."

In passing out Rootkit Detective to consumers and businesses free of charge, McAfee is hoping that, as with SiteAdvisor, people will actively use the application to submit virus samples to Avert Labs.

After analyzing any new attacks, McAfee will create a signature for any rootkits it tracks and channel that information into its other client security products.

"Gathering information this manner is a very effective way for us to get a handle on threats we haven't seen before, and it should get new kits flowing in that we can begin researching to adapt to throughout our product lines," Telafici said. "It's great to be able to offer something valuable for end-users that can really help protect them, while allowing us to find new attacks and develop technologies to address for our customers."

The Rootkit Detector launch underscores recent efforts by anti-virus providers to launch technologies aimed at fighting the most complex, cutting-edge attacks being aimed at users by hackers.

Last week, rival Symantec introduced a beta version of its Norton AntiBot program, which is designed to thwart the growing problem of PC-hijacking botnet attacks. However, unlike McAfee's latest offering, AntiBot is a for-pay product that will retail to consumers for less than $30.

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