Startup Blasts Rootkits

Government security agencies back komoku's malware-obliteration plans.

A startup funded by the U.S. governments Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is ready to emerge from stealth mode with hardware and software-based technologies to fight the rapid spread of malicious rootkits.

Komoku, of College Park, Md., plans to ship in the summer a beta of Gamma, a new rootkit detection tool that builds on a prototype used by several sensitive U.S. government departments to find operating system abnormalities that may be linked to malicious rootkit activity. Rootkits modify the flow of the kernel to hide the presence of an attack or compromise on a machine. This gives a hacker remote user access to a compromised system while avoiding detection by anti-virus scanners.

The companys Copilot prototype is a high-assurance PCI card capable of monitoring the hosts memory and file system at the hardware level. It is specifically geared toward high-security servers and computers.

Gamma, meanwhile, is a separate, software-only clone of Copilot that will target businesses interested in a low-assurance tool to protect laptops and PCs.

Komoku launched quietly in 2004 with about $2.5 million in funding and rootkit detection contracts from DARPA, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Navy. The company has its roots at the University of Maryland, where computer scientist William Arbaugh worked on what he calls a "unique approach" to finding rootkits.

"Security technologies depend on the correctness of the system theyre actually checking," said Arbaugh, who now serves as president of the outfit, which consists of three full-time and two part-time employees. "If something changes the system at the operating system level, it cant be reliably detected via the OS itself or through applications running on the system," he said. "We have this notion of what the operating system is supposed to look like, and we look for deviations to that. We arent initially looking for the rootkit—we look at the side effects of the infection."

Komoku has partnered with security vendor Symantec to handle disinfection and restoration after rootkits and other sophisticated forms of malware are detected. Symantecs LiveState product combines with Copilot and Gamma to restore the system to its original state.

James Butler, a renowned rootkit researcher who serves as Komokus chief technology officer, said Gamma will have limited cleanup capabilities because it is software-based and susceptible to direct attack, much like any application running on the operating system.

"Cleanup is a very difficult goal while maintaining a running system. When you find a rootkit, you essentially have several choices. The easiest choice is to halt the system. But, that means that youll lose any evidence that might be in memory. It also means that the services provided by that system are made unavailable," Butler explained.

Another choice, said Butler, is to eliminate the effects of the rootkit, although this can be very difficult because of the complicated nature of an operating system. A third option is to allow the rootkit to remain active while attempting to discern its motives, Butler said, noting that both Gamma and Copilot will allow all three of these choices.

Komokus long-term plan is to have both the hardware and software versions collect forensic data when a compromise is detected. Butler said both products are able to capture hidden malware in memory and send it back to a central management station when the products are running in enterprise mode. Komoku also is exploring potential partnerships with other security companies that have offline malware analysis tools, he said.

Pricing details have not been worked out, but Arbaugh expects to ship Copilot to high-end enterprises with supersensitive data. Gamma, on the other hand, is lower-assurance and aimed at protecting business assets that dont require high-end security protection and businesses that are unable to install hardware.

Arbaugh said Gamma has been built with two modes of operation: an enterprise mode where it communicates with a central server to receive updates and incident reports, and a stand-alone mode where incidents are reported locally. Updates will be available via a subscription service similar to the anti-virus space, he said.

Citing confidentiality issues, Arbaugh declined to discuss the severity of the rootkit threat on government networks. However, he said that during actual Copilot tests, it is "very clear that the government shares the same problems like everyone else."

Copilot was being tested on the Navy networks when news of the Sony DRM (digital rights management) rootkit issue made headlines in November 2005. "That was a zero-day rootkit to us, so we decided to throw it at Copilot as part of the operational tests. We detected the Sony rootkit in all its vectors, in real time," said Butler.

According to statistics from Microsoft, rootkits account for more than 20 percent of all malicious programs removed from Microsoft Windows machines. The stealthy technology has been found in a variety of threats, including spyware, Trojans and DRM.

Komoku at a Glance

Whats the big idea?

To offer hardware and software security at the operating system level to ferret out stealth rootkits

Is there a product?

Komokus first product is a PCI card that detects malicious changes to the operating system; a software-only product is due this summer

Whos in charge?

William Arbaugh, president, and James Butler, CTO; Butler wrote "Rootkits: Subverting the Windows Kernel"; the company has three full-time and two part-time employees

Does Komoku have customers?

Yes, it has contracts with the Navy, Department of Homeland Security and DARPA