Techniques Used to Hide Game Cheat Processes

Game cheating tools employ increasingly sophisticated techniques to avoid detection. As anti-cheat systems grow more advanced, cheat creators have developed clever technologies that enable cheats to evade observation and modify game code unimpeded. This escalating arms race has led to substantial innovation in stealthy hacking methods that hide cheating software from monitoring by system utilities, anti-cheat services, and analytical tools. Examining common tactics used to conceal cheats provides useful insight into how hackers operate, and guides ongoing anti-cheat improvements.

Injectors Provide Cloaked Access

Specialized injector programs allow cheats to infiltrate game processes invisibly. Rather than running an obvious separate executable, injectors insert cheating code directly into the target game's memory space. This grants covert access to modify game logic to the cheater’s advantage.

Injectors use various methods to secretly plant cheat codes:

  • DLL Injection – Cheat developers package hacking code inside dynamic link library (DLL) files. At runtime, the injector forces the game process to load the illicit DLL, executing the contained cheat implementations. The game believes it has only loaded its standard set of DLLs, unaware of the smuggled payload.
  • Code Cave Injection – The injector first allocates unused memory within the game process’s address space, carving out a code cave for itself. It then writes the cheating logic directly into the allocated memory region. Since this memory sits outside standard game code sections, it can operate unobserved.
  • Thread Injection – By creating a new thread spoofed to appear as a legitimate game thread, the injector gains an isolated execution context. Cheat code runs on this secret thread, evading monitoring focused on the game’s core threads.
  • Process Hollowing – Also called RunPE, this method starts a known process, such as the game, in a suspended state. It then unmaps the process's executable code, replacing it with a cheat payload before resuming execution with altered memory contents. This spoofs monitoring tools into seeing a legitimate process image.
  • APE Injection – Using the AtomBombing technique, the injector directly overwrites target process memory to insert cheat code. This avoids typical injector behaviors discernable by anticheats, installing cheats via in-place code patching.

Advanced injectors employ further tactics to avoid scrutiny, like dynamic, self-modifying code and anti-debugging. Their increasing sophistication demands equivalent innovation in memory scanning capabilities and behavior-based threat detection.

Signature Checks Subverted

Code signing provides integrity verification, allowing anticheats to immediately reject unsigned cheat programs. In response, cheats utilize assorted tricks to bypass signing checks:

  • Cracked Signatures – By patching valid signature files or their related binaries, cheats are able to repurpose authentic signatures to validate malicious code.
  • Signature Replacement – Whole certificate files are extracted from legitimate software and embedded in cheats. During verification, the replaced signature disguises the cheat's invalid signing status.
  • API Hooking – Intercepting functions like WinVerifyTrust lets cheats feed fake success results back to anticheats, even when signature validation fails or crashes.
  • Spoofed Certificates – Fraudulently generated certificates imitate trusted publisher identities. Cheats use these unofficial certificates to incorrectly validate their own unsigned code.

Certain advanced techniques warrant elevated concern:

  • DLL Proxying – Also called DLL forwarding, this method allows unsigned DLL cheats to be silently loaded via signed proxy DLLs. Only the proxy DLL requires a valid signature, essentially laundering invalid payloads.
  • Inline Hooking – Cheats directly overwrite portions of signed API functions with small detour code snippets. This dynamically redirects anticheat signature checks to cheat-controlled logic while preserving original flow.
  • Import Address Table Hooking – By modifying function pointers in the table used for linking Windows API calls, cheats can reroute signing APIs to controlled code caves while keeping intact original API logic executed after verification.
  • Shellcode Injection – Position-independent machine code assembled at runtime lets cheats circumvent static analysis of conventional executable signing requirements.

Ongoing monitoring for certificate anomalies, unauthorized imports, and unexpected process behaviors helps identify crafty signature verification attacks like these.

Virtualization Conceals Cheats

Virtual machine environments allow cheats to operate shielded from host system inspection. Different virtualization methods each provide isolated playgrounds hiding cheating software:

  • Hypervisors – Full software virtualization suites like VMware, VirtualBox, and Hyper-V run guest operating systems abstracted from the host environment. Cheats reside in the guests, avoiding anticheat scans of the host machine.
  • Containers – Lightweight container environments sandwich cheats into restricted sandboxes isolated from the host OS. Technologies like Docker disguise cheats from host monitoring.
  • Kernel Drivers – Custom virtual machine monitor (VMM) drivers run at kernel level, intercepting and emulating CPU operations to facilitate virtualization invisibly to user processes. This approach evades typical VM performance artifacts.
  • API Hooking – Cheats also directly fake API responses to pretend virtual environments do not exist when anticheats probe for virtualization indicators.

While setting up hypervisors or containers requires non-trivial expertise, skilled cheat authors leverage virtualization for potent cloaking abilities. Using enhanced virtualization detection alongside behavior anomaly monitoring helps reveal surreptitious virtualized cheats.

Obfuscation Mutates Code Identities

Simple file name randomization can prevent detection based on known cheat executables. Obfuscation takes evasion further by transforming code to render it unrecognizable.

Common obfuscation techniques include:

  • Polymorphism – Cheat programs dynamically re-assemble themselves into randomizedLogic remains intact while surface structure constantly shifts to evade signature detection.
  • Metamorphism – Similar to polymorphism, but cheats wholly rewrite themselves without a base original form. This allows more radical mutations while maintaining cheat behaviors.
  • Packing/Encryption – Protectors like Themida and VMProtect integrate cheats within encrypted containers, decrypting themselves only during runtime. This obscures static code contents.
  • Virtualization – Some obfuscators emulate target code in a virtual machine-like environment to impede static analysis and reverse engineering.

Other prevalent obfuscation tactics include:

  • Control Flow Obscuration – Cheats rearrange their own code logic and insert dead ends or fake loops to substantially complicate analysis.
  • Data Encoding – Storing information encoded, compressed, or encrypted obscures definitive data signatures. Cheats dynamically decode data on-demand.
  • String Encryption – Hardcoding strings that clearly expose cheats is avoided by encrypting strings until needed at runtime.
  • API Hiding – Common API functions called by cheats are cloaked behind layers of indirection, rerouting, and misdirection.

Penetrating increasingly innovative obfuscation demands ever-evolving heuristic and behavioral detection capabilities. Signatures alone grow inadequate against cheats wielding heavy mutation power.

Rootkits Subvert Systems

Rootkits adopt privilege escalation to a extreme degree – they fundamentally subvert operating system internals. By intercepting core functions, rootkits can comprehensively hide any trace of their cheat payloads:

  • User Mode – These rootkits tap into Windows APIs using hooking to filter information passed to monitoring tools. They are unable to directly subvert the kernel, however.
  • Kernel Mode – Far more powerful, kernel rootkits hook privileged kernel functions and device drivers, attaining complete system control. This lets them inspect and manipulate even protected kernel activities.

Specific technical hooking approaches include:

  • SSDT Hooking – The kernel’s system service descriptor table that dispatches calls to OS functions is patched to reroute anticheat queries to controlled responses that conceal cheats.
  • IDT Hooking – Similarly, the interrupt descriptor table used for handling system events can be altered to intercept and filter notifications before anticheat products observe them.
  • Inline Hooking – Rootkits directly overwrite the first bytes of OS code with jumps to cheating logic. This dynamically detours execution while keeping the original code intact, bypassing security that prohibits modifying OS binaries stored on disk.
  • Bootkits – These specialized rootkits compromise the bootloader itself, initiating their takeover early in the boot process before protections are active. This grants lasting control resilient to typical detection.

Rootkit installation demands extensive privileges. Protecting boot integrity, locking down the kernel, enforcing driver verifications, and actively monitoring API call flows all help reveal system-level compromise.

Sandboxing Limits Cheats

Sandboxing isolates cheats from broader system resources that could be abused. Sandboxes apply various rules and restrictions:

  • Containerization – Cheats are confined within standalone lightweight virtual containers with minimal access to host resources. Popular tools like Docker facilitate container creation and management.
  • Jailing – Mandatory file system, registry, network, inter-process, and user access controls strictly limit what cheats can interface with. Calls to restricted functionality fail, constraining cheats.
  • Hook Prevention – Monitoring and blocking attempts to set API hooks prevents cheats from intercepting anticheat functions. Sandbox design focuses on curtailing interference abilities.
  • Resource Limits – Quotas on memory, storage, network usage, process, handle counts constrain potentially malicious activities like rapid resource allocation. This contains cheating payloads.

Sandbox breaches still occur by exploiting zero day vulnerabilities. Robust threat intelligence combined with default-deny security models create a more hardened sandbox. But skilled cheats continue seeking ways to punch through imposed restrictions.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Advanced process hollowing techniques let cheats operate surreptitiously inside legitimate system processes:

  1. The cheating program initiates a trusted process like explorer.exe while suspended before its code can start running.
  2. The cheat deallocates the suspended process's primary executable code region, leaving an empty shell.
  3. Cheat code and dependencies get injected into the vacant memory space within the trusted process.
  4. Execution resumes under the replaced contents, spawning a cheat payload camouflaged as a critical system process.

This bypasses suspicions associated with unknown processes. Effective dynamic hollow process detection involves:

  • Scanning memory maps for unmapped free gaps indicating replaced executable space.
  • Fingerprinting processes to check for expected loaded modules, handles, threads, and other attributes aligned with their expected roles.
  • Tracing process behaviors during execution to identify anomalous flows, inputs, or events compared to legitimate patterns.

Privilege Escalation

Elevating cheat process privileges provides opportunities to bypass additional access controls. Cheats gain higher rights by:

  • Exploiting Vulnerabilities – Flaws in operating system code can enable cheats to attain elevated permissions. Rapid patching eliminates these attack vectors.
  • Password Cracking – Cheats brute force passwords or use social engineering to obtain administrator credentials to unlock privileged accounts. Multifactor authentication strengthens login security.
  • Token Manipulation – Access tokens associated with highly privileged processes are copied and assigned to cheats. Strict token validation rules combat misuse.
  • DLL Hijacking – Cheats replace trusted DLLs loaded by administrator processes, inheriting their high privilege levels at load time. Monitoring DLL loads identifies hijacking attempts.

Proactively constraining unnecessary privileges and monitoring authorization changes limits pathways for escalating cheat authority. This increases assurance cheat behaviors will remain confined.

API Hooking Redirects Information

API hooking allows cheats to intercept and filter information passed to monitoring tools and anticheats by detouring operating system API calls. Common hooking approaches include:

  • Inline Patching – Cheats directly overwrite parts of API functions with jumps or call instructions to redirect flow into cheat-controlled logic. Parameters can be inspected before re-invoking the original API.
  • IAT Hooking – By modifying function pointers in the import address table used for dynamically linking Windows APIs, cheats reroute calls from their intended functions to intercepting code caves.
  • PLT/GOT Hooking – This Unix/Linux analog to IAT hooking alters function pointers in the procedure linkage table and global offset table data structures.
  • DLL Injection – Cheating DLLs containing hooks with target API names attached hijack calls to those functions. The operating system routes flows through the hooks transparently.
  • Kernel Hooking – Rootkits and kernel drivers hook native operating system calls and kernel-mode APIs. This grants tremendous hidden influence.

Detecting API hooking requires API behavioral monitoring for anomalous flows and stack traces. Strong code integrity controls also limit illicit API modifications by unauthorized programs.

This ongoing technological battle continues driving anti-cheat innovation. Ultimately, fostering player integrity through ethics and sportsmanship represents the most resilient countermeasure. As cheats grow more advanced, game studios need to double down on instilling fair play values in communities. Pairing this with rapidly evolving technical defenses keeps gameplay fun and inclusive.