A security researcher has developed malicious rootkit software for Cisco Systems' routers, a development that has worrying implications for the Internet.

Sebastian Muniz, a researcher with Core Security Technologies, developed the software, which he will unveil on 22 May at the EuSecWest conference in London.

Rootkits are stealthy programs that cover up their tracks on a computer, making them extremely hard to detect. To date, most rootkits have been written for Windows, but this will mark the first time that someone has discussed a rootkit written for IOS, the Internetwork Operating System used by Cisco's routers. "An IOS rootkit is able to perform the tasks that any other rootkit would do on desktop computer operating systems," said Muniz.

Rootkits are typically used to install key-logging software as well as programs that allow attackers to remotely connect with the infected system. However, the most notorious rootkit of all, distributed by Sony BMG Music, stopped unauthorised CD copying.

A Cisco rootkit is particularly worrisome because, like Microsoft's Windows, Cisco's routers are very widely used. Cisco owned nearly two-thirds of the router market in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to research firm IDC.

In the past, researchers have built malicious software, known as "IOS patching shellcode," that could compromise a Cisco router, but those programs are custom-written to work with one specific version of IOS.

Muniz's rootkit will be different. "It could work on several different versions of IOS," he said.

The software cannot be used to break into a Cisco router - an attacker would need to have some kind of attack code, or an administrative password on the router to install the rootkit, but once installed it can be used to silently monitor and control the device.

The rootkit runs in the router's flash memory, which contains the first commands that it uses to boot up, said EuSecWest conference organiser Dragos Ruiu.

Muniz said he has no plans to release the source code for his rootkit, but he wants to explain how he built it to counter the widespread perception that Cisco routers are somehow immune to this type of malware. "I've done this with the purpose of showing that IOS rootkits are real, and that appropriate security measures must be taken," he said.