What is computer forensics?
Computer forensics is the application of investigation and analysis techniques to gather and preserve evidence from a particular computing device in a way that is suitable for presentation in a court of law. The goal of computer forensics is to perform a structured investigation and maintain a documented chain of evidence to find out exactly what happened on a computing device and who was responsible for it.
Computer forensics — which is sometimes referred to as computer forensic science — essentially is data recovery with legal compliance guidelines to make the information admissible in legal proceedings. The terms digtal forensics and cyber forensics are often used as synonyms for computer forensics.
Computer forensics is a branch of digital forensic science pertaining to evidence found in computers and digital storage media
Types of computer forensics
There are various types of computer forensic examinations. Each deals with a specific aspect of information technology. Some of the main types include the following:
- Database forensics. The examination of information contained in databases, both data and related metadata.
- Email forensics. The recovery and analysis of emails and other information contained in email platforms, such as schedules and contacts.
- Malware forensics. Sifting through code to identify possible malicious programs and analyzing their payload. Such programs may include Trojan horses,ransomeware or various viruses.
How does computer forensics work?
Forensic investigators typically follow standard procedures, which vary depending on the context of the forensic investigation, the device being investigated or the information investigators are looking for. In general, these procedures include the following three steps:
- Data collection. Electronically stored information must be collected in a way that maintains its integrity. This often involves physically isolating the device under investigation to ensure it cannot be accidentally contaminated or tampered with. Examiners make a digital copy, also called a forensic image, of the device’s storage media, and then they lock the original device in a safe or other secure facility to maintain its pristine condition. The investigation is conducted on the digital copy. In other cases, publicly available information may be used for forensic purposes, such as Facebook posts or public Venmo charges for purchasing illegal products or services displayed on the Vicemo website.
- Analysis. Investigators analyze digital copies of storage media in a sterile environment to gather the information for a case. Various tools are used to assist in this process, including Basis Technology’s Autopsy for hard drive investigations and the Wireshark network protocol analyzer. A mouse jiggler is useful when examining a computer to keep it from falling asleep and losing volatie memory data that is lost when the computer goes to sleep or loses power.
- Presentation. The forensic investigators present their findings in a legal proceeding, where a judge or jury uses them to help determine the result of a lawsuit. In a data recovery situation, forensic investigators present what they were able to recover from a compromised system.
Often, multiple tools are used in computer forensic investigations to validate the results they produce. Learn how a researcher at Kaspersky Lab in Asia created an open source forensics tool for remotely collecting malware evidence without compromising system integrity.
Techniques forensic investigators use
Investigators use a variety of techniques and proprietary forensic applications to examine the copy they’ve made of a compromised device. They search hidden folders and unallocated disk space for copies of deleted, encrypted or damaged files. Any evidence found on the digital copy is carefully documented in a finding report and verified with the original device in preparation for legal proceedings that involve discovery, depositions or actual litigation.
Computer forensic investigations use a combination of techniques and expert knowledge. Some common techniques include the following:
- Reverse steganography Steganography is a common tactic used to hide data inside any type of digital file, message or data stream. Computer forensic experts reverse a steganography attempt by analyzing the data hashing that the file in question contains. If a cybercriminal hides important information inside an image or other digital file, it may look the same before and after to the untrained eye, but the underlying hash or string of data that represents the image will change.
- Stochastic forensics. Here, investigators analyze and reconstruct digital activity without the use of digital artifacts. Artifacts are unintended alterations of data that occur from digital processes. Artifacts include clues related to a digital crime, such as changes to file attributes during data theft. Stochastic forensics is frequently used in data breach investigations where the attacker is thought to be an insider, who might not leave behind digital artifacts.
- Cross-drive analysis. This technique correlates and cross-references information found on multiple computer drives to search for, analyze and preserve information relevant to an investigation. Events that raise suspicion are compared with information on other drives to look for similarities and provide context. This is also known as anomaly detection.
- Live analysis. With this technique, a computer is analyzed from within the OS while the computer or device is running, using system tools on the computer. The analysis looks at volatile data, which is often stored in cache or RAM. Many tools used to extract volatile data require the computer in to be in a forensic lab to maintain the legitimacy of a chain of evidence.
- Deleted file recovery. This technique involves searching a computer system and memory for fragments of files that were partially deleted in one place but leave traces elsewhere on the machine. This is sometimes known as file carving or data carving.
Find out more about computer forensic analytics in this chapter from the book Python Forensics: A Workbench for Inventing and Sharing Digital Forensic Technology, by Chet Hosmer. It shows how to use Python and cybersecurity technology to preserve digital evidence.
The best computer forensics tools
Digital evidence can exist on a number of different platforms and in many different forms. Forensic investigation often includes analysis of files, emails, network activity and other potential artifacts and sources of clues to the scope, impact and attribution of an incident.
Due to the wide variety of potential data sources, digital forensics tools often have different specialties. This list outlines some of the most common and widely used tools for accomplishing different parts of a computer forensics investigation.
Disk analysis: Autopsy/the Sleuth Kit
Autopsy and the Sleuth Kit are likely the most well-known forensics toolkits in existence. The Sleuth Kit is a command-line tool that performs forensic analysis of forensic images of hard drives and smartphones. Autopsy is a GUI-based system that uses The Sleuth Kit behind the scenes.
The tools are designed with a modular and plug-in architecture that makes it possible for users to easily incorporate additional functionality. Both tools are free and open-source, but commercial support and training are available as well.
Read more about Autopsy and The Sleuth Kit here.
Image creation: FTK imager
Autopsy and The Sleuth Kit are designed to examine disk images of hard drives, smart phones and so on. The benefit of analyzing an image (rather than a live drive) is that the use of an image allows the investigator to prove that they have not made any modifications to the drive that could affect the forensic results.
Autopsy does not have image creation functionality, so another tool needs to be used. While the majority of the AccessData Forensics Toolkit items are paid tools, its FTK Imager is a free product. This can be used to create disk images that can then be analyzed using Autopsy/The Sleuth Kit.
More information about FTK Imager is available here.
Memory forensics: volatility
Tools like The Sleuth Kit focus on the hard drive, but this is not the only place where forensic data and artifacts can be stored on a machine. Important forensic information can be stored in RAM, and this volatile memory must be collected quickly and carefully to be forensically valid and useful.
Volatility is the most well-known and popular tool for analysis of volatile memory. Like The Sleuth Kit, Volatility is free, open-source and supports third-party plugins. In fact, the Volatility Foundation holds an annual contest for users to develop the most useful and innovative extension to the framework.
Learn more about Volatility here.
Windows registry analysis: Registry recon
The windows registry acts as a database of configuration information for the Windows OS and the applications running on it. These applications can store a variety of different data in the registry, and the registry is one of the common locations where malware deploys persistence mechanisms.
It is possible to open and view the Windows registry via the built-in Windows application regedit, and registry analysis is built into some forensics platforms. However, specialized tools like Registry Recon are available as well. Registry Recon is a commercial tool that is designed to rebuild Windows registries from a forensic image and includes the ability to rebuild deleted parts of the registry based upon analysis of unallocated memory space.
For more information about Registry Recon, visit here.
Mobile forensics: Cellebrite UFED
Mobile adoption is constantly growing, and many organizations allow employees to use these devices at work either via BYOD programs or corporate-owned devices. Additionally, these devices are a growing target of cyberattacks, such as phishing, making them a likely source of valuable forensic information.
With the growing importance of mobile forensics, a mobile-focused forensics tool might be a useful acquisition. Cellebrite UFED is widely regarded as the best commercial tool for mobile forensics. It supports a number of different platforms (not just mobile devices) and boasts exclusive methods and tools for mobile device analysis.
Read more about Cellebrite UFED here.
Network analysis: Wireshark
Many forensics tools focus on the endpoint, but this is not the only source of useful data in a forensics investigation. Most cyberattacks occur over the network, and analysis of network traffic captures can help with the identification of malware and provide access to data that may have already been deleted and overwritten on the endpoint.
For network traffic analysis, Wireshark is the most popular and widely-used tool. Wireshark is free and open-source, offers dissectors for many different types of network traffic, has a clear and easy-to-use GUI for traffic analysis and includes a wide range of functionality under the hood. It supports live traffic capture or can ingest network capture files for analysis.
Learn more about Wireshark here.
Linux distributions: CAINE
Many of the tools presented here (and many other digital forensics tools besides them) are free and open-source. While this makes them easy to acquire, installation and configuration can be complex. To simplify this process, a number of different Linux digital forensics distributions are available as virtual machines. These VMs include a number of tools pre-installed and preconfigured.
The Computer Aided Investigative Environment (CAINE) is one example of such a tool. This Linux distribution includes many of the most widely used computer forensics tools and may include third-party plugins for tools like Autopsy.
Learn more about CAINE here.
Getting started with computer forensics
These seven tools don’t even scratch the surface of the tools available for digital forensicsOfferings range from free and open-source scripts designed to accomplish a single task to massive, commercial forensics platforms.
Due to the wide range of potential tools, a good starting point is trying out a Linux forensics distribution like CAINE. This provides access to a range of free tools without requiring any purchases or configuration.
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