Saturday, June 4, 2011

Computer Forensics

BCS Manchester recently hosted an interesting evening on the growing importance of computer forensics. The session was led by Sam Raincock, an experienced expert in performing forensic analyses. Whilst the session did not reveal the secrets behind a successful analysis (or give hints of how to make an analysis more difficult), it did explore some of the approaches (in general) that can be used in establishing evidence. Whilst a typical forensic investigation does include a significant amount of technical information this only accounts for about 20% of an analysis as the remaining time is concerned with communication with lawyers and report writing. As in all legal cases, it is crucial to review and present all the evidence to piece together a coherent case rather than circumstantancial evidence.

While Computer forensics is primarily the examination of any device that permanently stores data (the range of devices is ever-expanding from the traditional hard disc drives, CD-ROMS and USB memory sticks to mobile phones and cameras), it also includes reviewing system functionality in its goal to try to establish what happened and who did it. It is used in a variety of cases include criminal, civil and fraud cases.

It was stated that 'Every contact leaves a trace' by Edmond Locard, an early pioneer of forensic science. This is very true with all computer usage as every time a file is created, every web page that is browsed, every document that is printed is recorded somewhere although computer usage is unique to everyone.

Some key points that I took away from the session included:
  1. Never assume anything
  2. All humans are unpredictable, and different
  3. Personnel cause more damage than they discover
  4. Do not assume that common sense prevails
  5. The IT department are not forensically trained and don't necessarily understand the value of every piece of data
  6. Forensics is not about data recovery
  7. Ownership of data must be established
A forensic examination is looking at where the offence was allegedly committed, how the event occurred and who performedthe activity. A typical examination can normally be performed on a single device (once a forensic image has been taken) by an appropriate expert and does not normally need to consult with outside agencies (e.g. internet service providers) to obtain specific information. The examination will review such data as cookies, the various system logs, network connections (IP addresses, type of connection particularly whether it was local, remote, fixed, wireless etc). The usage patterns of a computer will reveal a significant amount as every human has particular behaviour traits. The use of the various system logs that reside on a computer or within a network can reveal significant and valuable data; these logs should be actively monitored as they can often be the first sign that something unusual is being performed that may merit investigation. The sooner something is detected, the greater the chance of limiting the damage (or increasing the evidence in order to establisha conviction). In the case of an incident being detected within a business, the primary aim is to return a business to normal as quickly as possible. This is where policies are vitally important; it is equally important that they are actively used, policed and maintained.

Whilst there is no formal qualification required to become a forensic expert (an inquiring mind would probably be useful), it is clearly a growing and important aspect of computing. There are clearly many challenges with the continually evolving usage of computers; the growing importance of the cloud will clearly require different techniques to those employed when examining a physical item such as a laptop. The session left me wondering what traits my computer usage would reveal about me but also wanting to find out more about what is being recorded without me having any knowledge.