Saturday, December 01, 2007

Forensic Analysis

Often (well, often enough) we run into instances where it becomes evident that someone has an unrealistic expectation of what answers forensic analysis can provide.

I know that right now, most of you are thinking, "dude...no way!" But I say, truly, it is so. There's even a term for it...it's called the CSI Effect. There are even articles written about it (here, and here).

Let's look at an example of what I mean. Our hero, the forensic analyst and incident responder Dude Diligence gets a call from a company, and the caller says that they've been "hacked" ("hacked" is the new "smurfed", by the way...a verb with many nuances and flavors...). Dude gets on site to find that even before he was called, a considerable amount of remediation was going on...systems were being accessed and "cleaned" (another one of those verbs with many nuances and flavors...) by administrators, with no real focus as to who was doing what, when, or why?

I'm sure that by now, some of you who are consultants like our hero are now weeping into your beers, sobbing, "dude..." under your breath...but our story continues.

Dude does the best he can to get the story of what happened, and what systems were affected. In the end, he acquires images of about half a dozen systems and returned to the Dude Lab to do analysis. Before leaving, however, he made sure that he had a solid understanding of what questions needed to be answered for the customer...specifically, was this a targeted attack, and was sensitive data (could be credit card numbers, could be PII, PHI, etc.) compromised.

To make a long story short, ultimately what Dude finds is that...he can't find anything. Systems had not been configured for any sort of viable logging (the system, as well as applications), and what logs that were there had been removed from the system. Systems had been scanned with AV applications, etc., etc. Traces of the intruder's activity (if there was one) had been completely obliterated by the actions of those who "responded" to the incident. Even if Dude had determined that sensitive information was, in fact, on the system, he isn't able to provide a definitive response to the question of, does that information now, as a result of the intrusion/compromise, exist somewhere it shouldn't? Was it exposed?

Even under the best of circumstances, there are just some questions that forensic analysis cannot answer. One question that comes up time and time again, particularly in some of the online forensic forums, is, from an imaged system, can you tell what files were copied off of the system? Dude has found artifacts of files being uploaded to web-based email systems such as GMail, and found other artifacts, but what computer forensic artifacts are there if someone opens a Word or PDF document on their screen and copies information out of it onto a piece of paper, using a pen? How about if someone connects a removable storage device to the system and copies the files off onto to that device? Sure, there are artifacts of the device being connected to the system (particularly on Windows systems), but without actually imaging and analyzing that removable storage device, how would Dude determine what files were copied from the system to the device?

I've talked about alternative analysis techniques before, and the solutions I'm looking toward include, for example, how you may be able to show names of files that someone viewed, and possibly the dates, even if the user deleted and overwrote the files themselves, or viewed them from removable media, etc. There are lots of ways to get additional information through analysis of the Registry, Event Logs, and even of the contents of RAM captured from the system...but there are just some questions that computer forensics can not answer.

That being said, how does our hero Dude Diligence go about his dude-ly analysis? Well, to begin with, Dude is part-sysadmin. This means that he understands, or knows that he needs to understand, the interrelation between the different components of a system...be that the interrelation between the external router, firewall, and the compromised system within the network infrastructure, or the interrelation between the network, the apparently compromised host (i.e., the operating system), and the applications running on the host.

When it comes to analyzing intrusions, Dude doesn't have to be a pen-tester or "ethical hacker"...although it may help. Instead, Dude needs to shift his focus a bit and not so much concentrate on breaking into or compromising a system, but instead concentrate "around" it...what artifacts are left, and where, by various actions, such as binding a reverse shell to the system through the buffer overflow of an application or service? For example, when someone logs into a system (over the network via NetBIOS or ssh or some other application, or at the console), where would Dude expect to see artifacts? What does it mean to Dude if the artifacts are there? What if they're not there?

Remember Harlan's Corollary to Jesse's First Law of Computer Forensics?

This leads us back to the first statement in this post...there are some actions for which the artifacts are not available to forensic analysts like Dude when he's performing a post-mortem analysis, and there are some questions that simply cannot be answered by that analysis. There are some questions that can be answered, if Dude pursues the appropriate areas in his analysis...

3 comments:

TVD said...

Harlan,

Dude's experience sounds like every day of my consulting life! The "CSI Effect" has caused clients to become almost hostile when I tell them "Well, you've had the system for months after the supposed attack/incident/employee misconduct, etc., and you've gone in and changed all the date/time stamps during your own investigation. You also let a new person use the machine as their own, and NOW you want to know what someone copied off and when?!"

CSI has everyone convinced I'm lying or incompetent when I say I can't pull a rabbit out of my hat & produce evidence that just isn't there.

Thanks for letting me know it's not just me!

Keydet89 said...

Yes, it is interesting how some folks you work with have expectations set prior to your arrival...such as with TV, or sales staff.

I have heard of customers who will call and say that the system was "compromised", taken offline, wiped, and the OS completely reinstalled...but we'd like you to take a look at it and tell us what happened...

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