Computer Forensics and Investigation Methodology – 8 steps

sans-siftAccepted methods and procedures to properly seize, safeguard, analyze data and determine what happen. Actionable information to deal with computer forensic cases. Repeatable and effective steps. It’s a good way to describe the SANS methodology for IT Forensic investigations compelled by Rob Lee and many others. It is an 8 steps methodology. It will help the investigator to stay on track and assure proper presentation of computer evidence for criminal or civil case into court, legal proceedings and internal disciplinary actions, handling of malware incidents and unusual operational problems. Furthermore, is a good starting point in order to have a reasonable knowledge of forensic principles, guidelines, procedures, tools and techniques.

The purpose of these 8 steps is to respond systematically to forensic investigations and determine what happen. A similar process exists and was created by NIST on the Guide to Integrating Forensic Techniques into Incident Response  (pub. #: 800-86) published in 2006. This special publication is consistent with SANS methodology and reflect the same basic principles, differing on the granularity of each phase or terms used. Other similar methodologies are described in the ISO-27041.

Also is important to consider that a computer forensic investigation goes hand in hand with computer incident handling and is normally a break-off point of the containment phase.

Below a short and high level introduction of the 8 Computer Forensic Investigation steps:

Verification: Normally the computer forensics investigation will be done as part of an incident response scenario, as such the first step should be to verify that an incident has taken place. Determine the breadth and scope of the incident, assess the case. What is the situation, the nature of the case and its specifics. This preliminary step is important because will help determining the characteristics of the incident and defining the best approach to identify, preserve and collect evidence. It might also help justify to business owners to take a system offline.

System Description: Then it follows the step where you start gathering data about the specific incident. Starting by taking notes and describing the system you are going to analyze, where is the system being acquired, what is the system role in the organization and in the network. Outline the operating system and its general configuration such as disk format, amount of RAM and the location of the evidence.

Evidence Acquisition: Identify possible sources of data, acquire volatile and non-volatile data, verify the integrity of the data and ensure chain of custody. When in doubt of what to collect be on the safe side and is better to rather collect too much than not. During this step is also important that you prioritize your evidence collection and engage the business owners to determine the execution and business impact of chosen strategies. Because volatile data changes over time, the order in which data is collected is important. One suggested order in which volatile data should be acquired is network connections, ARP cache, login sessions, running processes, open files and the contents of RAM and other pertinent data – please note that all this data should be collected using trusted binaries and not the ones from the impacted system. After collecting this volatile data you go into the next step of collecting non-volatile data such as the hard drive. To gather data from the hard drive depending on the case there are normally three strategies to do a bit stream image: using a hardware device like a write blocker in case you can take the system offline and remove the hard drive ; using an incident response and forensic toolkit such as Helix that will be used to boot the system ; using live system acquisition (locally or remotely) that might be used when dealing with encrypted systems or systems that cannot be taken offline or only accessible remotely.  After acquiring data, ensure and verify its integrity. You should also be able to clearly describe how the evidence was found, how it was handled and everything that happened to it i.e. chain of custody.

Note that as part of your investigation and analysis the following steps work in a loop where you can jump from one into another in order to find footprints and tracks left by Evil. If you get stuck, don’t give up!

Timeline Analysis: After the evidence acquisition you will start doing your investigation and analysis in your forensics lab. Start by doing a timeline analysis. This is a crucial step and very useful because it includes information such as when files were modified, accessed, changed and created in a human readable format, known as MAC time evidence. The data is gathered using a variety of tools and is extracted from the metadata layer of the file system (inode on Linux or MFT records on Windows) and then parsed and sorted in order to be analyzed. Timelines of memory artifacts can also be very useful in reconstructing what happen. The end goal is to generate a snapshot of the activity done in the system including its date, the artifact involved, action and source. The creation is an easy process but the interpretation is hard. During the interpretation it helps to be meticulous and patience and it facilitates if you have comprehensive file systems and operating system artifacts knowledge. To accomplish this step several commercial or open source tools exists such as the SIFT Workstation that is freely available and frequently updated.

Media and Artifact Analysis: In this step that you will be overwhelmed with the amount of information that you could be looking at.  You should be able to answer questions such as what programs were executed, which files were downloaded, which files were clicked on, witch directories were opened, which files were deleted, where did the user browsed to and many others. One technique used in order to reduce the data set is to identify files known to be good and the ones that are known to be bad. This is done using databases like the Nation Software Reference Library from NIST and hash comparisons using tools like hfind from the Sleuth Kit.  In case you are analyzing a Windows system you can create a super timeline. The super timeline will incorporate multiple time sources into a single file. You must have knowledge of file systems, windows artifacts and registry artifacts to take advantage of this technique that will reduce the amount of data to be analyzed. Other things that you will be looking is evidence of account usage, browser usage, file downloads, file opening/creation, program execution, usb key usage. Memory analysis is another key analysis step in order to examine rogue processes, network connections, loaded DLLs, evidence of code injection, process paths, user handles, mutex and many others. Beware of anti-forensic techniques such as steganography or data alteration and destruction, that will impact your investigation analysis and conclusions

String or Byte search: This step will consist into using tools that will search the low level raw images. If you know what you are looking then you can use this method to find it. Is this step that you use tools and techniques that will look for byte signatures of know files known as the magic cookies. It is also in this step that you do string searches using regular expressions. The strings or byte signatures that you will be looking for are the ones that are relevant to the case you are dealing with.

Data Recovery: This is the step that you will be looking at recover data from the file system. Some of the tools that will help in this step are the ones available in the Sleuth Kit that can be used to analyze the file system, data layer and metadata layer.  Analyzing the slack space, unallocated space and in-depth file system analysis is part of this step  in order to find files of interest. Carving files from the raw images based on file headers using tools like foremost is another technique to further gather evidence.

Reporting Results: The final phase involves reporting the results of the analysis, which may include describing the actions performed, determining what other actions need to be performed, and recommending improvements to policies, guidelines, procedures, tools, and other aspects of the forensic process. Reporting the results is a key part of any investigation. Consider writing in a way that reflects the usage of scientific methods and facts that you can prove. Adapt the reporting style depending on the audience and be prepared for the report to be used as evidence for legal or administrative purposes.


References and further reading:

SANS 508 – Advanced Computer Forensics and Incident Response
Guide to Integrating Forensic Techniques into Incident Response
  (pub. #: 800-86), 2006, US NIST
Computer Security Incident Handling Guide (pub. #: 800-61), 2004, US NIST
The ComplexWorld of Corporate CyberForensics Investigations by Gregory Leibolt


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3 thoughts on “Computer Forensics and Investigation Methodology – 8 steps

  1. Fred Summers says:

    This is a good primer on the methodology behind computer forensics. Its interesting to see what processes are industry standards like the one created by the NIST and how this one is very similar and how you describe it. I wondered how it was done on a bigger picture scale and this helps me. Thanks for the post.


  2. Aparna B. Sanal says:

    This is really helpful to all those who wish to know much more about cyber world.It is sure that this will inspire those who wish to be a cyber forensic investigator.Thanks alot for these valuable informations.


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