Bitcoin Forensics

Two books in the works.

In between the adventures in life and work, I have been busy with writing.  One, a fiction book, is expected to be in print next year (all on the publisher's schedule).  It’s an exciting book and sure to grab your attention. More on that sometime later.  The second book is another nonfiction forensics book, Bitcoin Forensics 😊.

There were a few topics I wanted to write about for my next forensic book; however, considering the recent cases involving cryptocurrency, Bitcoin Forensics is at the top of the list.  A couple of points on the book before you make an assumption about what the book is or is not:

1. The book is not anti-cryptocurrency.  In fact, this book is pro-cryptocurrency not only as use as a currency, but as an investigative target for investigators when following the money.

2.The book will not be about only Bitcoin.  The book will cover cryptocurrency in totality of all-the-coins, to include the major coins (Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc…) and the Altcoins.

 

Like my other books, it will be written for the practitioner, the investigator, and the court officer with duties of trying cases involving cryptocurrency.  Our goal is to write a book that you can read and put to use on day-one.  Oh yeah, did I say “our”?  I sure did.  Tim Carver is my co-author.   If you know of Professor Carver, then you know that you will be learning all you need with the investigative aspects of cryptocurrency in your cases.  Additionally, we have a few contributors (and on the lookout for more!) that have either conducted extensive research or have conducted successfully cases with cryptocurrency as a money laundering aspect of their cases.

I have one confession to make.   Some time ago (a few years?), Tim asked for my opinion on cryptocurrency and money laundering with criminals.  At the time, I said that I believe it may be years before the common criminal uses cryptocurrency for money laundering simply because of the technology.  “Blockchain technology” is not something that everyday meth dealers may be knowledgeable about.  The other obstacle I thought was that converting physical cash into digital cash is not that easy.  On the other end of the criminal spectrum is the DTO (drug trafficking organization). The amount of physical cash generated alone is enough to prohibit converting into digital cash.  I just didn't see cryptocurrency being a major criminal investigative aspect.

But here comes 2017...  I’ve seen more than a few cases in the news of BILLIONS of dollars being laundered. On top of that, after doing research on cryptocurrency for over a year (talking to Tim generated an interest to test theories in cryptocurrency) and coincidentally getting a case with cryptocurrency being a central target in the case….I think I was mistaken.  Cryptocurrency has come and will eventually be part of every criminal investigation that has any financial aspect.

So, there you have it.  The inspiration of the book came from Tim Carver calling me to ask my opinion, a year of research afterward, a cryptocurrency case to figure out, and finally me asking Tim to co-author a book on it.

If you have conducted a cryptocurrency case or done research into cryptocurrency, and you want to be in the book as a contributor (named or unnamed), This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. right away.   If you want to be a bigger part of the book, that is a possibility as well.  Email me and let’s talk.

Until then, expect the book to be in print (or on your mobile device) in 2018.  Cool book topic, and probably one of the most relevant subjects for the years ahead in forensic investigations, both in the criminal case world and private sector engagements.  Don't believe?  No worries.  You will soon enough, just like I did.

 

 

 

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Anonymity: Criminals are only as good as their last mistake

I’m big on privacy, even though I know that practically, the only information that is private today is that which (1) only you know and (2) does not exist anywhere outside your head.  Everything else can be had one way or another, by hook or crook.  Most personal information we willingly give away, such as our date of birth when signing up for “free” online services.  Other personal information we are required to give in order to abide by laws, such as applying for a driver’s license.                         


I’m also big on de-anonymizing criminals.   Supporting privacy efforts while at the same supporting de-anonymization efforts is contradictory, but realty. If you have ever been a victim of a crime where the criminal got away with it, you probably feel the same.  Both aspects contradict each other, where I want to have individual privacy but at the same time, I want to be able to de-anonymize someone who is committing crimes facilitated with technology.  What a dilemma...

I tend to focus on de-anonymization of criminals more since we are on a never-ending trend of breaches, hacks, and theft of personal information, let alone crimes against persons using technology. Two of my books were solely focused on the topic.  During presentations on the subject, I have regularly been questioned on “How do I…” in this case or that case from investigators* looking for the magic bullet.  Given just a 15 second brief of an investigation that has been ongoing for months, my typical answer is – the answer is there, you just have to find it. 

Secret Tip: there is no magic bullet until there is one.

The magic bullet in almost every case is a mistake made by the suspect.  An oversight.  An error.  A bad decision.  Or just plain ignorance.  All on the part of the suspect.  But a mistake by itself is not enough to crack a case.  You, the investigator or the analyst, need to catch that mistake.  You have to look for it constantly.  You have to expect to find where the suspect made the error because if you don’t have the intention to find the criminal’s mistakes, you will not find them.  That is when you find the magic bullet to solve your case, by looking for it and not hoping it drops in your lap.

When you do find the break in an analysis or investigation, everything becomes clear and appears to be such an easy thing that you wonder why you didn’t think of it before.  The fact is, finding the errors is not always simple or easy.  The little mistakes are usually hidden in tons of data and easily overlooked.  Sometimes the answer is plain view and no one sees it. Even when you find the suspect’s mistake, if you do not recognize it for what it is, you will quickly pass it and keep looking without realizing you could have solved your case a few minutes prior.

The steps in finding these mistakes made suspects are:

If you don’t have #1 above, then #2 and #3 won’t matter since you won’t be able to identify the evidence or clues you need.  The first things I do in any case is determine the goal or goals. Sometimes the goal is either dictated by someone else or it is obvious.  If the goal is not dictated or obvious, you have to identify the goal or again, step #1 is useless which renders #2 and #3 just as useless.

When you work with these 3 steps, the 6-Ws naturally come up in the case (the 6-Ws: who, what, when, where, how, why).  You need the above 3 steps as your foundation to actually work a case in order to get to the 6 Ws.  Focus on the 3 and the world is yours.  A tip: not everyone does this.  Many many examiners/investigators/analysts simply collect data without reason other than to collect data with the hope the case solves itself.  Don't be that person.

When I was a new investigator, it seemed that every case I received was like Groundhog Day.  No case was like the last, no evidence was consistent among the cases, and the goals were sporadic (other than “find the bad guy”).  Basically, every day I was starting over as new in each assigned case. In time, I learned a few things from experienced investigators, other things I learned the hard way.   In more than one case, I would be given a hint or a tip that would put me on a path to close a case.  A question as simple as, “Did you try this?” or “Did you look here?” was all I needed to plow ahead.  Sometimes, i would figure out an easy way or more effective means of gathering information and intelligence.  Many training courses focus on the technical means, but not the thinking part.  It's nice to know how to recover deleted event logs, but why? If you don't know why you should do it, you won't get anything out of it because you won't see the clues.

In cases with electronic media, the process is the same as in any investigation you have, whether it is a criminal or civil case (or even an internal corporate matter).  Define the goal so you know what to look for, know where to look, and figure out how to look for it.  Apply this to every case and incident you have and your case closure rates will be much better with less work.

For example, a case involving an unidentified cyber-criminal who is ‘hiding behind the keyboard’ clearly means that the what is anything that ties directly to the criminal.  The specifics of the what is important. The where depends on what you have to work with.  Perhaps you have an email, or network traffic, or maybe even physical media.  Somewhere in that data is the where and you need to know in what part of that data you should be looking.  The how is maybe the easiest part.  Maybe you need to look at metadata, or reverse engineer a file, or simply recover a deleted file.  That’s the manual labor part.  You need to work the brain part first, otherwise the labor will be for nothing.  

Recent cases in the news have shown that this method of investigation works on the most difficult of cases.  I must stress that when you see that a major case was solved by the simple piece of evidence of identifying an email address, that this is not so simple.  Every case has at least one error that was made by the suspect, and to discount looking for that mistake is a mistake on your part.

Any case where the article states that, “Oh, the case was easily solved because the suspect forget his email was in the code” seriously discounts the effort of the investigator who took the time to know what to look for, where to look for it, and how to look for it.  Cold cases are solved the very same way.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

This is what I have been teaching for almost 20 years now.  I believe that anyone from any place in any job with any education level can be a superb investigator.   I have met young investigators from small towns who can run circles around someone with 10 times their experience and education in the largest agencies because they apply the foundation principles of what it takes to solve a case.  Once they learn the how of digital forensics, they are just as effective in the digital world as if they were working a street corner robbery.  It’s not a diploma, or a certificate, or a coin in your pocket that makes you good.  You make yourself good.  If you happen to collect some tokens along the way, add them to a shadow box, but bragging about having certs has no weight if you can't work a case.

Another benefit of getting the investigative skills down is that you can apply it to other areas and other types of cases.  If you have the desire and can finesse the skill, you can run with the big dogs in working any type of case.  I truly mean that in every sense.  My first investigator duties, after being a patrol officer, was a narcotics detective.  I used the skills learned in narcs to solve murders, uncover and disrupt organized crime groups, identify terrorists, and work all types of crimes involving technology.   

Be prepared that when you start solving cases by finding the “easy” things, that those around you will call you names, like lucky or you only solved the case because of a suspect's mistake. Just smile and carry on.  After enough cases, you won’t be called lucky anymore; you will be called good and that is the goal: be good at what you do. 

 

* I use the term “investigator” to apply to anyone who has the job to find information, curate into intelligence, on which assumptions, conclusions, and judgments can be made.  That means a police detective, federal agent, incident responder, or forensic examiner.

 

 

 

 

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Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard online course

My newest course is out and it is the best course you will find on the topic.  More than 12 hours of investigative methods and effective techniques to build a case against criminals who use technology to commit crimes.  

  • Learn the methods to track criminals online and in the real world
  • Learn the tricks of the trade (tradecraft) of covert communications and breaking those communications
  • Learn how to build a case that would not have been closed without this course
  • Learn the one thingI that will give you the tools to become not only a great forensicator, but someone that can place a suspect behind the keyboard

Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard was the first digital forensics book focusing on building a good case on criminals who use technology to commit crimes. This also the first course teaching that specific topic.  My intention with this online course is to put you into the mindset of someone working toward identifying the suspect, gathering evidence on the suspect, and proving allegations against your suspect; in effect, placing the suspect behind the keyboard.


If your career has been like mine, most cases are fairly straightforward. Perhaps a suspect was already identified and most of the evidence already seized.  In many cases, whether it is a criminal arrest or being hired as a private consultant, generally, you start with all you need to begin examining the media.  But if your career is like mine, there have been a few cases where that is simply not the case.  This course is not only for the easy cases, but especially for the tough ones.Holistically, this course covers everything you need, whether working in the private or public sector.  Investigative techniques are discussed for both sectors as many methods can be used in both case types.  A few sections are LE-only simply because citizens cannot wiretap other citizens (as an example), however, you can see the differences between a method used by law enforcement and the private sector.  Practically speaking however, the actual methods are the same.  A forensic analysis of a flash drive in a criminal case is not different than in a civil case, nor are the methods to tie a person to a device different.

This course is not just for the average case, but developed especially to address the difficult cases.

Cases where the suspect has not been identified.  Cases where the electronic evidence has not been seized.  Cases where there are many suspects.  Cases where the evidence linking the suspect to the device or crime is weak at best.  For those cases, you need to take extra measures, think out of the box, and use everything at your disposal.  You have to work at putting the suspect behind the keyboard, because if you don’t, it won’t happen. 

Don’t let your case go to the cold-case files.  Solve it!  This course shows you how to do it.  The books detail even more on how to put cases together, especially the really difficult cases where you have little to go.  As for incident response cases (breaches), this is not a course on mitigating a breach, or tracking hackers in cyberspace.  Although, many of the methods will work for just that.   Incident Response can benefit greatly for the sake of sometimes the suspect in a breach must be caught for a variety of reasons.  This course and books brings it to you.

The Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard online course uses the same material as the 2-day workshop with the biggest difference being not working actual cases in class.  As a side note, in a previous class, a suicide case was reopened as a potential homicide case based on course methods in the class!  The methods are proven to work.

FAQ:

Is there a discount for a bulk order?

With 50%, two free books, and free access to the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide course, there are no bulk discounts.

My agency/company will take a week or two to get approval to pay.  Can the discount be extended?

Send me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and let me know.  I can extend to get approval, but not for too long.

Will there be another promotion after this one?

Most probably, but it won't be (1) 50% off, and (2) may not include the two books, and (3) most likely won't include access to the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide course.  This is the best time to get both courses and both books at this price.

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The 2 Worst Games to Play in #infosec

The “Hot Potato” Game

The goal of the Hot Potato Game is to simply pass off responsibility to the next person as soon as you can before something bad happens.  When the responsibility lands in your lap again, you pass it to someone else as soon as you can.  Eventually, someone gets caught holding the hot potato and they lose (and you win!!).  A similar version of this game is “Musical Chairs” game or “Kicking the Can Down the Road” game.  By the way, it sucks to lose this game.

I have seen this game played in both the government and the private sector.  Any long-time government employee can point to dozens of managers who are experts at this game.   I believe there are so many experts because it is rare for a government employee to actually suffer when losing this game, which only encourages more people to play and gain experience in tossing the hot potato to the next guy at the table.

In the private sector, losing this game is an entirely different matter, especially when PII or PHI has been stolen.  When that happens, fingers get pointed awfully quick and the government comes in with a hammer to smash as many thumbs as they can find.  Did I mention that losing this game sucks?

  1. The “Are We There Yet” Game

The "Are We There Yet" game is another popular game played in both the public and private sector.  This particular game is also known as “We’ll Cross that Bridge When We Come to It” game.   In this game, you know bad things are coming one day, and you accept that being worry-free today is worth the stress of dealing with an incident tomorrow, because we all know that tomorrow never comes.

I have actually seen budgets with anticipated expenses planned for incidents that could be avoided with preparation and less money.  I guess some organizations believe that if they don’t spend money now on preparation (defense), they may not need it for remediation after a breach, so it may make a better business decision.  This game is also known as “Craps”.

When I consult for corporations and government entities, I always advise to not play these games (in a professional manner rather than saying 'don't play these games').  Fortunately, I find that many organizations are spending money now to prepare rather than hope for the best.  The organizations that want to prepare are doing really good, taking advice, and in some cases, going beyond what is required.  In technical terms, I call this a great job.

I have gotten to the point that when I hear a client choose to play either of these games, I don’t laugh out loud anymore, especially when I hear verbatim, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”.   When I hear that, I usually leave a half dozen business cards…

Hopefully you aren’t forced to play in these games and that when you say that you need money and time to prepare for unexpected breaches, you get it.  This same thing applies to internal employee matters too.  Any organization that haphazardly gives out electronic devices without any controls to employees….is an organization playing the hot potato game.  I tend to believe that with so many attacks, so many breaches, and so many organizations frozen with Ransonware, organizations start to take notice.  It's kind of like everyone in your neighborhood getting burglarized.  You can choose to either hope your house is not burglarized or you can install an alarm, lock your doors and windows, and prepare just in case.

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The 2 Fastest and Least Expensive Ways to Learn X-Ways Forensics

***4/18/2017***

***UPDATE ON THE PROMO***

This is all you need to know: The X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide online course is still available at only $119 instead of the regular tuition of $599 until April 19.

If you missed the promo for 80% with a FREE copy of the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide book, you still have time to get 80% off the online course without a free copy of the book.  This is still a great deal off the 12-hour, $599 course at only $119.  There will never be a discount this steep again for this course, so get it while you can, because the time to register is running out.

 

   

XWF Practitioner's Guide Promo Countdown! Wednesday, April 19, 2017 11:59 PM 212 Days XWF Practitioner's Guide Promo Countdown!

 

-------------------------------------------------

My advice to X-Ways Forensics users is to stop thinking you can figure it out by yourself, even if you have been using X-Ways Forensics for any length of time.  There are simply far too many nuances and hidden features that you are missing every time you try to figure it out or use on cases.  If you really want to get down and dirty to learn X-Ways Forensics fast and cheap, here is the ONLY way to do it.

  1. Buy the book (list price is $59.95)
  2. Take the online class (regular price is $599.00)

But, wouldn't you rather want to learn how to use X-Ways Forensics saving even more money?  If so, you want to sign up right now because right now is the biggest discount for the course while getting the most swag! Get up to 80% off the price PLUS a FREE copy of the book and if you act fast enough, be invited to even more FREE trainingFree book offer has expired.

If you register within the next 7 days (April 19), you can get the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide online course at 50% off for only $299.  80% off for only $119.

**UPDATE  4/16/2017**

The promo is almost over for the free book...  

 

If you do not receive your 80% promo link via Twitter DM, email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I'll email it to you.

How about even more!  The first 20 registrations will be invited to a live, 2-hr online X-Ways Forensics course with me to demonstrate using X-Ways Forensics as a triage tool and for electronic discovery (this includes using the latest build of the Windows Forensic Environment – WinFE).  These first 25 registations still receive over 12 hours of the online X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's course and a FREE COPY of the book!   The first 20 just filled up the live course, but the promo for up to 80% plus a FREE book is still good.

The course has never been discounted this deep, so this is the best time to take advantage of learning to how you can exploit X-Ways Forensics to its fullest potential, learning from your computer, on your own time, at the lowest price.  

Since 2014, more than 2,000 students have registered and taken my online courses with 24/7 access.  

“It has helped shed lights on things I have missed in the past.”  -student

“I got to say I’m enjoying the videos.” – student

Don't miss the boat!  80% off 12 hours of X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide training plus a FREE COPY of the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide.  ONLY $119 for the regular $599 tuition with a free copy of the book!

http://bit.ly/xwfpromo80 expired

 

*For outside the USA, only a Kindle version is available as part of this promotion.  Registrations within the USA can choose between print or Kindle.

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FREEZE! Busted by the Fridge. The ways that tech influences writing fiction, making movies, and busting criminals.

One interesting investigation I had was that of a murder-for-hire in one city that the suspect used a Google search to find the victim’s home address in another city.  Simple enough crime to plan.  Google the name, find the address, do the hit.  Except in this particular case, although the suspect Googled the correct name, there were two people with the same name in the same city and he picked the wrong one.  I called this case my “Sarah Connor” case.

Fortunately, we intercepted the hit before it happened and prevented a random murder on the wrong person (as well as preventing the murder of the ‘right’ person).  In a basic sense, the suspect used the technology of one of the most advanced computer systems in the world (Google….) to attempt a murder only to choose the wrong name in a Google search hit.  This type of criminal incompetence and carelessness is commonplace.  It is also the way that most get caught. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Hollywood’s version of high tech crime fighting.  Minority Report with Tom Cruise showed us that not only can crimes be solved with technology, but that crimes can also be prevented with technology.  As for the technology used in the movie, it could have only been more accurate had a predictive analysis computer system been used in place of the fortune-telling humans (“Precogs”) in a big bathtub.

In a turn-key surveillance system, no person is anonymous.  Whether it is a private business or government agency, no one is immune from potentially being watched, tracked, or reported.  Private businesses use facial recognition for both improving customer service by detecting your mood through facial expressions as well as preventing crime.

“…faces of individuals caught on camera are converted into a biometric template and cross-referenced with a database for a possible match with past shoplifters or known criminals.” https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/03/revealed-facial-recognition-software-infiltrating-cities-saks-toronto  

Criminals who try to avoid using technology are severely limited on the type of crimes they can commit.  That’s a good thing.  A drug dealer without a cell phone is like a taxi cab driver without a taxi.  It is part of the business and can be tracked, traced, monitored, intercepted, and forensically examined.  Technology is a natural and required part of any criminal’s operations.  Criminals not using technology are ineffective as criminals, for the most part.

Criminals who try to avoid surveillance technology in public, such as license plate readers and facial recognition are also extremely limited in the crimes they can commit since they would have to remain in their homes to commit crimes outside of public surveillance methods.  Even then, committing a crime in a home is not without the risk of being monitored, either by a government agency, a private corporation, or an electronic device plugged into an outlet.  If you own a Vizio television, consider yourself tracked, hacked, and sold to the highest bidder. http://www.theverge.com/2017/2/7/14527360/vizio-smart-tv-tracking-settlement-disable-settings

From Amazon’s Echo to an Internet-connected fridge, data is collected as it happens, and stored either locally on the device or on a remote server (or both).  Depending on how ‘smart’ a home is, every drop of water usage can be tracked, every door opening logged, and every person entering and leaving the home gets recorded.  This does not even include cell phone use that is tracked within the home by providers.  And the computer use!  The things we do on the computer leave traces not only on the hard drive, but also on the servers we touch with every www typed.  Criminals in their home are no more protected from being discovered than on the street.  This is a good thing.

As to the significance of some of these high tech smart home devices, consider that water usage can give inferences as to what was done in a home, such as cleaning up a crime scene…

 

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/12/police-ask-alexa-did-you-witness-a-murder/ 

During all the years of being a detective, I did trash runs.  Lots and lots of trash runs.  I hated the trash runs until I found good evidence.  Garbage smells really bad, especially during the summer.  Digging through garbage bags in a dumpster in the middle of a hot day can make the toughest person gag or puke.  But you can get some really good information on the criminals you seek. Did I mention it can smell really bad?

That is one of the reasons I really enjoyed moving into digital forensics.  Digging through the garbage of data on a hard drive is a lot easier on the nose than digging through a dumpster.  Plus, the information you get is sometimes a lot better than what you can find in a garbage can.  There are exceptions…you won’t find the murder weapon in a folder on the C:/ drive of a hard drive unless the murder weapon was a computer program. 

You would think that with the amount of technology available and already in place that police would be able to uncover more crimes, find more criminals, and be more effective.  When a smart home can email the home owner a photo of someone ringing the doorbell, newer cars come with pre-installed GPS tracking systems, and a fridge can record a live stream of residents in the kitchen, the ease of finding evidence should be easier…right?

Not quite.

That brings us to the biggest hurdle to crime fighting: incompetency and laziness.  Government agencies are not immune to the same human fallacies found elsewhere. There are hard workers in government just as there are hard workers in the private sector.  Same holds true for laziness and incompetence, which criminals take advantage.

In any case where electronic devices are not being seized for examination, evidence is intentionally being left behind.  I am not referring to the electronic devices that are difficult to find, like a camouflaged USB device hidden within a teddy bear. I’m talking about the cell phone sitting on the car seat of the suspect arrested for burglary.  Yes. I’ve seen it happen.  Part of the reason is that unless lead is flying, most criminal cases and dispatched calls are boring to the responding officer.  As an example, with a residential burglary, the suspect is usually gone and the victim is lucky if the officer even tries to recover prints from the scene.  Stolen car?  Oh well. Fill out the report and call your insurance company.

I have been out of police work for about 10 years and I had hoped this lack of urgency in police work has changed.  But apparently not.  I recently helped someone with their stolen purse from a gym.  I got the call first instead of 911, but that’s another story.  Anyway, I showed up to give some guidance and eventually the district officers arrived.  Even after being told that video cameras faced the parking lot, and that the suspect/s went inside another victim’s car, the officers said, “The cameras probably didn’t get it”. The manager of the gym even offered up the video and said the cameras face the victim’s car... but the officers they left without even asking to see the video.  After telling the officers that the suspect/s just used the stolen credit cards in a store less than 5 miles away and that the store surely must have cameras, one of the officers said, “We can’t get much from a store’s security cameras.  You just need to call your bank to cancel your cards.” End result: File a report.  Call the banks. Get a replacement driver’s license.  Yes.  This still happens.  And criminals thrive on it.

The irony with a lack of seizing electronic evidence is that for most of the forensic examiners in law enforcement, they love to dig and dig and dig and dig through data to find the smoking gun.  It is the lifeblood of what they do.  If only the devices were seized and given to them.  Case in point:  I was called to exam a laptop of a missing teenager, six months after she was reported missing.   The detective simply did not put any reliance on a laptop, in which the teenager was religiously using for social media, as a source of important evidence.  The teen’s body was later found buried less than 5 miles from the police department where this detective drank coffee at his desk, with the laptop sitting downstairs in evidence for months.  I would have loved to examine that laptop ON THE SAME DAY the teen was reported missing.  It was virtually useless by the time I got it.

Seeing that tech should make it easier for police work, it should make it easier for writers of fiction.  It doesn’t.  I read (and write) a lot.  Technology can ruin good fiction.  No longer can a fictional criminal live his or her life under the radar.   Even the good guys can’t avoid ‘the radar’.   The Jack Reacher series should have been set in the 80s, because there is no way that Jack Reacher can roam the country without ever ringing some bells in surveillance tracking technology and live only with the technology of a single ATM card.  I was lucky that my undercover work was before the Internet really took off.  Backstopping an ID today requires way more than it did when I was undercover.

Writing fiction set in today requires knowing technology, because any scene that should have technology but doesn’t simply makes that scene unbelievable.  Same with Hollywood. Seriously.  It gets harder and harder to watch a movie that intends to be realistic without realistically using technology.   Show me a movie where no one is texting anywhere in a scene and I’ll show you a movie where technology is selectively ignored for the sake of simplicity at the cost of plausibility.

I can hear it now.  Police work is hard.  It’s not easy to get search warrants.  Not every department has a forensic unit.  We are too busy to solve crimes.  We are short-staffed. We don’t get enough training.  Blah blah blah.  I’ve heard it before and proved it can be done time and time again.  I have always believed that 10% of law enforcement do 90% of the work while 90% of law enforcement try to pawn off the remaining 10% of the work (while fighting over taking credit for it).  If just another 10% of law enforcement suddenly got a sense of urgency to require high tech investigations be a part of every crime scene, we’d reduce crime stats in half and solve twice as many crimes.

Now if only I can find a book or movie that doesn’t pretend technology doesn’t exist..

 

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Want to know how to break into DF/IR?

I see the digital forensics training market reaching a saturation point in some aspects.  Most, if not all, forensic software companies provide training, govt agencies provide internal training, individuals provide training, every college looking for a new revenue stream is adding forensic programs for training, and a new forensics book comes out every few weeks or so.  Add that to those who can teach themselves and you have DF/IR training market that is fat.  By the way, if you can teach yourself forensics by gobbling up every crumb you can find, you will have a long career in this field. 

There have been a lot of blog posts, articles, forums, and opinions posted online about how to break into the field of DF/IR.  Here are a few decent links, and of course, a Google search will find dozens more. You will see by the dates that it has been years of the same question being asked...

https://digital-forensics.sans.org/blog/2010/08/20/getting-started-digital-forensics-what-takes/ 
http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/it-security/breaking-into-the-digital-forensics-field-melia-kelleys-path/
https://www.reddit.com/r/computerforensics/comments/1o2s5x/looking_to_get_into_computer_forensics/
http://www.techexams.net/forums/jobs-degrees/99839-looking-enter-into-digital-forensics-field-need-advice.html
http://smarterforensics.com/2016/08/so-you-want-to-break-into-the-field-of-digital-forensics/
https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-become-a-digital-forensic-examiner-974633
https://articles.forensicfocus.com/2011/10/07/advice-for-digital-forensics-job-seekers/

The common theme is asking, "How do I get into digital forensics?" when the better questions to ask are, "Which college program will work best for me?", "Which discplines in DF/IR should I focus on?", "Which programming languages are relevant?", "Which software should I learn?", "What are hiring managers looking for?".  

You won’t usually find this topic constantly being brought up in other career fields. For example, if someone wants to become a doctor, there isn’t much to the answer other than, “go to a medical school.”  If someone wants to become a lawyer, the answer is typically, “to go a law school.”

To become a digital forensics analyst, there isn’t an answer like “go to a digital forensics school” because there are more than a few ways to get into the field depending upon your individual and unique situation.  On top of that, simply getting a degree in digital forensics doesn’t automatically make you qualified.  Many forensic analysts fell into the job while working another job, like a police detective suddenly having to do computer-related crime cases, takes lots of training, and works major cases.  The rest have to fight to get into the job or to at least get through the door.

My brief opinion on getting into the field is that a new person needs one or more (sometimes all) of these:

  • Certs and/or degrees
    • Helps check the boxes on the job application
    • Shows that you sat in a chair and passed tests
    • Shows that you paid lots of money (or may have lots of student loans)
    • Shows that you can complete a system of training/learning
    • Implies you should know what the paper says you should know
  • Experience in a close-enough-related-job
    • Shows that you have been doing the job, or close-enough-related-job
    • Implies that you have competence, since you were being paid
  • Competence
    • Hardest way to get in without something else (experience and/or education)
    • Difficult to get past the application if blindly applying to jobs if you can’t check the required boxes
    • Have to prove yourself beforehand (write a software program, discover something useful for the field, etc...)
    • Nothing is implied, because you need proof of competence.

Each of these require time.  If you want to get into a good digital forensics job within a year, and the only thing you have ever done is read a blog about forensics, then consider that it might not happen as quick as you would like.  If you don’t want to spend any money (on tuition, tools, books, training courses), then you must be able to learn open source forensics…and teach yourself.  Lastly, you need capability.  Not everyone can or wants to spend the time and money to become competent.  You have to put in your dues to get the potential rewards.  If you don't work on being able to do the job, simply wanting to do it is not going to be enough.  A lot of people want to be a cyber hero, but not a lot of people want sacrifice for what it takes to get there.

A brief note about the exceptions and exceptional people: I have met some exceptions to the rules of getting through the DF/IR door. I am referring to those who are mostly self-taught and have no education to speak of (insofar as a technical education).  If you are one of those, then you go through the back door.  You just need to find someone to show you where the back door is.  If you are an exception, that means that you can be given a desk and computer and from Day – One, you can do magic.  If you are not an exception, you will be knocking on the front door.

So, to be able to at least submit an application, get qualified enough to check the boxes.  One of the things I have never understood is that some (many?) jobs require a bachelor’s degree in virtually anything in order to apply for a job that clearly does not require a college education.  If that is the kind of job you want, which is a considerable amount of federal jobs, get the degree or you will not even be able to check the one box that is required to apply, no matter your experience (for exceptions, refer to the previous note). 

On picking a training path, be choosy because it’s not only money you are spending. It is also your time.  I started a college program once, only to quit because I could have taught it since the ‘professor’ never ever never even imaged a hard drive, nor did a forensic exam ever.  It was clearly a new revenue stream for the college.  I’ve taken a few private courses that had the effect of me trying to forget what I learned because so much of it was incorrect or out-of-date.  I’ve been "taught" how to testify in court by someone who never testified in court…or tried a case…or ever practiced law.  Conversely, I have taken some outstanding training, college courses, and attended superb conferences that made all the difference in the world.  The trick is sorting through which is which.  Those are the questions to ask.

Disclaimer: I am but a lowly forensic guy, not the end-all-be-all or know-it-all (I learn something every day).  These are just my opinions.  I have hired and fired employees, passed and failed students, taught and been taught forensics.  But like everyone, experiences, perceptions, education, and opinions vary.

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Reminder for the last discount for the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide Online and On demand course.

If you were thinking of doing it, this is the best time since the $599 online course will only be at a discount of 60% for less than two weeks (until Dec 31, 2016) for only $235.  PLUS, registering before December 31, 2016 gets you a print copy of the book, the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide shipped to you. Unfortunately, the book is only included for US/Canada registrants since shipping a book outside the USA or Canada costs more than the book.  Shipping to some countries costs more than the entire X-Ways online course costs.  I’m happy to ship a copy, but the shipping fees must be added.  Best bet is to order a book online that delivers locally without extreme duty fees.

Register with the 60% discount using this URL: 

Just a few notes on the online XWF course based on emails I have received:

Time limit:  You have a year to view the course as often as you want.

Software: Not included.  You don’t need it for the course, but I think you’ll want to have a license.  If you want to know how XWF compares to other tools, you can get 12 hours of instruction showing how it works and much of what it can do.  Once you start using XWF, you’ll begin to see that it can do a lot more than what the manual or any course can teach. 

About forensics: The online course doesn’t teach forensics, except to demonstrate features of XWF.  Don't expect to learn 'what is the registry' in this course.  It's all about X-Ways Forensics, to get you up and running right away.

Competence: If you go through this course (and you have a foundation of digital forensics knowledge), you’ll have enough knowledge to use XWF on a real case.

Students: If your school uses XWF, you’ll be much better off learning XWF online away from class to get the full benefit of using XWF.   School programs can only teach so much with software in courses where they must teach everything.

The book:  Through Dec 31, 2016 the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide book (print copy) is included with your tuition (USA/Canada shipping only).   There is no other book on X-Ways Forensics available.  The next edition may not be for another year or two.  Get your copy as part of the course.  The cost savings of a book + 12 hours of X-Ways Forensics training at $235 is the best deal you can find anywhere.

Course updates: The course may be updated throughout the year when XWF has enough smaller updates to add up to a new course or updated lessons.  You get that as part of your registration.  Revisit the course throughout the year, anytime you want, from anywhere online.

XWF as a primary or other forensic tool:  If you currently use or plan to use XWF in your work, get some training.  Either this course or a course from X-Ways AG, or somewhere.  XWF is not a tool for self-learning when you need it for casework tomorrow.  Especially for a primary tool, get some training.  This course gives you the information to use it either as your primary tool or secondary tool.

If you have any questions, hit me up J

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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The most important tool in DFIR that you must have...

One of the workstations I have ranks up there in the clouds insofar as hardware.  You name it, this machine has it.  Lots of it.  Crammed into a huge case with lots of lights and liquid cooling hosing.  I call it the “Monster”.  No matter what I throw at it, it chews it up, spits it out, and smiles asking for more.  Seriously.  It’s a dream machine of a forensic workstation.

One thing about it however is that no matter how fast it is, or how cool it looks, it doesn’t really do forensics.  You see, I have this other little computer (laptop).  It’s really really small and light.  No CD/DVD drive, one USB port, and stuffed with high-speed hardware, but not that you can stuff that much in such a small laptop.  I call this one my “Little Baby”.

When I go somewhere, I take my Little Baby.  It does everything I need for the most part.  I would not want to try to index a terabyte or more to index, or try to do any serious processing with it.   However, this Little Baby does forensics work.  I've done forensic work in the offices of lawyers, in front of judges, and in court.  Each time using my Little Baby (I have a few, but they are all my Little Babies).  

I mean this in the manner that it’s not the machine (such as my Monster or Little Baby), but the examiner, that does the forensic work.  If you forego “processing” and “indexing”, the forensic machine comparisons in speed become irrelevant and everything comes down to the examiner.  I mean everything.  The best examiner can use X-Ways or Encase or FTK or any open source forensic tool on practically ANY computer when it comes down to deep-diving into electronic evidence.  The machine allows the examiner to use a software to access the media.  That’s it.  A million gigs of RAM won’t let you examine the registry any faster than 4GB will.  Your eyes and the stuff between your ears will get the job done.

When I teach forensics, one of the things I try to get across is that it is the person that gets the job done.  Flashing lights are cool on a computer, but if the examiner doesn’t know how (or where) to find evidence on a hard drive, then the flashing lights are not going to help.  If the examiner does not have critical thinking skills to investigate (or now commonly being described as "hunting") threats or evidence, then the tools are useless.

Don’t get me wrong. I like fast machines.  I need fast machines for some work.  But that work isn’t typically “forensics” but rather automated processes like imaging, or indexing, or some specific processing or decryption. That type of work requires computing power to get done.  Once that part is done, it comes down to fingers, eyes, and brain to do the real work.

I’m not advocating to not have a Monster machine or two, but I am advocating to rely on your brain, not the machine to the analysis.

BUT.  There is always an exception to forensic machines.  If you choose to have a RAM-sucking, space-eating, and overly-hungry-system-resource software as your primary forensic software, you are going to need a Monster machine to run it.  And if you expect to take that resource-intensive software outside the lab for use, you’ll need a 15-pound laptop along with a small RAID box to bring along so you can use it.

Be able to do anything you need to do with anything you have at hand at anytime needed. I've been around a lot of people with a lot of excuses ("I can't do this without my particular workstation or my particular software or etc...").  The world of DFIR is similar to the military. Make do with what you got.  Excuses not accepted.

I’m sure Picasso could paint a masterpiece using peanut butter and jelly.   An effective digital forensics analyst could do worse than being able to run a forensic application on a little bitty laptop if she knows what she is doing.  The most important tool in DFIR work?  That's your brain.  Think critically.  Link inferences.  About hardware and software?  Those are just things to let your brain connect to the evidence.  

In short, become a Picasso of forensics.  

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Learn by drawing out the experiences of others

I have taught digital forensics at the University of Washington (on and off) for the better part of a decade.  I have also been a guest speaker at several universities for longer than that.  One thing that I learned from the continuing education courses is that most of the students are already working adults with many already working in the IT industry, and I take advantage of their experience by incorporating it into the classroom.

For example, I have had attorneys (prosecutors, public defenders, and civil attorneys), police officers, federal agents, software developers (some were founding members of commonly used software), and a few ‘white hat’ hackers in my courses.  Students who did not fit in any of those categories sat right next to them.
 

Can you imagine what you can learn being a student sitting next to the developer of a major Microsoft program for 10 weeks? Or next to a federal agent who was involved in well-known national security investigations?  Or a homicide detective of a large police department?

That was the benefit to the students: being able to absorb information from fellow students with years, if not decades, of experience.  On the first day of every course, I stress this to the students.  Take advantage of the 10-minute breaks, not by checking your email, but by talking.  Those 10-minutes breaks produce more relevant information than can be gained from a Google search, because you can talk to the people who have done it, do it every day, and want to share.  Rather than 'read' about a case, speak directly with someone who does those cases.

As for me, you better believe I took advantage of the students with experience, all for the betterment of the courses and myself.  In my prior law enforcement career as a city cop, I was a detective that worked undercover and was assigned to state, local, and federal task forces as well as investigated cyber-related crimes that spanned the planet.  I also investigated multi-national organized crime groups (drug trafficking organizations, gun trafficking, outlaw motocycle gangs, street gangs, human trafficking, counterfeit goods, etc…), terrorist cells in the United States, along with a few other crimes that took me across several states.

I give my brief background not to brag, but to show that even with my experience, I gained something from every class from nearly every person and I asked for it directly.  When I found that I had a software developer from a major software company in class, who worked on a program that I use daily…I used him for discussions in class on incorporating that program into forensic analysis reporting and visualization.  Every student in the course may not have recognized the value of speaking with someone instrumental in that one program, but we all learned new ways to use something in forensics that we would not have learned otherwise.  

Courses with law enforcement and attorneys as students also created a great amount of material and discussion based on how they do different aspects of the same job, in their different positions, titles, and agencies.  Hearing from a federal public defender talk about how forensics fits in with her work alongside a prosecutor talking about the same information but applied differently really gives the entire room a wide spectrum of knowledge.  Throwing in the investigator perspective rounds it all out. 

Granted, I’m only talking about continuing education programs.  I’ve taken and spoken at a few college degree programs where the students are students and not yet even in the workforce.  That type of class is an entirely different animal where the instructor had better know what she is talking about.  And yes, I’ve taken courses where a professor had never connected a write-blocker to a hard drive, ever…not in real life or in the classroom…never testified…never created a forensic image…yet teaches the students to do this by reading a book.  That is not the case with most schools, but certainly a few.  

In the course I teach at the University of Washington (I will call it “my” course…), I give students maximum hands-on, maximum time on the keyboard, maximum time working with the tools and maximum real-life information so that they are not only near-competent to competent, but marketable.  I call my course, “Brett’s Digital Forensics Bootcamp” (without the yelling). I don’t like wasting time and I want to teach a course that I wish I could have taken when first starting out.  That means getting your hands on data as much as possible.

One last point about continuing education programs (for higher education courses)

A conversation I had last week about DFIR certifications ended with me talking about continuing education and college degrees as perhaps a better route over certifications for certain people.  For anyone already in the IT field, I find that a continuing education certification from a major university to be ‘better’ than a vendor certification, or if not better, certainly worthwhile.  I say ‘better’ in the sense that most people in IT already have some certs on their resume.  They may not be digital forensics certs, but technology-related certs nonetheless.  Certs also expire, or are discontinued because a business goes out of business or decides to create a new cert.  Having a continuing education cert from the University of Name Your College doesn’t expire, has more clout (or is that now called klout?) through regional accreditation, and is most times considered graduate-level instruction. 

Another benefit of a continuing education course is that since the courses are not vendor specific, the whole gamut of tools can be explored along with the SPECIFICS OF THE JOB.  Vendor courses focus so much on the sale and function of their tool, little time is left to the other aspects of the job that are just as important, if not more important.  I’ve taken well over a dozen vendor courses and I cannot remember any of the courses teaching forensics, other than what their tool does for forensics.

Not knowing how to collect, analize, and present defensible evidence effectively makes the examiner ineffective, incompetent, and can ruin a case.  Especially when someone has not been taught "what is evidence", finding the elusive evidence is near impossible if you don't know what it is.  Even police officers must know the elements of a crime in order to know what a crime looks like.

Yes, you must know how software works, but you also must know the job.  It’s like driving.  You may know how to drive a car, but if you don’t know the rules of the road, you will end up getting ticketed or worse.

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