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DOJ R&D Agency Awards Grants For Speedier Digital Forensics

The US Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice is funding new incident response technology to assist law enforcement.

The US Department of Justice's R&D agency has awarded grants for the development of new tools that speed up the process of examining hard drives in the wake of a cyberattack or other types of criminal cases.

A one-terabyte hard drive can take law enforcement more than 16 hours to image, according to the DOJ's National Institute of Justice (NIJ), but new technology developed by grant awardee Grier Forensics speeds up that process to about three hours. The NIJ also awarded a grant to the Rand Corp. for a cloud-based storage solution for the imaged and archived evidence pulled from the drives. Disks are imaged to ensure that the evidence isn't modified during analysis.

Martin Novak, a computer scientist at the DOJ's NIJ, says the goal is to expedite the process of cyberattack and other digital forensics investigations. "There's so much evidence to be examined, and some of the cases are rather complicated," Novak says. "That's where state and local government run into a backlog," he says, unlike the FBI and US Secret Service, which typically have more resources to handle such investigations.

"It takes 16 and a half hours to image a one terabyte drive … so do the math with five [drives]. We are looking to reduce the amount of time" it takes to gather that evidence, he says.

Ultimately, it also may change the way law enforcement gathers evidence from drives. "Up until now, it was get and image everything. But … you don't really need everything [on the drive]," just the user data, he says. Grier's so-called "sifting collectors" technique identifies and copies the relevant sectors of the drive with that data, he says.

"This is not only going to save time, but it may save on the back-end what you need to store on a given case," Novak says.

Temp files, history logs, and browser artifacts, as well as registry and system metadata, all are considered relevant sectors of the drive in an investigation, according to Grier Forensics.

Jonathan Grier, principal of Grier Forensics, says his firm initially received funding from DARPA under its Cyber Fast Track program that led to the initial development of a "sifting collectors" prototype. Grier says the technology now is in the field testing stage under the NIJ contract, and is based on Linux and Mac OS, and soon will support Windows as well, he says.

"The goal of this is to incorporate it into a few other things" including forensic duplicator tools and forensics products along the lines of enCase and AccessData's, he says. The final product will be finished by June of 2016, he says.

[The so-called Equation Group epitomizes the goal of persistence in cyber spying--reprogramming hard drives and hacking other targets such as air-gapped computers--and points to possible US connection. Read Newly Discovered 'Master' Cyber Espionage Group Trumps Stuxnet.]

In an enterprise's incident response investigation, though, the speed of imaging a disk isn't always a factor, notes Ryan Kazanciyan, technical director of FireEye's Mandiant group.

"From a law enforcement perspective, if they are working on a smaller-scale [case], imaging [speed] is important," Kazanciyan says. But for most cases that Mandiant investigates at enterprises, the priority is to be able to conduct large-scale analysis of live systems, so speed of imaging isn't as crucial, he says.

"The key is leads and indicators [of compromise], regardless of where the system is, and to be able to search from it across the endpoints" as well, he says.

Mandiant typically images specific disks once the incident response investigation requires a "deep dive" into certain ones, he says. "An average investigation has 50,000 systems … we do a deep-dive of 100 of them, and five or 10 of them need a full image," he says. "In incident response, organizations are struggling because they don't have broad visibility to search and analyze" the attack, he says.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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