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Vulnerabilities / Threats

11/9/2009
05:16 PM
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Microsoft Forensics Tool For Law Enforcement Leaked Online

Security experts worry cybercriminals will figure out ways to circumvent the tool, which was discovered in a file-sharing forum

A forensics tool built by Microsoft exclusively for law enforcement officials worldwide was posted to a file-sharing site, leaving the USB-based tool at risk of falling into the wrong hands.

COFEE is a free, USB-based set of tools, which Microsoft offers only to law enforcement, that plugs into a computer to gather evidence during an investigation. It lets an officer with little or no computer know-how use digital forensics tools to gather volatile evidence.

COFEE was posted, and then later removed, from at least one file-sharing site, but security experts say the cat is now out of the bag. While many forensics tools with similar functionality as Microsoft's Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE) are available, security experts still worry the bad guys will use their access to the tool to figure out ways to circumvent it.

Chris Wysopal, CTO at Veracode, says the danger is that a detection tool will be written for COFEE so that the bad guys can cover their tracks. "Someone will build a detector so that machines will wipe themselves or give rootkit-like fake answers if this USB is inserted into a computer," Wysopal says.

One researcher who got a copy of COFEE online says bad guys could abuse the tool by taking one of its DLLs and loading it into a compromised machine's memory, where it then dumps stored clear-text passwords to a file.

Microsoft says it's investigating reports that some version of COFEE may have been made available online, but that it's not worried about workarounds. "Note that contrary to reports, we do not anticipate the possible availability of COFEE for cybercriminals to download and find ways to 'build around' to be a significant concern," said Richard Boscovich, senior attorney for Microsoft's Internet Safety Enforcement Team, in a statement. "COFEE was designed and provided for use by law enforcement with proper legal authority, but is essentially a collection of digital forensic tools already commonly used around the world. Its value for law enforcement is not in secret functionality unknown to cybercriminals -- its value is in the way COFEE brings those tools together in a simple and customizable format for law enforcement use in the field."

Boscovich said Microsoft "strongly" recommends not downloading "any technology purporting to be COFEE outside of authorized channels -- both because any unauthorized technology may not be what it claims to be, and because Microsoft has only granted legal usage rights for our COFEE technology for law enforcement purposes."

"We will take action to mitigate any unauthorized distribution of our technology beyond the means for which it's been legally provided," he said.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with Sophos, says while there are plenty of tools that perform similar tasks to COFEE, it's not very likely to be abused for nefarious purposes. But, "that can't be ruled out," he says.

Cluley is more concerned about criminals learning the inner workings of COFEE. The real danger is if they can "determine if it is being run on one of their PCs and take precautionary steps to prevent the computer crime community from finding out what they've been up to," he says.

But getting a copy of COFEE won't likely expose its "secret sauce," says Jamie Butler, a director at digital forensics firm Mandiant. Attempting to reverse-engineer it to evade it probably isn't necessary for the bad guys, anyway, because the suite of tools in COFEE collects so much data that they already can get lost in the "noise," Butler says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. 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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