Forensically Sound Cold System Analysis

December 1st, 2020 by Oleg Afonin
Category: «Elcomsoft News», «Tips & Tricks»
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As opposed to live system analysis, experts performing the cold analysis are not dealing with authenticated user sessions. Instead, cold analysis can be viewed as an intermediary measure with live system analysis on the one end and the examination of a forensic disk image on another. Why and when would you use cold system analysis, what can you do and what benefits does it bring compared to the traditional approach? Read along to find out.

What is cold system analysis?

Cold system analysis is frequently used in the field, yet the term itself is not quite as common as “live system analysis”, so it needs a bit of an explanation. The term was born after the “cold boot attack”, which in turn defines a very specific kind of attack allowing to extract secrets (such as encryption keys) from the system’s volatile memory. In order to perform a cold boot attack, an expert boots the computer from a portable media (typically a USB flash drive). This is exactly what is used during the cold system analysis: the examiner boots the computer from a USB drive and attempts to gain access to the system and/or extract evidence from the computer.

What is “live system analysis” then? In live system analysis, the examiner attempts to gain control over an authenticated user session. This is only possible if the computer being investigated is turned on, and at least one user has an active session. The cold system analysis presumes that the initial state of the computer is powered off or hibernated, and no authenticated user session is available.

The opposite of live system analysis is the examination of forensic disk images, which are bit to bit captures of the user’s physical storage devices. Even if something happens to the data stored in the disk image during investigation, it is always possible to go back to the original file.

The risks of cold system analysis

Live system analysis is the riskiest of the three methods. An authenticated user session may be full of surprises. There may be unknown (and potentially dangerous) background processes running, and any available evidence can potentially self-destruct at any time. If the computer is connected to the network, much worse can happen, while breaking the network connection may trigger unknown, potentially dangerous tasks. Live system analysis is never forensically sound, and should be only performed after carefully weighing the risks.

Working with forensic disk images is the safest method, which at the same time is the most labor-intensive and time-consuming. This is the most forensically sound method.

Cold system analysis sits in between. By booting the user’s computer from a known good portable media, experts have access to a clean system with familiar forensic tools. However, it’s still the suspect’s computer, and user mistakes make room for irreversible accidental modifications. One of the most common mistakes, by the way, would be hasting to resetting the user’s Windows account password, which instantly and permanently locks the ability to access EFS encrypted files and any passwords stored in Web browsers such as Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. However, when used carefully, cold system analysis can deliver significant benefits over the analysis of forensic disk images without most of the risks associated with live system analysis. Results obtained with cold system analysis may or may not be forensically sound depending on the tools and techniques you used.

Cold system analysis step by step

We made forensically sound cold system analysis easy with Elcomsoft System Recovery (ESR). Unlike competing tools, most of which are Linux-based, Elcomsoft System Recovery is based on the familiar Windows environment, thus being an ideal tool for investigating Windows computers.

Once you prepare a bootable USB drive by running the Elcomsoft System Recovery installer, you will be able to perform a wide range of tasks depending on whether or not the system partition is encrypted.

Remove BitLocker protection

If the system partition is encrypted with BitLocker, there is very little you can do before unlocking the volume. In this scenario, you can boot into Elcomsoft System Recovery, capture the volume’s encryption metadata, bring the data to the lab and attempt to recover the original BitLocker password by running Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery.

Depending on the configuration of protectors used on the particular BitLocker volume (which mostly depends on whether or not the system has a TPM module), you may or may not be able to unlock the volume. More in Unlocking BitLocker: Can You Break That Password?

If you have a password or BitLocker recovery key to the system volume, ESR can unlock and mount the volume using the built-in BitLocker functionality of Windows PE. Once this is done, you can continue analyzing the disk, which is a huge time saver compared to the traditional imaging and decrypting workflow.

Collect existing passwords

Once you boot into Elcomsoft System Recovery, the tool will probe existing Windows account for common passwords. If a password is discovered, it will be displayed to allow further analysis.

Break Windows account passwords

What if the passwords are unknown? If this is the case, you will need to run an attack to recover the original passwords. To do that, you’ll need to extract encryption metadata (hashes), and use that data in Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery to launch the attack.

Unlock disk encryption

If the computer had not been shut down but was discovered in a state of hybrid sleep or hibernation, you may be able to find on-the-fly encryption keys (OTFE keys) to disk encryption tools such as BitLocker, TrueCrypt, VeraCrypt or PGP. These keys may be found in hibernation or page files. During cold system analysis, you can extract these files and save them on external media for further analysis with Elcomsoft Forensic Disk Decryptor.

Search for encrypted disks

Speaking of disk encryption, cold system analysis with ESR allows finding encrypted disks by running a thorough automated search.

Search for encrypted virtual machines

Along with disk encryption tools, encrypted virtual machines are among the most common cover-up tools. You can look for encrypted virtual machines in ESR, which, again, is an automated process. Once the tool finds an encrypted VM, it automatically saves the encryption metadata that you can use in Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery for breaking the original password.

Create forensic disk images

There is only so much you can do at the cold system analysis stage, and making disk images is one last shortcut you can take to speed up the investigation. Traditionally, experts would disassemble the computer, take the disks out and make their images with a specialized write blocking disk imaging device. ESR offers a shortcut, allowing to make forensic disk images without taking the drives out.

The quick and dirty of cold system analysis

Cold system analysis is as forensically sound as you make it. In certain cases, you may afford losing the “forensically sound” part for the sake of efficiency. A good example is emergency unlock of ex-employees’ Windows accounts, re-assigning administrative privileges or simply restoring the computer’s functionality by removing maliciously or accidentally set Syskey protection.

Unlock Windows accounts

The need for unlocking accounts of Windows users is common in organizations with under-administered networks. ESR makes this extremely easy to do; changing a password of any Windows user is literally a matter of several clicks. Note, however, that this is far from being forensically sound: if you reset a user’s password, any data encrypted with Windows DPAPI (e.g. encrypted file system, stored passwords etc.) will be permanently lost. This may still be acceptable in many cases, so here is the how-to article: How to Unlock Windows Systems with a Bootable Flash Drive

Assign administrative privileges

Assigning administrative privileges to a certain Windows account may be needed to restore full access to the system if the administrative password is lost or unknown. ESR makes this possible in a few clicks.

Remove Syskey protection

If you haven’t heard about Windows Syskey protection, you are not alone. This feature does not provide any real security, but has the potential if becoming a great hassle if someone who knows about the feature accidentally or maliciously sets a Syskey password. We have an article on Syskey passwords: How to Reset or Recover Windows SYSKEY Passwords.

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Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery

Build high-performance clusters for breaking passwords faster. Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery offers zero-overhead scalability and supports GPU acceleration for faster recovery. Serving forensic experts and government agencies, data recovery services and corporations, Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery is here to break the most complex passwords and strong encryption keys within realistic timeframes.

Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery official web page & downloads »

Elcomsoft Forensic Disk Decryptor

Elcomsoft Forensic Disk Decryptor offers forensic specialists an easy way to obtain complete real-time access to information stored in popular crypto containers. Supporting desktop and portable versions of BitLocker, FileVault 2, PGP Disk, TrueCrypt and VeraCrypt protection, the tool can decrypt all files and folders stored in crypto containers or mount encrypted volumes as new drive letters for instant, real-time access.

Elcomsoft Forensic Disk Decryptor official web page & downloads »

Elcomsoft System Recovery

Reset passwords to local Windows accounts and Microsoft Account and perform a wide range of administrative tasks. Assign administrative privileges to any user account, reset expired passwords or export password hashes for offline recovery, and create forensic disk images. Elcomsoft System Recovery is ready to boot thanks to the licensed Windows PE environment, allowing administrators to access locked computers.

Elcomsoft System Recovery official web page & downloads »