Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Frustration as Motivation

"Because I don’t know everything, I don’t know anything."

by Lukas Bieri from Pixabay 
I’ve heard many different variations of this self-destructive phrase from information security people over the course of my career.  We make ourselves our own worst critics because we compare ourselves to the leading thinkers and creators in our respective specialized tribes such as digital forensics, penetration testing, malware reverse engineering, and on and on. It can lead to self-defeat regardless if someone has been in the industry a long time or is just getting started.  This self-defeatist attitude can cause us to convince ourselves that we don’t have anything to contribute unless we’ve written books, created a popular tool, given standing room only talks at Black Hat, or have Twitter feeds followed by ten thousand people.

No matter where you are in your career, you can contribute and make a difference.  You should use the fact that you don’t everything as motivation.  It’s impossible to master everything about a particular field of information security. I got my start in digital forensics and build a very successful career both as an examiner and eventually building and leading digital forensic teams for large global corporations.  I can guarantee you with metaphysical certainty that I didn’t know everything about digital forensics even though I have taught others to do it at certain points in my career.  I still feel woefully inadequate because I can’t script to save my life. 

Don’t let the fact that there is too much to know demoralize you, but rather use it as motivation.  Use that frustration as the spark you need to go out and learn more.  I remember Rob Lee telling something to a SANS digital forensics class that has stuck with me ever since. He started off the class by telling the students that he wanted them frustrated.  He went on to explain that if they weren’t frustrated with all of the information that was going to be coming at them it meant that they already knew it or that they didn’t care.  Find a topic that interests you and use your frustration of not knowing that topic to motivate you to learn and, in turn, teach others.

The good example that I can come up with from my personal experience has been in the area of cryptocurrencies. I find them endlessly fascinating, and endlessly frustrating.  Every day there seems to be some new concept that is introduced into the cryptocurrency world that I don’t understand and it. makes. me. nuts. I can’t stand not understanding a concept in an area that I’m passionate about and the frustration of not knowing motivates me to learn as much as I can.  I remember when I first finally got a solid grasp of Bitcoin and then looked at Ethereum in despair.

Use your frustration to spur you to learn more and set goals for yourself.  Public speaking is a great way to motivate yourself to learn more. If you want to learn something, teach it. Pick some topic where you will do a presentation at a local chapter of some security organization or local conference.  It doesn’t have to be something ultra-advanced or esoteric. There are plenty of people who would benefit from and appreciate a good presentation on how DNS works, understanding IPv4 vs IPv6, or how to investigate malicious emails. It never ceases to amaze me at how some of the most popular talks at conferences deal with basic concepts that everyone needs to know. You want to fill a room at a conference or a local security organization chapter event? Do a well-done presentation that introduces people to a concept that everyone needs to understand to be successful in their careers.

Don't give into self-defeat by comparing yourselves to others who know more than you. Use that frustration to spur yourself to become better and make others better.  You'll be doing yourself a favor and helping many other people along the way.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Application Era of Digital Forensics

I started in digital forensics in 2002 which seems like a lifetime ago when I look at the digital forensics world today compared to back then.  One of the primary changes is that the center of gravity for host-based digital forensic examination has moved from file systems to applications.  There has been quite a bit of discussion about this trend over the years so it’s not a unique observation on my part, but I’ve certainly watched in wonder as digital forensics methods and tools have changed to adapt to this reality.

Around the turn of the century, the primary focuses of host-based digital forensic examinations tended to be web browser artifacts, document and photo metadata, file system artifacts, operating system log files, and email parsing.  Forensic examinations weren’t exclusively focused on these areas, but most digital forensics exams would involve at least some of them as their core components.  If you had proficiency in these areas, there was an excellent chance that you were a competent digital forensics examiner.   In my mind, the key differentiator at that time was whether an examiner understood file systems well enough where they could understand and articulate concepts such as how date and file data manifested itself inside of a master file table.  If I interviewed someone for a job and they told me that there were only four date stamps inside of NTFS master file table record, I knew they were likely just someone who drove a digital forensics tool and didn’t really understand much more beyond that.

As I look back on it now, the relatively lack of diversity in digital forensic tools at that time makes more sense to me. It was very common for a digital forensics shop to use EnCase as their primary digital forensic tools along with FTK as their indexing/email forensics tool.  FTK was also nice to have around for a second opinion on what EnCase was telling you in regards to the file system. Both tools did web parsing reasonably well, but many of us used the very fine NetAnalysis tool for web browser history forensics.  We didn’t have a vast diversity of tools because there just wasn’t the business case for them. Our existing tools generally did what we needed them to do.

If someone were writing the history of digital forensics, the advent of Magnet Forensics Internet Evidence Finder (IEF) would likely show up at the start of a chapter talking about the switch of focus from file systems to applications.  IEF became very popular, very quickly because it was designed with a focus on parsing application information whether that application was part of the operating system such as a native web browser or whether it was a third-party application such as a third-party web browser, chat program, email client, P2P client, and the like.  Of course, it also did a great job parsing a whole host of operating system artifacts just like the other tools did, but the long-term secret sauce of IEF was that it was focused on application artifacts in an era when apps were becoming the primary focus of consumer technology use and spending.

IEF was a great product and, as it turns out, the sign of a great business strategy in the making.  The computing world was moving from one where user activity was focused on things such as web browsers and office applications to one where users were using an amazing diversity of applications primarily on their mobile devices.  It’s not that we gave up using web browsers and office applications, but they were just part of the greater mix of applications being used.  Just take the Apple store as an example.  It opened up in 2008 with about 500 applications available on it and by 2017 it had over two million applications.  

This rise in applications drove changes in the development of digital forensic tools. The companies that have focused their development work on applications have generally done very well for themselves.  Magnet is an obvious example since it went from a one-person shop to a global digital forensics company by riding this wave.  Other examples are MSAB, Cellebrite, and Oxygen Forensics who have done very well for themselves by also capitalizing on this trend and creating products to address it. 

It’s not that the core digital forensics skills such as file system forensic analysis are obsolete. Far from it.  You still have to load yourself up on materials such as the magnificent Harlan Carvey books especially if you are investigating network intrusion cases in an enterprise computing environment, but now you also have to understand how operate as a digital forensics examiner in this application-centric mobile device era.

What do I mean by this?  We’re in this new era of digital forensics where examiners are going to have to get comfortable with being even less able to rely on their forensic tools for support than before.  You can’t rely on your commercial tools any more than you did in the past file system focused era.  In that era, the name of the game was going beyond your tools and understanding the underlying technology well enough so that you could validate the output from your tools.  That’s still the case now.  In this new era, the commercial forensic tool developers will use their finite development capacity to support only the applications that are broadly used and whose support will drive people to purchase their tools. Because of this, the digital forensics community will need to provide their own support for applications that aren’t covered by commercial digital forensic tools. 

What will this support look like? It’s going to come in the form of enterprising digital forensics people using their knowledge of parsing technologies such as JSON and SQLlite to create their own tools and scripts to investigate these artifacts.  In some cases, this will take the form of creating scripts that leverage existing digital forensic tools or creating tools/scripts that work as standalone solutions.  As always, we’ll still need to have the ability to double check what these tools are telling us so that we can validate the results. I use the term “have the ability” because I understand that an individual examiner can’t be expected to know everything such as having the ability to comfortably parse a particular Python script or JSON artifact.  The ability to do these things might take the form of being able to leverage someone you know to do this work for you.  Digital forensics is a team sport and one of the most important tools in your inventory is a list of people who are willing to help you out when you are in a bind.

Cryptocurrency wallets are a good example of all of this.  Cryptocurrencies are the primary payment system of the online underground economy and wallets are applications that allow people to interact with cryptocurrency blockchains so they can send and receive transactions. There are just too many wallets for the digital forensics companies to provide support for all of them and it’s going to take the community creating tools to parse them to provide the necessary support for cryptocurrency related examinations.  This is not an original point on my part since Jad Siliba made this observation about cryptocurrency forensics at the 2019 Magnet User Conference (MUS2019) this year and those comments have stuck with me ever since. 

Various and Sundry

I’m still trying to get back into a monthly blogging tempo and I have another AFoD interview in the works as I write this.  I’m coming towards the end of a very heavy conference presentation schedule this year that started about the time of MUS2019 and will end for me at the end of the upcoming Dallas Crimes Against Children Conference.  Thanks to everyone who came out so see me speak on Business Email Compromise and Virtual Currency Investigations over the past four months or so.  I’ve enjoyed getting to meet so many new people as well as to finally meet some people who I had only known electronically through the years.   I’ll still be doing some presentations in 2019, but I think the heavy digital forensics conference season is pretty much done for me and most of the people I know who do speaking on this circuit.  I’m going to be working on developing some new talks for the 2020 season.

I basically wrote this blog post in my head while at the MUS2019 conference after listening to people like Jad and attending some great talks.  For example, Alex Brigoni did a magnificent talk called “Unsupported Apps. What Can Be Done? A Methodological Approach to Mobile App Forensics” that covered must how digital forensics people should be approaching this new application-centric era.  He’s a razor sharp fellow and you can find him over at his blog and on the Twitters.  You should also read an interview he did on the Magnet blog regarding application forensics.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The End of the Golden Age of Incident Response Billing

If you squint, you can see the beginning of the end of the golden age of incident response billing. I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends because I lived through the golden age of eDiscovery billing.  Incident response will no more go away than litigation requiring the production and review of electronic documents, but the current billing gold rush won’t continue indefinitely.

I left law enforcement and entered the private sector around the time electronic discovery was really gaining steam and interest in the legal world.  This resulted in legions of eDiscovery consulting outfits of various sizes and abilities getting into the game and charging confiscatory prices for their work.  The billing was such during this period where it took nothing for litigation to result in some eDiscovery consulting outfit making six or seven figure sums for their work.  Law firms and their clients eventually rebelled against being ridden like ponies off into the sunset by the eDiscovery industry and started to bring as much of the work in-house as they could get away with to avoid expensive outsourcing. Electronic discovery cost containment became a very important buzzword in the legal world. 

The gold rush also brought in more competition and interest from giant consulting firms who could offer competitive pricing and performance because of their economies of scale and ability to invest in technology and utilize their existing infrastructure. This resulted in quite a few small to medium sized eDiscovery firms being bought up, merging with other firms, or just going out of business entirely.  It wasn’t that eDiscovery went away or that it suddenly became inexpensive, but the market eventually worked things out where the larger and more efficient firms could offer better speed, cost, and quality to the legal world and their customers.

We’re going to see something very similar in the incident response world. We’re still very much in the information security version of WWII’s Happy Time where the field of battle still greatly benefits the attacker.  That isn’t changing anytime soon and maybe it never will change.  I wrote about this information security happy time in 2011 and very little has changed since then.  We just have to look at the headlines to see the near constant reports of major breaches in all sectors of business and government. These successes are going to continue to result in high demand for incident response services and these services are not cheap.  Many a fortune has been made in recent years by sharp people who set up incident response consulting practices and billed themselves into a king’s ransom. The costs associated with a breach can be immense due to the costs of the technical response itself, resulting litigation, paying for identity theft protection if personally identifying data was involved, and everything else associated with recovering from a breach including potentially rebuilding all or some of the impacted organizations information technology infrastructure.

These costs have created a growing cyber insurance market where organizations are making cyber insurance part of their risk management process and basically paying the insurance companies to help shoulder the risk for them.  The key rule to understand in an arrangement like this is the age old one that says that “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”  When a breach happens, the insurance companies will be the ones dictating the response since they are the ones shouldering the cost. These firms will have already entered into agreements with trusted incident response providers to provide their services at pre-determined billing rates.  The insurance companies will be driving cost containment in this area because their financial health will depend on it.  This will put an end to the current golden age of incident response billing which will put downward pressure on the profits of organization providing incident response capabilities and the salaries of those who work in those organizations. I expect that we’ll see similar consolidation on the industry where it will be hard for smaller incident response firms to survive unless they develop practices based on providing affordable response services to smaller entitles that might not have insurance and the resources to pay expensive incident response fees. That said, there will still be plenty of money to be made in this area and it’s still going to be a great industry to be in if you are interested in developing the incident response skills that will be in demand for a very long time to come. 

In the short term, the gold rush is going to continue because the insurance market is still developing in this area.  The sun will start to set in the medium term as the insurance industry becomes more mature in this area and an increasing amount of breach victims are covered under some form of cyber insurance.  I think we’ll also see legislation helping drive some of the cost containment where organizations that take certain proactive steps such as being compliant with some information security standard or another will have their liability capped and that will also help drive costs down.  In the long term, stick a fork in the golden rush that is the current incident response market. It will be done.