ACPO, triage tools, and the LE computer forensics backlog
An article on PoliceProfessional.Com (original article has vanished and been replaced with new content) contains the following statement:
“ACPO is currently working on a new software tool that will allow forensic officers to operate locally and uncover information almost instantaneously. “What we’re very keen on doing is looking for a forensic triage tool that police officers or forensic officers can use locally. One that is quite simple, one they can ask questions of, such as, ‘in this computer is there the following…?’,” said Ms Williams. “The triage tool can pull that out for them.” She said the current backlog is one of e-crime’s biggest problems and that ACPO is close to identifying the right product to handle it.”
[Note: I’ve been told that the ACPO is looking to the vendor community for this solution. Rereading this quote, I suspect I should focus less on “working on new software” and focus more on “identifying the right product”. I’ll leave the post as originally written but will insert commentary.]
The apparent expectation that a tool will significantly address the backlog is rather disturbing for three reasons:
1) The tool will not provide context. It may indicate the presence of an encrypted file container on the system but cannot determine its contents. Or that file sharing is present, but not what it was used for. Or that seven different chat programs are in use, but not the information going through them. As several people have pointed out, these PBF tools will get the low hanging fruit and gather disparate facts but cannot put do any analysis to show relationships, or lack thereof. Further, we’ll need to err on the conservative side and may well end up with a lot of false positives.
2) Technology, and the criminal’s use of technology, advances rapidly, often more rapidly than the tools. This is why DriveProphet’s author is very willing to add new capabilities as issues are reported to him. It is why Digital Detective Group’s Blade product has plug in modules that they can develop and release as new capability is required. Keeping a triage tool current requires ongoing investment by the developer and ongoing training for the users. A one time investment in the technology and training will quickly lead to a situation where the triage tool is missing relevant information. [Note: ACPO’s looking to a vendor solution should address the support issue. Keep in mind maintenance costs when investing in a tool. Some vendors charge upwards of 20% of the initial investment each year for maintenance.]
3) I’ve not seen any well researched study on the LE computer forensics backlog that we can use to determine where resources should be spent. The ACPO and others believe that the the backlog is in the triage stage. This appears to be valid, particularly for getting evidence back to the owners, but I suspect that “fixing” the triage stage will simply move the backlog further downstream, even more so if the number of false positives is high.
I also wonder why the ACPO is working on a new tool rather than working with a vendor of an existing tool to tune it to their particular needs. A number of good, well supported, triage tools already exist – Drive Phrophet, Blade, EnCase Portable, e-fense’s suite (now Access Data’s?), to name a few. The ACPO money might be better spent creating a fund to provide training on these existing tools rather than bringing another tool to an already crowded market. [Note: This point is moot given the feedback I received, noted above.]
Triage is an incredibly valuable process, particularly in time critical situations where limited resources are available. Triage, in the medical environment, is performed by trained specialists using diagnostic tools. Computer forensics triage tools often are designed to be used by anyone with minimal training. Witness the Microsoft press release about COFFE – “According to a Microsoft spokesperson ‘an officer with even minimal computer experience can be tutored—in less than 10 minutes—to use a pre-configured COFEE device.'” I believe there is value in this sort of tool when used as part of a well designed forensics process. I fear that, due to vendor marketing, budget issues, and backlog pressures, these tools will be deployed without the necessary framework to properly support them.
Allow me to close with some questions:
- Why is the ACPO creating a new tool rather than using an existing one? [Note: Addressed by feedback, noted above.]
- Who will use these triage tools and how much training will they get? If they’re designed for lab use to address the backlog will they stay in the lab? Can they safely be deployed earlier in the process?
- Are there any well documented studies on the LE computer forensics backlog?
- What other options are available for addressing the backlog? Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m very interested in finding ways for the private sector to assist LE with computer forensics and this would be one option.