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Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR) is an aspect of cybersecurity focused on identifying, investigating, and fixing cyberattacks.

Digital forensics refers to collecting, preserving, and analyzing forensic evidence in cyber security incidents.

Combined with an incident response plan can get your business up and running quickly, identify vulnerabilities and close any gaps that have opened up.

In addition, you’ll have the evidence needed to press charges against cybercriminals who target your operations or support a cyber insurance claim in case of a breach.

In this blog post, we’ll talk about:

  • What DFIR is and why it’s important;
  • The steps in the DFIR process;
  • The role of DFIR in cyber security;
  • What skills and tools are needed to do DFIR?

A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Forensics and Incident Response

DFIR is a multidisciplinary set that seeks to contain an attack in real time. It fuses traditional methods—such as response planning and rehearsing IT architecture documentation, playbook development, and more—with techniques that digital forensics specialists would use.

Whereas traditional incident response teams may also use some investigative elements, DFIR carries a greater emphasis on digital forensics.

What Is Digital Forensics?

Digital forensics is a branch of forensic science that examines digital technology. Analysts focus on recovering, investigating, and reading material found on digital devices. 

Their work aims to gather evidence so they can prepare to prosecute cyber criminals who maliciously attack companies. Digital forensics allows you to gather evidence to be better prepared for prosecuting criminals attacking your company.

Organizations have a variety of reasons for using digital forensics, including:

  • If you’re unsure whether or not a cyber attack took place;
  • The full extent of the impact of a cyber attack is not known;
  • The cause of a cyber attack isn’t always known;
  • Without proof of a cyber attack, no resolution can be offered;
  • Speed is the name of the game, especially if there’s still an attack or compromise going on;
  • If you find evidence of a cyber-attack on your system, it’s best to act quickly.

What Is Incident Response? 

Incident response (IR) is a business’s plan when experiencing a cyber security attack. A cyber incident could be defined as any event that compromises the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of data or information – core principles of information security and often referred to as the “CIA triad.”

Incident response (IR) plans are designed to keep IT infrastructure running while minimizing an incident’s negative effect. 

These frameworks help organizations recover quickly and build cyber-resiliency in the process. From a broader perspective, IR frameworks may help you bolster defenses, preventing attacks and incidents from affecting businesses in the first place.

DFIR and It’s Role In Cybersecurity

After a cyber security incident, most people’s top priority is getting back up and running. However, it is also essential to find out what was done and how to prevent it from happening again.

DFIR is a comprehensive forensic process that investigates an attack and helps determine an intrusion’s complete life cycle, leading to a final root cause analysis. 

DFIR specialists will gather and inspect a wealth of information (including user logs, web server access logs, firewall logs, vault audit logs, and VPN audit logs) to determine who attacked them, how they got in, what tools were used to compromise their systems, and how to close those security gaps.

This information is often used as evidence when a case is made against the attackers. Digital forensics helps investigators gather and preserve digital data that has been uncovered.

The Digital Forensic Process: What Does It Involve?

Digital forensic investigations are a common way of proving or disproving information in law and legal proceedings. They can be used for solving criminal cases, civil cases, theft, and so on.

The three steps in the digital forensic process are:

  • Any media duplication must be an exact copy, meaning it copies the original, so nothing is lost. In addition, investigators use specialized software tools, hardware devices, or both to prevent tampering with the original media.
  • Once forensic specialists duplicate files or technology, they will collect all the evidence they find to support or disprove their hypothesis and help reconstruct the events of an incident. This assists in determining what happened during a hack and acquiring conclusions about how hackers compromised systems.
  • Analysts create a report that non-technical personnel can understand, sharing their findings and conclusions with those who commissioned the investigation. These reports are passed on to law enforcement or, in most cases, appear in court.

What Kind Of Digital Forensics Data Do Analysts Collect?

Digital forensics analysis can come in handy when finding the truth about computer usage and information leakage. 

There are many pieces of forensic data that an entrepreneur can look for:

  • Disk images: A bit-for-bit copy of a digital storage device, usually of a hard drive or hard disk. Disk images may also be taken from other storage mediums, such as USB drives.
  • Memory images: Memory images are a computer’s RAM, which can be recorded by special software. They contain a wealth of information often unavailable on the hard drive. In addition, some advanced techniques or threat actors are invisible to traditional virus and malware scanning.
  • Application data: Investigators will turn to application data if you don’t have access to a drive or memory image. This includes host logs, network device logs, and software-specific logs.

Why Is Digital Evidence Important?

Digital evidence differs from other kinds of evidence in that it’s information transmitted or stored on a digital device during an incident. For example, have you ever seen a detective show? 

They help solve crimes by collecting evidence that supports them and recreate the events surrounding the crime. Digital evidence works the same way: it, too, comprises our digital device’s activities and information during an incident.

For digital evidence to be classified as genuine and trustworthy, it should meet the following criteria:

  • It is admissible in court;
  • It’s authentic;
  • It is complete;
  • It is very reliable;
  • It is believable.

DFIR investigators will collect and securely store evidence to prevent contamination, thus ensuring that it remains admissible in court. 

But it’s not the only kind of evidence they collect; investigators may also assess and document:

  • Analogical evidence: Comparable incidents or events that may be relevant to the case.
  • Anecdotal evidence: Stories and accounts collected from other parties that may support a theory when analyzing a situation. While anecdotal evidence is not admissible in court, it can be helpful during an investigation.
  • Circumstantial evidence: Circumstantial evidence is indirect evidence that draws inferences from facts. This can be useful during an investigation. 
  • Character evidence: Character evidence includes everything that can be used in a trial to help judges and jurors decide an outcome, such as expert testimony about a person’s intent or motive. 

How To Store Digital Evidence

Gathering digital evidence of a ransomware infection should seem easy, but reality says otherwise.

There are two types of digital evidence: volatile and non-volatile. 

  • Volatile items can only be accessed with the device plugged in, but they’re gone forever without power. 
  • Non-volatile evidence is stored in permanent memory, usually read-only or on a CD or other disc type.

Investigators may be unable to power down devices if it could destroy their digital evidence, so the best thing to do is take a captured image or log file process before turning off the computer.

At the start of their investigation, DFIR investigators will typically begin by creating a digital “image” of the victim’s hard drive. 

This process provides a replica of what you see on the original drive and allows them to explore and test hypotheses without worrying about changing evidence or potentially deleting it.

The imaging process will generate cryptographic hash values, which verify the drive’s authenticity. Wherever possible, evidence gathered is stored in a secure location, and you can access it later. 

We also have physical security to ensure that nothing can happen to the evidence and that no items can be lost or compromised.

What Are The Qualities Of A Good Digital Forensics Investigator?

DFIR is a multidisciplinary field that relies on the skills of soft-skills specialists and the technical knowledge of specialized investigators. As a result, a DFIR team may include individuals with different skills, traits, and experiences contributing to their role. 

By no means a complete list, those skills, and experience may include:

  • File system forensics: File system forensics is a subset of digital forensics. The process allows us to analyze machines on the data storage level, which usually includes remote devices.
  • Memory forensics: Memory forensics helps analyze volatile forms of evidence like system memory and detect signs of malware, even when traditional protection mechanisms like an antivirus don’t find anything.
  • Network forensics: Network forensics is the process of investigating what happens in a digital network. Did an infection originate from an email or link? Understanding this process can be helpful, as it’s one that digital forensics experts encounter regularly.
  • Malware triage: The malware triage service is designed to help DFIR teams identify particular malware strains and better address the damage it causes.
  • Log analysis: Log analysis is a valuable skill for identifying abnormal activity happening on a system. Automating this task saves time, but you’ll want to ensure that your log analysis software is reliable and accurate.
  • Software development: Software development and technology change rapidly, so staying up-to-date with trends is essential for DFIR teams. Being able to code and script can be a huge asset.
  • Communication: How you communicate with team members, other organizations, and management can often determine how successful an incident response is.
  • Analytical thinking: Analytical thinking is a challenging but essential skill for DFIRs. It takes focus to gather relevant information and challenge your assumptions before testing them out. Even if you’re three steps ahead, it’s worth slowing down to reflect on analytical thinking.
  • Teamwork: It’s important to remember that incident response is a high-stakes experience, and team members must know how to work together as a cohesive unit. It takes commitment, communication, and responsibility to succeed.

DFIR and SOAR

Security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) technology can automatically identify and respond to security incidents. 

SOAR solutions leverage machine learning to analyze security events and can automate complex security processes to respond to them, making them a powerful tool in the fight against cybersecurity threats. 

They even integrate with other security tools, such as firewalls and endpoint security, that are vital in our increasingly digital world. Heimdal®’s Endpoint Detection Response (EDR) Service and Extended Detection and Response (XDR/SOC Service) are such examples of unified endpoint security.

DFIR experts and service providers are commonly responsible for incident response in an organization. SOAR is an extension of the DFIR role, enabling automating responses for many types of incidents. With cyber-attacks growing in volume and sophistication, this can be very important to ensure full incident coverage and timely response. SOAR can also reduce human errors in the DFIR process.

DFIR experts can work together with SOAR systems. SOAR solutions can respond to clear-cut incidents that are easily detected and that have established response playbooks. This reduces the manual work for DFIR experts, which gives them time to focus on threat hunting, investigation, and responding to complex threats.

Conclusion

When you need more in-house resources or strategy to achieve success, you need to partner with a trusted team that’s been there before. This has led many organizations to seek external consultants or third-party providers with the skills to handle digital forensics and incident response.

Heimdal®’s Threat-hunting & Action Center platform helps you respond swiftly to threats by providing you with systemized reports and immediate action on potential risks, online threats, and vulnerabilities. 

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Author Profile

Gabriella Antal

SMM & Corporate Communications Officer

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Gabriella is the Social Media Manager and Cybersecurity Communications Officer at Heimdal®, where she orchestrates the strategy and content creation for the company's social media channels. Her contributions amplify the brand's voice and foster a strong, engaging online community. Outside work, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her dog.

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