Social media has become a notable source of potential forensic evidence, with social media giant Facebook being a primary source of interest. With over 1.35 billion monthly active users as of September 30, 2014 [1], Facebook is considered the largest social networking platform.

Kivu is finding that forensic collection of Facebook (and other sources of social media evidence) can be a significant challenge because of these factors:

1. Facebook content is not a set of static files, but rather a collection of rendered database content and active programmatic scripts. It’s an interactive application delivered to users via a web-browser. Each page of delivered Facebook content is uniquely created for a user on a specific device and browser.  Ignoring the authentication and legal evidentiary issues, screen prints or PDF printouts of Facebook web pages often do not suffice for collecting this type of information – they simply miss parts of what would have been visible to the user – including, interestingly the unique ads that were tailored to the specific user because of their preferences and prior viewing habits.

2. Most forensic collection tools have limitations in the capture of active Internet content, and this includes Facebook. Specialized tools, such as X1 Social Discovery and PageFreezer, can record and preserve Internet content, but gaps remain in the use of such tools. The forensic collection process must adapt to address the gaps (e.g., X1 Social Discovery does not capture all forms of video).

Below are guidelines that we at Kivu have developed for collecting Facebook account content as forensic evidence:

1. Identify the account or accounts that will be collected – Determine whether or not the custodian has provided their Facebook account credentials. If no credentials have been provided, the investigation is a “public collection” – that is, the collection needs to be based on what a Facebook user who is not “friends” with the target individual (or friends with any of the target individual’s friends, depending on how the target individual has set up their privacy settings) can access. If credentials have been provided, it is considered a “private collection, ” and the investigator will need to confirm the scope of the collection with attorneys or the client, including what content to collect.

2. Verify the ownership of the account – Verifying an online presence through a collection tool as well as a web browser is a good way to validate the presence of the target account.

3. Identify whether friends’ details will be collected.

4. Determine the scope of collection – (e.g. the entire account or just photos).

5. Determine how to perform the collection – which tool or combination of tools will be most effective? Make sure that that your tool of choice can access and view the target profile. The tool X-1 Social Discovery, for example, uses the Facebool API to collect information from Facebook. The Facebook API is documented and provides a foundation for consistent collection versus a custom-built application that may not be entirely validated. Further, Facebook collections from other sources such as cached Google pages provide a method of cross-validating the data targeted for collection.

6. Identify gaps in the collection methodology.

a. If photos are of importance and there is a large volume of photos to be collected, a batch script that can export all photos of interest can speed up the collection process. One method of doing so is a mouse recording tool.

b. Videos do not render properly while being downloaded for preservation, aeven when using forensic capture tools such as X-1 Social Discovery. If videos are an integral part of an investigation, the investigator will need to capture videos in their native format in addition to testing any forensic collection tool. It should be noted that there are tools such as downvids.net to download the videos, and these tools in combination with forensic collection tools such as X-1 Social Discovery provide the capability to authenticate and preserve video-based evidence.

7. Define the best method to deliver the collection – If there are several hundred photos to collect, determine whether all photos can be collected. Identify whether an automated screen capture method is needed.

8. If the collection is ongoing (e.g., once a week), define the recurring collection parameters.

Kivu is a licensed California private investigations firm, which combines technical and legal expertise to deliver investigative, discovery and forensic solutions worldwide. Author Katherine Delude is a Digital Forensic Analyst in Kivu’s San Francisco office. To learn more about forensically preserving Facebook content, please contact Kivu.

[1] http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/ Accessed 11 December 2014.

Internet technology provides a substantial challenge to the collection and preservation of data, metadata (data that describes and gives information about other data) in particular. This blog post from Kivu will explain the factors to consider in using web pages in forensics investigations.

The challenge stems from the complexity of source-to-endpoint content distribution. Originating content for a single website may be stored on one or more servers and then collectively called and transmitted to an endpoint such as a laptop or tablet. For example, a mobile phone in Germany may receive different content from the same website than a phone in the United States. As content is served (e.g., sent to a tablet), it may be routed through different channels and re-packaged before reaching the final destination (e.g., an online magazine delivered as an iPhone application.)

From a forensics perspective, this dynamic Internet technology increases the difficulty of identifying and preserving content that is presented to a user through a browser or mobile application. To comprehend the issues concerning forensics and Internet technology, we need to understand what web pages are and the differences between the two types of web pages: fixed content (static web pages) and web pages with changing content (dynamic web pages).

What is a Web Page? graphic

A web page is a file that contains content (e.g., a blog article) and links to other files (e.g., an image file). The content within the web page is structured with Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a formatting protocol that was developed to standardize the display of content in an Internet browser. To illustrate HTML, let’s look at the following example. The web page’s title, “Web Page Example,” is identified by an HTML <title> label and the page content “Hello World” is bolded using a <b> label.

graphic2Web pages that are accessible on the Internet reside on a web server and are accessible through a website address known as a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL (e.g., http://kivuconsulting.com/). The web server distributes web pages to a user as the user navigates through a website. Most visitors reach a website by entering the domain in a URL bar or by typing keywords into a search engine.

Static versus Dynamic Web Pages

Web pages may be classified as static or dynamic. The difference between static and dynamic web pages stems from the level of interactivity within a web page.

A static web page is an HTML page that is “delivered exactly as it is stored,” meaning that the content stored within the HTML page on the source server is the same content that is delivered to an end-user. A static web page may:

• Contain image(s)
• Link to other web pages
• Have some user interactivity such as a form page used to request information
• Employ formatting files, known as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

A dynamic web page is an HTML page that is generated on demand as a user visits a web page. A dynamic page is derived from a combination of:

• Programmatic code file(s)
• Files that define formatting
• Static files such as image files
• Data source(s) such as a database

A dynamic web page has the behavior of a software application delivered in a web-browser. Dynamic web page content can vary by numerous factors, including: user, device, geographic location or account type (e.g., paid versus free). The underlying software code may exist on the client-side (stored on a user’s device), the server-side (stored on a remote server) or both. From a user’s perspective, a single dynamic web page is a hidden combination of complex software code, content, images and other files. Finally, the website delivering dynamic web page content can manage multiple concurrent user activities at one time on the same device or manage multiple dynamically-generated web pages during one user session on a single device. This behind-the-scenes management of user activity hides the underlying complexity of the numerous activities for a single user session.

Web Pages Stored on a User Device as Forensics Evidence

To a forensic examiner, web page artifacts that are stored on a user device may have significant value as evidence in an investigation. Web page artifacts are one type of Internet browser artifact. Other Internet artifacts include: Internet browser history, downloaded files and cookie files. If the device of interest is a mobile device, evidence may also reside in database files such as SQLite files.

Forensic examiners review Internet artifacts to answer specific questions such as, “Was web-mail in use?” or “Is there evidence of file transfer?” Forensic analysis may be used to create a timeline of user activity, locate web-based email communications, identify an individual’s geographic location based on Internet use, or establish theft of corporate data using cloud-based storage such as Dropbox.

Web Content Stored on a Server as Forensics Evidence

Depending on the type of investigation (e.g., a computer hacking investigation), a forensic examiner may search for evidence on servers. Server-side content may be composed of stored files such as log files, software code, style sheets and data sources (e.g., databases).

Server-side content may directly or indirectly relate to web pages or files on a user device. If a user downloaded an Adobe PDF file, for example, the file on the server is likely to match the downloaded file on the user’s device. If the evidence on a user device is a dynamic web page, however, there may be a number of individual files that collectively relate as evidence, including: images, scripts, style sheets and log files.

The individual server-side files are component parts of a web page. A forensic examiner would analyze server-side files by investigating the relationship between the web page content on a user device and related server-side files. A forensic examiner may also review server logs for artifacts such as IP address and user account activity.

Factors to Consider in Web Page Forensics Investigations

1. Analyze the domain associated with web page content. Collect information on:

a. Owner of the domain – WHOIS database lookup.
b. Domain registry company – e.g., GoDaddy.
c. Location of domain – IP address and location of web server.

2. Conduct a search using a search engine such as Google, Yahoo or Bing. Review the first page of search results and then review an additional 2 to 10 pages.

a. Depending on the scope of the content, it may be worth filtering search results by date or other criteria.
b. It may be worth using specialty search tools that focus on blogs or social media.
c. Consider searching sites that track plagiarism.

3. Examine the impact of geo-location filtering. Many companies filter individuals by location in order to provide targeted content.

a. Searches may need to be carried out in different countries.
b. Consider using a proxy server account to facilitate international searches.

4. Use caution when examining server-side metadata. Website files are frequently updated, and the updates change file metadata. A limited number of file types such as image files, may provide some degree of historical metadata.

5. There is a small possibility that archival sites, such as The Wayback Machine, may contain web page content. However, archival sites may be limited in the number of historical records, unless a paid archiving service is used.

Kivu is a licensed California private investigations firm, which combines technical and legal expertise to deliver investigative, discovery and forensic solutions worldwide. Author, Megan Bell, directs data analysis projects and manages business development initiatives at Kivu. For more information about using web pages in forensics investigations, please contact Kivu.

The cloud is becoming an ever-increasing repository for email storage. One of the more popular email programs is Gmail, with its 15 GB of free storage and easy access anywhere for users with an Internet connection. Due to the great number of email accounts, the potential for large amounts of data, and no direct income, Google has throttled back on backups to lessen the burden on their servers worldwide.

This blog post is the start of a series of articles that will review Gmail collection options for computer forensic purposes. Kivu initiated a project to find the most efficient and defensible process to collect Gmail account information. The methods tested were Microsoft Outlook, Gmvault, X1 Social Discovery and Google scripts.

All four programs were run through two Gmail collection processes, with a focus on:

  • Discovering how the program stores emails.
  • Identifying whether the program encounters throttling? If so, how does it deal with it?
  • Determining if current forensic tools can process the emails collected.
  • Measuring how long the program takes to process the email, and the level of examiner involvement necessary.

Kivu employees created two Google email accounts for this analysis. Each email account had over 30,000 individual emails, which is a sufficient amount for Google throttling to occur and differences in speed to become apparent. The data included attachments as well as multi-recipient emails to incorporate a wide range of options and test how the programs collect and sort variations in emails. Our first blog post focuses on Gmvault.

What is Gmvault and How Does It Work?

Gmvault is a third party Gmail backup application that can be downloaded at Gmvault.org. Gmvault uses the IMAP protocol to retrieve and store Gmail messages for backup and onsite storage. Gmvault has built-in protocols that help bypass most of the common issues with retrieving email from Google. The process is scriptable to run on a set schedule to ensure a constant backup in case disaster should happen. The file system database created by Gmvault can be uploaded to any other Gmail account for either consolidation or migration.

During forensic investigation, Gmvault can be used to collect Gmail account data with minimal examiner contact with the collected messages. The program requires user interaction with the account twice – once to allow application access to the account and again at the end to remove the access previously granted. Individual emails can be viewed without worrying about changing metadata, such as Read Status, and/or Folders/Labels because this information is stored in a separate file with a .meta file extension.

How to Use Gmvault for Forensic Investigation

Gmvault needs very little user input and can be initiated with this command:

$> gmvault sync [email address]

We suggest using the following options:

$> gmvault sync –d [Destination Directory] –no-compression [email address]

“d” enables the user to change where the download will go, allowing for the data extraction to go directly to an evidence drive, (default: Usercloudgmvault-db)

“no-compression” downloads .eml files rather than the .gzip default. Compression comes with a rare chance of data corruption during both the compression and decompression processes so, unless size is an issue, it is better to use the “no compression” option. Download speed is unaffected by the compression, although compressed files are roughly 50% of the uncompressed size.

Next, sign in to the Gmail account to authorize Gmvault access. The program will create 3 folders in the destination drive you set, and emails will be stored by month. The process is largely automated, and Gmvault manages Google throttling. It accomplishes this by disconnecting from Google, waiting a predetermined number of seconds and retrying. If this fails 4 times, the email is skipped, and Gmvault moves on to the next set of emails. When finished with the email backup, Gmvault checks for chats and downloads them as well.

When Gmvault is finished, a summary of the sync is displayed in the cmd shell. Gmvault performs a check to see if any of the emails were deleted from the account and removes them from the database. This should not be a problem for initial email collections, but it will need to be noted on further syncs for the same account. The summary shows the total time for the sync, number of emails quarantined, number of reconnects, number of emails that could not be fetched, and emails returned by Gmail as blank.

To obtain the emails that could not be fetched by Gmvault, simply run the same cmd line again:

$> gmvault sync –d [Destination Directory] –no-compression [email address]

Gmvault will check to see if the emails are already in the database, if so skip them, and then download the skipped items from the previous sync. It may take up to 10 times to recover all skipped emails, but the process can probably be completed within 5 minutes.

Be sure to remove authorization once the collection is complete.

Now you should have all of the emails from the account in .eml format, stored by date in multiple folders. Gmvault can then be used to export these files into a more useable storage system. The database can be exported as offlineimap, dovecot, maildir or mbox (default). Here’s how:

gmvault-shell>gmvault export -d[Destination Directory] [Export Directory]

Following are the Pros and Cons of Using Gmvault:

Pros:

  • Easy to setup and run
  • Counts total emails/collected emails to quickly know if emails are missing
  • 50% compression
  • Can be scripted to collect multiple accounts

Cons:

  • No friendly UI
  • Needs further processing to get to a user friendly deliverable
  • Will sometimes not retrieve the last few emails

The enduring onslaught of data breach events such as the theft of 4.5 million health records from Community Health Systems or the recent staggering loss of information for 76m JP Morgan accounts continues to highlight the need for robust information security and the ability to proactively prevent and redress potential security incidents. In response, organizations have increased investment in better information security programs and supporting technologies. However, while more organizations may be better positioned to cope with data breach events, information security continues to lack appropriate coverage of cloud and mobile device technology risks.

Lags in InfoSec Deployment:

According to the 2014 Global State of Information Security® Survey of information, executives and security practitioners, organizational leaders expressed confidence in their information security activities (nearly three-quarters of study respondents reported being somewhat or very confident). However, the survey reveals gaps in the application of information security for cloud and mobile technologies. Nearly half of respondents reported that their organizations used cloud computing services but only 18% reported having governance policies for cloud services. Furthermore, less than half of respondents reported having a mobile security strategy or mobile device security measures such as protection(s) for email/ calendaring on employee-owned devices.

Real Issue is Lack of Knowledge

Gaps in cloud and mobile information security represent a broader trend that even exists in regulated industries. For example, in the 2013 Ponemon report, “The Risk of Regulated Data on Mobile Devices & in the Cloud”, 80% of IT professionals could not define the proportion of regulated data stored in the cloud and on mobile devices. The gap in information security does not appear to be limited to the deployment of polices and controls. Instead the potential issues with cloud and mobile information security stem from lack of knowledge concerning storage and use of data. As noted in the study “Data Breach: The Cloud Multiplier Effect” their organizations as having low effectiveness in securing data and applications in the cloud.

Reducing Cloud and Mobile Technology Risks

Developing an appropriate security posture for cloud and mobile technologies should begin with the realization that information security requirements for these technologies differ from traditional IT infrastructure. For example, the responsibility for storage and use of data in the cloud is shared by a greater number of parties—organization, employees, external vendors, etc. Additionally, contracts and written policies for cloud applications must specify more granular coverage for access, use, tracking and management of data. In the event of a potential security incident, possible sources of evidence, such as security logs, are stored externally and may require the assistance of specific employees or service providers.

The following considerations provide a starting point for the development of information security practices that are relevant to cloud and mobile technologies.

1. Identify security measures that are commensurate with cloud and mobile technologies.

a. Use security features that are built into cloud and mobile technologies. This includes access controls and encryption. Frequently, security features that would have prevented major cloud-based breaches (such as multi-factor authentication and text-to-cellphone warnings of suspicious activity) are already made available by cloud service providers. However, users of these services, whether individuals or large corporate clients, are frequently delaying full implementation of available security options due to cost or organizational concerns.

b. Implement additional security tools or services to address gaps in specific cloud and mobile technologies. For example, software-based firewalls to manage traffic flow may also provide logging capability that is missing from a cloud service provider’s capabilities.

2. If possible, use comprehensive solutions for user, device, account, and data management.

a. Manage mobile devices and their contents. Mobile device management (MDM) solutions enable organizations to coordinate the use of applications and control organizational data across multiple users and mobile devices.

b. Use available tools in the cloud. Cloud service providers such as Google Apps provide tools for IT administration to manage users, data and specific services such as Google Drive data storage. Unfortunately, many organizations do not utilize these tools and take risks such as losing control over email account access and content.

3. Maintain control over organizational data.

a. IT should control applications used for file-sharing and collaboration. Cloud- based tools such as Dropbox provide a robust method of sharing data. Unfortunately, Dropbox accounts often belong to the employee and not the organization. In the case of a security incident, IT may be locked out of an employee’s personal account.

b. Users should not be responsible for security. Organizations often entrust employees and business partners with sensitive data. This includes maintaining security requirements such as use of encryption and strong passwords. The organization that owns the data (usually its IT department) should have responsibility for security, and this includes organizational data stored outside of an organization’s internal IT infrastructure.

c. Encryption keys should be secured and available to IT in the case of a potential incident. With the advent of malware such as ransomeware that holds data captive and employees who could destroy encryption keys, securing encryption keys has become becoming a vital step in the potential recovery of data. If IT does not maintain master control over encryption keys, important organizational data could be rendered inaccessible during a security incident.

4. Actively evaluate InfoSec response and readiness in the cloud.

a. IT should have a means to access potential sources of organizational data. If data is stored on an employee’s tablet or at a third-party data storage provider, IT should have a vetted plan for access and retrieval of organizational data. Testing should not occur when a potential security incident arises.

b. Important digital assets should be accessible from more than one source and should be available within hours and not days. IT should have backup repositories of corporate data, in particular for data stored in cloud environments. This may include using a combination of cloud providers to store data and having an explicit agreement on the timing and costs required to retrieve data (in the event of an incident).

c. Audit systems should be turned on and used. Cloud providers often have built-in auditing capability that ranges from data field tracking (e.g., a phone number) to file revision history. The responsibility for setting up audit capability belongs to the organization. As part of using a cloud provider’s technology, the use of auditing should be defined, documented and implemented.

d. IT staff should have the knowledge and skills to access and review log files. The diversity and complexity of log files have grown with the number of technologies in use by an organization. Cross-correlating logs files across differing technology platforms requires specialized knowledge and advanced training. If an organization lacks the skill to analyze logs files, the ability to detect and investigate potential security events may be severely compromised.

5. Incident response plans and investigation practices should cover scenarios where data is stored in the cloud or on mobile devices.

Hackers have become more aggressive in seeking out data repositories. As organizations continue to adopt cloud and mobile technologies, information security must keep pace and extend the same internal focus on information security to external sources of organizational data. In particular, incident response plans should cover an increasing phenomenon—where attackers infiltrate an organization’s physical network solely to gain the keys to its cloud data repository.

The financial industry has long been known for “repackaging risk” – slicing and dicing investments to lessen their aggregate risk. During the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the repackaging process eventually reached the point where no one knew the real financial risk, who exactly was exposed to it, and where and how the risk was concentrated.

A similar process is happening today for cyber risk. Known as “Cyberization,” organizations are unknowingly exposed to cyber risk outside of their own organizations because they have outsourced, interconnected or otherwise exposed themselves to an increasingly complex network of networks. Their cyber risk starts with their internal corporate network and security practices and expands outward to their counterparties and affiliates, their supply chain and outsourcing partners. This blog post from Kivu will help explain what Cyberization is and the aggregate risk that organizations face.

How Leveraging Technology Leads to Increased Cyber Risk

Organizations today are relying more and more on technology to increase efficiencies and lower costs, making it possible to be more profitable while deploying fewer resources. This trend makes global cyberization more likely because the Internet is a tightly coupled system with extensive aggregations, societies and economies. With so much interdependency, any disruption in the system is likely to have a cascading effect.

Cyber risk management often assumes that risk is simply the aggregation of local technology and procedures within an organization. In general, risk managers focus mostly on what is going on inside their own walls. Today’s cyber risk managers need to understand, however, that cyber risk is not self-contained within individual enterprises. They must expand their horizons and look far beyond their boundary walls.

Factors to Consider in Cyber Risk Management

Internal IT Enterprise

Risk associated with an organization’s IT.

Examples: hardware, software, people and processes.

Counterparties & Partners

Risk from dependence on or direct interconnection with outside organizations.

Examples: Partnerships, vendors, associations.

Outsourcing

Risk from contractual relationships with external suppliers of service.

Examples: IT and Cloud providers, HR, Legal, Accounting and Consultancy.

Supply Chain

Risk to the IT sector and traditional supply chain and logistics functions.

Examples: Exposure to country, counterfeit or tampered products.

Disruptive Technologies

Risk from the unseen effects of or disruptions from new technologies – those already existing and those due soon.

Examples: Driverless cars, automated digital appliances, embedded medical devices.

Upstream Infrastructure

Risk from disruptions to infrastructure relied upon by economies and societies, electric, oil or gas infrastructure, financial systems and telecom.

Examples: Internet Infrastructure, Internet governance.

External Shocks

Risk from incidents outside the control of an organization that are likely to have cascading effects.

Examples: International conflicts, malware pandemic, natural disasters.

About Kivu

Kivu is a licensed California private investigations firm, which combines technical and legal expertise to deliver investigative, discovery and forensic solutions worldwide. Author, Elgan Jones, is the Director of Cyber Investigations at Kivu Consulting in Washington DC. For more information about cyber risk management and mitigating the effects of cyberization, please contact Kivu.

This article was originally published in 2014 and information contained in it may no longer be accurate. For more recent insights on digital forensics and other cybersecurity insights, visit our blog.

The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of Internet content, consisting of snapshots of web pages across time. The frequency of web page snapshots is variable, so all web site updates are not recorded.There are sometimes intervals of several weeks or years between snapshots. Web page snapshots usually become available and searchable on the Internet more than 6 months after they are archived. Kivu uses information archived in The Wayback Machine in its computer forensics investigations.

The Wayback Machine was founded in 1996 by Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat, who were also the founders of a company known as Alexa Internet, now an Amazon company. Alexa is a search engine and analytics company that serves as a primary aggregator of Internet content sources, domains, for theWayback Machine. Individuals may also upload and publish a web page to The Wayback Machine for archiving.

Content accumulated within the Wayback Machine’s repository is collected using spidering or web-crawling software. The Wayback Machine’s spidering software identifies a domain, often derived from Alexa, and then follows a series of rules to catalog and retrieve content. The content is captured and stored as web pages.

The snapshots available for a specific domain can be viewed by using the Uniform Resource Locator(URL) formula in the table below. Using the URL formula, the term DOMAIN.COM (bold) is changed to the domain name of interest and then entered into a browser’s Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) address field.

The Wayback Machine does not record everything on the Internet

A web page’s robots.txt file identifies rules for spidering its content. If a web page domain does not permit crawling, the Wayback Machine does not index the domain’s content. In place of content, the Wayback Machine records a “no crawl” message in its archive snapshot for a domain.

The Wayback Machine does not capture content as a user would see content in a browser. Instead, it extracts content from where it is stored on a server, often, HTML files. For each web page of content, the Wayback Machine captures content that is directly stored in the web page, and if possible, content that is stored in related external files (e.g., image files).

The Wayback Machine searches web pages in a domain by following hyperlinks to other content within the same domain. Hyperlinks to content outside of the domain are not indexed. The Wayback Machine may not capture all content within the same domain. In particular, dynamic web pages may contain missing content, as spidering may not be able to retrieve all software code, images, or other files. This is why the program is best at cataloging standard HTML pages. However, there are many cases where it does not catalog all content within a web page, and a web page may appear incomplete. Images that are restricted by a robots.txt file appear gray. Dynamic content such as flash applications or content that is reliant on server-side computer code may not be collected.

The Wayback Machine may attempt to compensate for the missing content by linking to other sources (originating from the same domain). One method to substitute missing content is linking to similar content in other Wayback Machine snapshots. A second method is linking to web pages on the “live” web, currently available web pages at the source domain. There are also cases where the Wayback Machine displays an “X”, such as for missing images, or presents what appears to be a blank web page.

HTML or other source code is also archived

The Wayback Machine may capture the links associated with the page content but not acquire all of the content to fully re-create a web page. In the case of a blank archived web page, for example, HTML and other software code can be examined to determine the contents of the page. A review of the underlying HTML code might reveal that the page content is a movie or a flash application. (Underlying software code can be examined using the “View Source” functionality within a browser.)

Wayback Machine data is archived in the United States

The Wayback Machine archives are stored in a Santa Clara, California data center. For disaster recovery purposes, a copy of the Wayback Machine is mirrored to Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt.

Kivu is a licensed California private investigations firm, which combines technical and legal expertise to deliver investigative, discovery and forensic solutions worldwide. Author, Megan Bell, directs data analysis projects and manages business development initiatives at Kivu.

For more information about The Wayback Machine and how it is used in computer forensics investigations, please contact Kivu.

Cyber incidents and data breaches are often the result of computer security misconfigurations in a system’s network or software. We have found at Kivu Consulting that many of the same misconfigurations have allowed an intrusion to happen, an exploit to be executed or data to be extracted from a particular system. Security misconfigurations can also hamper an incident analysis by limiting the availability of important artifacts needed for a data breach investigation.

Listed below are the top 10 common computer security misconfigurations and how to avoid them:

1. Logging left at default or turned off

Many system logs, especially ones found in the Windows operating system, have a default size limit or a limit to the number of days that historical logs are kept. Many times, due to budget or storage constraints, standard system logging is left at the default setting or is disabled. This includes: account login/logout, failed login attempts, software installed and logs cleared. Unfortunately, when logs are disabled from collecting data, there is no record of what is happening to a computer system.

When an intruder guesses passwords or accounts, without system logs a business has no way of knowing if they are or were under attack. If an intrusion isn’t detected until several months later, important system records may be unavailable. Kivu recommends that every organization review its system logging procedures and ensure that critical information is stored for a sufficient amount of time.

Also, companies often record only failed login attempts. Logging failed attempts is a great way to detect if a computer system has been attacked, but what happens if the intruder actually gets in? If a company is not tracking successful logins, it might not know if an attack was successful. Tracking all logins is particularly important if a security breach has occurred from an unrecognized IP address (e.g. an IP address in China.)

2. 50 servers, 50 log locations!

In today’s environment of virtualized and cloud based computing, a system administrator may have to monitor dozens of servers across the globe. To simplify this task, Kivu recommends that companies collect logs from all of their servers into a single, centralized logging system, preferably one that indexes their logs, scans them for security events and alerts the appropriate staff member if an event is detected.

A centralized logging system that provides easy search and retrieval of historical log data is crucial for an incident investigation. Kivu has sometimes lost days while investigating a security incident, when every minute is critical, because important log data was stored in as many as 50 individual servers.

3. Former employee accounts not disabled or deleted

When an employee leaves an organization and has security credentials that allow remote connection or login from a workstation located on a trusted internal network, the ex-employee’s accounts should be immediately disabled. Kivu has seen many times that an old and still enabled VPN/administrative account has been used for intrusion.

4. Same root or local administrator password for all public facing computers

We see this system misconfiguration more often than any other problem. Many organizations’ servers have their root account (if Linux), Administrator, or super user account set with the same password across all systems, including: web servers, cloud based servers, and servers in the DMZ. If an intruder should compromise the root password, they may be able to log in to all of of a company’s servers, including the server that may be acting as an identity manager (e.g. SSH key master or domain controller).

Kivu recommends that organizations follow the simple practice of treating their public facing (untrusted) servers with the mindset that they will be compromised. We advise creating a different set of account credentials for the servers that reside on their trusted internal networks.

5. Root or administrator accounts can connect from the Internet or DMZ

The convenience of being able to troubleshoot and perform system and network administration remotely often comes with a cost. SSH, by default, does not allow the super user account root to log in remotely. Yet in many security incident investigations, Kivu has found that the system administrators have been ONLY logging in as root and have enabled root login from remote locations. This convenience also allows anyone from outside the organization to brute force the root password.

We recommend requiring system administrators to log in to a VPN before connecting to perform administrative or systems work. With cloud located servers, a VPN may not be an option. In that case, companies can lock down administrative access to only a few IP addresses. They can combine this action with a security appliance or snort on the host to detect and drop IP address spoofing. They can also consider an RSA certificate solution.

6. Default password on [insert network device name here]

A simple search on the Internet for “default password on insert network device vendor name here” will return all known default passwords for the admin or manager accounts on an organization’s network firewalls, routers and wireless access points. Any device setup manuals available online will also have the default passwords listed. Kivu recommends that companies change these defaults at configuration time and before deployment to avoid security incidents.

7. Administrative accounts using simple passwords

We continue to see easily guessed passwords used for administrative accounts. Dictionary words can be brute forced, even when vowels are swapped out with symbols, for example: “honeybadger” becomes “H0neyB@dger.” We have found that using a randomly generated 16-character password for root and other administrative accounts is beneficial for reducing an organization’s attack surface.

8. Remote desktop, public facing, default ports, no firewall or VPN

There are numerous exploits and vulnerabilities for many popular remote access software services. Kivu often sees no firewall or VPN between the computer offering remote access and the Internet. To reduce an organization’s risk, we recommend that companies implement remote access with multiple layers of security, preferably in a DMZ, where remote traffic is forced through an intrusion detection system.

9. No access control lists – EVERYONE group is granted access to everything

This issue is often common in smaller companies, non-profits and the education sector. Everyone in the organization has full access to all of the data. If an employee account is compromised, the account may have access to HR and Financial information, even though the employee does not work for those departments. Kivu recommends that organizations classify their data for different levels of confidentiality or access. Once data is classified, access can be controlled with security groups.

10. Absence of a regular software patching routine

Many security exploits that lead to an intrusion or data breach can be avoided by simply keeping up on software updates and vulnerability patches. If your company is not keeping up with software vulnerability patching, your public webserver or your customer database server is a security breach waiting to happen. We recommend that organizations have procedures in place to ensure that timely updates are performed.

Conclusion

While many of the above computer security misconfigurations are well known, they continue to occur on a regular basis. Kivu recommends that organizations regularly monitor their system logs and check with their software vendors for security recommendations particular to their computer environment. We also recommend that companies keep up-to-date by reading security blogs and checking in with the SANS Internet Storm Center.

For more information about Common Computer Security Misconfigurations, please contact Kivu Consulting.

Many small-to-medium (SMB) size business owners believe that they aren’t important or large enough to be targeted by hackers. Unfortunately, we have found at Kivu Consulting that’s not the case. Smaller companies in general have fewer resources to spend on defending their networks, yet they have substantial assets that hackers can take. As larger organizations adopt better cyber defenses, many hackers specifically pursue SMBs as easier targets.

Hacking is becoming an increasingly serious threat to every type of company. Computer virus source code is readily available on the Internet, sometimes for free, making new malware easier to create by professional cybercriminals and “wannabe” hackers alike. Kivu recommends that all businesses have an Incident Response Plan in place, outlining the steps they’ll follow if a breach is suspected. With an Incident Response Plan, the SMB will be prepared to mitigate the damage and stop a bad event from turning into a business destroying disaster.

Here’s how a small business can get hacked and what hackers don’t want you to know:

#1. Anti-virus programs are generally ineffective

Malware is relatively easy to develop, and new malware is disseminated every minute, at an estimated rate of 80,000 instances per day. Often malware is targeted against a particular business or business sector, making it harder to discover because it is designed to avoid detection in specific environments. When malware is targeted against a particular victim, it will almost certainly get through.

Most anti-virus programs use the principle of “signature recognition”. A piece of code is recognized as a virus, the anti-virus company develops a remedy and a software update is disseminated to consumers. This process can take weeks, while malware today is often designed to last just minutes or seconds. According to a 2013 study by FireEye, 82% of malware disappears after just one hour and 70% of malware is designed for a single use. A 2014 three-month study by Redsocks Malware Research Labs found that 30% of malware in circulation was not detected or caught by common anti-virus products.

What can business owners do?

  •  Limit the data that employees and systems have access to
  • Lock every system down and make software uploads the exclusive role of the IT department
  • Get data offline to reduce the risk of it being stolen

#2. Firewalls face the wrong way

Hackers have developed tools to bypass firewalls, such as reverse shells, that can create an encrypted tunnel directly through a firewall. They can then have full, undetected access to a network, as if they were sitting at an employee’s workstation. Since firewalls are often set up to monitor only incoming traffic, they won’t see these outward illicit communications or catch valuable data being stolen.

What can business owners do?

  • Make full use of current network defenses, such as firewalls with built-in Intrusion Detection Systems
  • Ensure that their firewalls are set up to detect suspicious outgoing traffic as well as incoming traffic
  • Maintain logs (going back at least one month) of all outgoing, incoming and internal traffic

#3. The small business itself is the weakest link in the Cloud

More and more SMBs are transferring part or all of their IT infrastructure and data to the Cloud, including email, file storage and applications. Cloud-based solutions inevitably have better security than an SMB’s internal systems, but that security disappears if a hacker can pretend to be someone from within the SMB’s organization. When an intrusion occurs, it is often more difficult to identify and monitor the extent of the damage with Cloud computing, since security safeguards are no longer the role of the internal IT department.

What should SMBs do?

  •  Limit the likelihood of a hacker accessing a Cloud-based account by implementing a multi-factor authentication process for every user
  • Ensure that the Cloud service provider creates useful logs for traffic monitoring and auditing

#4. Advising employees not to open emails from “strangers” isn’t enough

Hackers can easily use social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and company websites to identify specific targets within an organization and then develop an email that looks as if it is coming from a trusted colleague. A 2013 report by Symantec found a 91% increase in this type of “spear phishing” over previous years. Once a hacker compromises one email account, a virus can be spread from employee to employee, until the hacker has access to an SMB’s finances or its most valuable customer data.

What should SMBs do?

  • Train employees to be cautious about what they publicly post online so that they are less of a target to hackers
  • If there’s the slightest doubt about an attachment or link to an online document site, encourage employees to pick up the phone and call the sender

#5. Encrypting only your company’s portable devices isn’t enough

The hard drive of a desktop computer can be worth thousands of dollars to hackers and can be removed in less than a minute. Even when a computer hard drive is encrypted, some forms of encryption take effect only when the computer is powered down and may be ineffective when the device is placed in “sleep” or “power saving” mode.

What should SMBs do?

  • Continue to encrypt all portable devices and select devices with built-in layers of safety
  • Encrypt all computer hard drives, or ensure that no sensitive data can be stored on them
  • Teach employees not to place their laptops in sleep mode while unattended, or when they take a laptop off-site

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