Searching a Computer

Computer Security I Lecture, Dr. Lawlor

Legal Issues: Search vs Seizure

The typical way to collect digital evidence from a storage device is to "image" the device: take a complete byte-for-byte copy of everything on the device.  But this "seize everything" approach is difficult to square with old legal principles that predate cheap perfect copies:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
    United States Constitution, 4th Amendment
For something so important, a standard of "unreasonable searches and seizures" seems disappointingly qualitative, but this is what we have to work with.

Imagine though that I image your phone.  If I search the image in detail, I now have access to:
Traditionally, the police have the right to search the pockets of a person being arrested, but for a phone, this degree of intrusion doesn't seem reasonable.

Because with digital data it's so easy to seize and search everything, the US Supreme Court's unanimous 2014 Riley vs California decision (Volokh analysis) drew a legal distinction between search (looking at the data for evidence of a particular crime) and seizure (taking or imaging the device). 

This means for evidence you collect to be useful in court, you may now need a search warrant to analyze a device currently held by the police, which should describing what evidence you're looking for, and why it's relevant.  Having some clue exactly what you're looking for is probably a good idea in general.

High Level Tools

There are a number of professional-grade tools for performing forensic analyses.  They tend to be commercial software with a copy protection dongle, and only run on Windows.
The only free and cross platform tool I've found is the Autopsy GUI for The Sleuth Kit.

Filesystem Details

Any filesystem is just a big binary data structure sitting on your disk.  One common filesystem, used in USB keychain drives, floppy disks, and old hard disks, is the "File Allocation Table" filesystem

The first thing on disk is the FAT "boot sector", which tells you how many entires are actually in the FAT.  Then comes the FAT itself (read the Wikipedia article, it's good!).  Then comes the blocks of data in the normal user files sitting on the disk.  Because the boot sector, FAT, and user data blocks are all a known size, the OS can directly seek (the disk) to a particular location to read a particular file.

It uses an interesting trick to keep track of the blocks in a file.  The file's blocks are basically kept in a big linked list, with each block in the file pointing to the next block until you hit the last block, which is marked with a "-1" link.


So you've got a disk.  The disk stores bytes.  You can in theory access the raw disk (and some database systems do this for speed!), but it's way more common to build several layers of storage on top of the raw disk bytes:
There are currently two major partition schemes in use on PCs:

Example: Windows Disk Manager

To get to the Windows Disk Manager, first right-click on "My Computer" and hit "Manage", then select "Disk Manager" near the bottom of the left-hand side list.  This shows you all your disks, and importantly all your partitions:

Window XP Partition Manager, showing partitions

The original design of the IBM PC's "boot sector / MBR" (the first 512 bytes of the disk) left room for only four "primary" partitions.  Since people running multiple operating systems often want more than this, you can also make an "extended" partition (in green above) that counts as a primary partition, but contains other smaller "logical drive" partitions inside of it.   You can also leave unpartitioned space on your disk, which can later be used to create new partitions.

If your partition table gets horribly screwed up, you may still be able to recover your partitions and all their data using a tool like TestDisk.

Example: Linux fdisk

The same disk viewed in Windows above can be examined in Linux like so:
root@dellawlor:/home/olawlor/class/cs321/lecture/fs_fat # fdisk /dev/hda
Command (m for help): p

Disk /dev/hda: 80.0 GB, 80026361856 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 9729 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes

Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/hda1 1 6 48163+ de Dell Utility
/dev/hda2 * 7 4262 34186320 7 HPFS/NTFS
/dev/hda3 * 4263 7910 29302560 83 Linux
/dev/hda4 7911 9729 14611117+ 5 Extended
/dev/hda5 7911 8519 4891761 83 Linux
/dev/hda6 8520 9128 4891761 83 Linux
/dev/hda7 9129 9372 1959898+ 83 Linux
/dev/hda8 9373 9495 987966 82 Linux swap
/dev/hda9 9496 9520 200781 b W95 FAT32
/dev/hda10 9521 9545 200781 b W95 FAT32
/dev/hda11 9546 9570 200781 83 Linux
/dev/hda12 9571 9729 1277136 83 Linux

Command (m for help): q
Again, I've got a bunch of partitions.  /dev/hda2 is my Windows partition.  /dev/hda3 is my main Linux partition.  /dev/hda4 is my extended partition, which contains hda5 through hda12.

Reading the List of Files in a Directory

So a directory (a folder) is just a list of files and other directories.   This list is stored as a set of bytes, usually with one fixed-size structure per file plus a variable-length name list.  So a directory is just a bunch of bytes, and you can store those bytes (a directory's list of files) inside another file!  That is, a directory is just a file that's marked "this file's bytes represent other files and directories".  Curious, no?

Reading the files in a directory is just exactly like reading a file, although the names have been changed to protect you from the details of the filesystem.

In UNIX systems: Linux, Mac OS X, etc.

Start with opendir, which takes a directory name and returns a "DIR *".

List each file with readdir, which takes a "DIR *" and returns a "struct dirent *", which has a "d_name" field telling you the name of the file.

Finish up with closedir, which frees the "DIR *".
#include <dirent.h> /* UNIX directory-list header */
#include <time.h> /* for "timespec", used in bits/stat.h (& whined about by icpc) */
#include <sys/stat.h> /* to tell if an item is a file or directory */

void unix_list(const char *dirName)
DIR *d=opendir(dirName);
if (d==0) return;
struct dirent *de;
while (NULL!=(de=readdir(d))) {
const char *name=de->d_name;

In Windows

Start with FindFirstFile, which takes a directory plus filename pattern, and returns a HANDLE and a WIN32_FIND_DATA.  The WIN32_FIND_DATA struct contains the name of the first matching file in "cFileName", and the file's attributes (permissions) in "dwFileAttributes".

A call to FindNextFile will find the next matching file.

Call FindClose when done.
#include <windows.h>

void win_list(const char *dirName)
char dirNamePat[1024];
sprintf(dirNamePat,"%s\\*",dirName); /* dirName, with trailing slash-star */
HANDLE h=FindFirstFile(dirNamePat,&f);
if (h==INVALID_HANDLE_VALUE) return;

do {
const char *name=f.cFileName;
if (strcmp(name,".")==0 || strcmp(name,"..")==0)
continue; /* Bogus self links */
// printf("---dirName: %s, file: %s\n",dirNamePat,name);
if (f.dwFileAttributes&FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY)
} while (FindNextFile(h,&f));

At the Raw Block Level