The meat and potatoes

A bit is still a bit and a byte is still a byte. COVID-19 cannot change that, which means that the technical aspects of the work has not changed. But what about the investigative aspect?  Oh yes. That part of DFIR has certainly changed. The key change is geolocation, and it is more important than you may realize at first glance.

The full meal

Every investigation with any aspect of an electronic device has been affected due to COVID-19 and its consequence of stay-at-home/work-at-home. As far as investigations are concerned, device geolocation is perhaps the biggest impact. There are also other subtle aspects of the quarantine to take advantage of in your investigations, whether you are involved in civil or criminal investigations or corporate matters. The benefits are there to be had. Individual privacy is yet another issue but let us start with investigations.

For the most part, the impact of COVID-19 is positive for investigators. Actually, it is practically only positive.  I will be breaking down the pros and cons by way of using the below four broad categories. These are "broad" because overlap exists and it is near impossible to have a clean break from every aspect of DFIR. Every person fits in one or more of those boxes, including the privacy category.

Digital Forensics (DF) & Incident Response (IR)

Criminal & national security investigations

Breaches, ransomware

Electronic Discovery (ED)

Civil litigation

Corporate/internal matters

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

Related to any/all investigations and privacy

Not related to any/all of these items

Privacy & Surveillance

A separate, but just as important consideration

Includes, government, corporate, and personal

 

Digital Forensics (DF) & Incident Response (IR)

How does COVID-19 affect DFIR investigations?

For criminal investigations, the geolocation impact is most dramatic. Compare the “before” and the “current” geolocation investigative aspects of COVID-19 (specifically criminals using mobile devices and Internet access points).

 

Before COVID-19

Current COVID-19

#1

Devices traveled 24/7.

Devices are at home.

#2

Multiple devices of one criminal shared the same (multiple) geolocations of other criminals who also carry multiple devices.

The criminal’s devices are sharing one geolocation mostly (only) with family or no others.

#3

“Burner” devices may or might never be turned on or used at “home”.

Burner devices need to be on at home to be used.

#4

Burner devices might not be used at the same geolocation as non-burner devices.

Both burner and personal devices will share the same geolocation (home).

#5

Public wireless access points were used for communication and online criminal activity.

Personal or nearby accessible access points are being used.

#6

Face-to-face meetings to conspire were common.

Electronic communications are now more necessary.

 

In the above comparison, “home” is where a person lays their head. Investigators who pursue criminals focus heavily on the “home” of a criminal, which tends to be the location where the criminal spends most of their time, stores and creates physical evidence, and where they are most vulnerable to arrest. Even one of the most primary and basic goals of law enforcement surveillance is to follow criminals and ‘put them to bed’, which simply means, follow them to their home. COVID-19 makes this much easier since everyone, including criminals, must be home, or at least be at home more than usual.

Side note: An investigative truism for the vast majority of crimes is that criminals must communicate to plan, conspire, and commit crimes. The most convenient and commonly used investigative method to capture communication is focusing on communication devices. Quarantine makes this easier.

COVID-19 Benefits Investigations

--Mobile devices

---Easier to find the home of the owner (suspect) since the device will be home more.

---Easier to identify other devices of the suspect since personal devices are also home with the suspect.

---Cell tower dumps near a crime scene will have fewer devices connected, lowering the list of possible suspects.

---“Burners” are now burned. They now travel less and are quarantined with their owners. Burners can now be easily tied to a ‘home’ and to its owner at that home.

---“Burners” will now always be near their owner’s other devices, tying them together.

---Subsequent forensic analysis post-seizure will have fewer GPS points to investigate. This is good for the purpose of fewer false alibis.

---Higher usage of all devices (burners and personal) results in more data and more evidence. There is also a higher use since face-to-face communications are less due to quarantine/stay-at-home.

--IP Addresses

---Higher use of personal Internet accounts being used.

---Higher use of borrowing neighbor’s Internet access.

---Higher chance of protective measures (VPNs, Tor, etc…) being inadvertently misconfigured or neglected for one or many communications.

With criminals being home more than usual, identifying their devices, tying the devices to them, and identifying the “homes” of criminals has never been easier.  As long as you have either the device information (ex. the phone number) or the home address, tying both together is simpler than pre-COVID 19. Consider that a mobile device, including the ‘burners’, will be living at their owner’s home for longer hours per day than before, because the owner is at home for long hours. Where cautious criminals won't turn on a burner at their home, they don't have much choice now.

Another side benefit of COVID-19 for investigations is that of increased usage of electronic devices to communicate. Criminals must still leave their homes to commit traditional, non-computer crimes, but the use of mobile device communications still increases. More calls to more phones help build a more thorough link analysis of criminals and their co-conspirators. Traditional policing is also made easier with fewer cars on the road and fewer places for criminals to blend in with the public (such as at a crowded restaurant or park).

Cell tower dumps in the area of a crime, where pre-COVID 19 could result in hundreds of devices per one tower might now only have a few devices which greatly narrows the list of potential suspects of a crime.

Successful criminal hackers take great pains to hide their true identity and location. Whether it be using VPNs or Tor, one of the basic premises is to not connect to the wire with anything that ties to your home or work. For the most part, the quarantine forces the use of a home Internet connection or a nearby neighbor’s connections. One error made in complacency or technical failure can expose everything.  Investigators should take advantage of the increased possibility of tracking a criminal hacker to their home as compared to tracking to any one of thousands of public WiFi spots found at libraries, coffee shops, and throughout entire cities with public WiFi.

One negative with COVID-19's quarantine is not being able to physically place the co-conspirators together by way of geolocation, such as having two devices being at the same place at the same time. In cases that I have had, each time that I could identify the date and place that a group of conspirators would meet to talk, such as at dinner or a parking lot, being able to identify every device in the area was a good operation. This was really beneficial as not every person in an organization will call every person in that organization, so tying devices together requires more labor. Conversely, in the quarantined world, everyone in the organization will need to call more of those in the organization to communicate.

As far as when the quarantine is lifted and we reach the new normal, the historical geolocation data available will still benefit future cases, both with device forensic analysis and with third-party service providers holding the geolocation data.

Electronic Discovery (ED)

Compared with criminal and civil investigations, COVID-19 poses more risk to businesses. Companies who are allowing remote work at their employees’ homes without appropriate precautions are now creating a situation of intermingled personal and business data.

Employees who know have open access to their employer’s systems using personal devices might be the biggest risk to employers in the past decade. On one hand, data mingling can cause a substantial legal issue in litigation, where company data might be intentionally or inadvertently saved onto personal computers. Additionally, personal computers that may have outdated anti-virus or unsupported operating systems could increase the chances of a company being compromised through an employee’s personal system.

Companies that had been supporting remote work by way of providing systems that are maintained by internal IT staff and using protected connections (not simply directly connecting to the network…), have no concerns that they did not have before COVID-19. For the rest, I can foresee some problems.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

OSINT is fun for the curious. It is also an effective investigative method as well as an effective victimization tool. With COVID-19’s quarantine, the impact is that for those who want to remain semi-private regarding their homes, yet still remain socially available online, they will be more at risk of exposure.

Being at home more means most photos to be posted on social media will be those taken from the home. More family photos. More photos of a home’s interior and exterior. All of which can build upon safety concerns for some.  

For investigators, applying OSINT to cases where suspects are using social media simply means gathering more relevant and home-based geolocation data.

Privacy & Surveillance

Being anti-crime does not mean that you must be anti-privacy, but most governments will try to convince you otherwise. All of the above-mentioned benefits of COVID-19 as it relates to investigations to solve crimes have a perverted relationship in potential loss of personal privacy. The key questions are who is being watched, for what reason, and for what justification.

Right behind any government are the many tech companies with the ability to collect personal data from its users, privacy be damned. The intention is for the public good as it is primarily, if not solely, used as a revenue source (your data is sold and sold and sold again). Now, we are online more because we are home more (practically 24/7), which creates more data to be collected on the websites we visit, the online shows that we watch, the videos, and online purchases.

A government’s view of “data hoarding” is for the public’s benefit.

A corporate’s view of “data hoarding” is for corporate benefit.

Now comes COVID-19 and there is a merge between the two. Corporate tech giants (small tech too!) are partnering for both the public good of tracking people via mobile devices and certainly the sale of the data. The most effective way to convince anyone to give up a bit of privacy is to promise a chunk of security in exchange.  In times of panic or worry, not only is this easy to accomplish, but it is more of an exchange of a large piece of privacy for a false hope of security.

https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2020/04/apple-and-google-partner-on-covid-19-contact-tracing-technology/

Post COVID-19

I can expect to see the mobile apps being developed today that track infected persons and their interactions with non-infected being more commonly used. The Apple-Google efforts of using Bluetooth technology to track people in the name of public safety can be easily applied to many other things, much like the dating apps and other friendly location sharing apps do as well.

For the investigator, these data sources have always been treasure troves used to place a suspect at a scene but will now jump into hyperdrive in doing more by collecting data with willing user-consent, default configurations of apps, and covert monitoring.

Summary

Forensic analysis is the same. Investigations have (temporarily) changed. Good investigators continually look for breaks in a case, are always open to a break in a case, ready to exploit a break in a case, and are creative in trying to find a break in a case. Don't let COVID-19 be anything else other than a potential way to solve a case. For the business owners and managers, it is not too late to update computer use policies to protect how employees connect to the company's data.

Committing crimes today is not as easy as yesterday. Neither is keeping your privacy.