End to End Digital Investigation

Monday, October 25, 2010 Posted by Corey Harrell
The Overall Digital Forensic Investigation Process post outlined the various phases involved with the investigation process. These phases were: preparation, identification, collection, analysis, reporting, and archiving. There was one issue with this basic overall process that comes to light when an investigation involves a network.

If an investigation is to determine if a person accessed a file on their computer the overall process matches up pretty well. The identification only involves one person, the collection is only a single computer, and the analysis only involves data from one data source which is the computer. The only thing missing is how to organize your evidence so your conclusion can be tested. The previous example is a pretty straight forward investigation but now let's see what happens when a network becomes involved. What if the investigation is to determine if a person accessed a file on a server within an organization? How about if the investigation is to determine if a person accessed a file on a Internet web server? The addition of a network results in the addition of data sources which could potentially store evidence. The data sources can now include servers (proxy servers, Windows domain controllers, or file and print servers), network logs (web server logs, router logs, or firewall logs), or captured network traffic. The basic overall process doesn't cover how to identify these data sources, examine these data sources, how to combine the evidence from different data sources, or how to organize your evidence for analysis.

I noticed the limitation of the basic overall process on my cases which involved multiple subjects, multiple computers, multiple servers, etc. The scenario of a malware infection I have been using made the limitation even worse because this could involve one, 10, 20, or 500 computers across a network. I needed a scalable and repeated process that I could use for the identification, collection, and analysis of information in a networked environment regardless of the type of case (security incident, audit, policy violation, etc.). This is where Dr. Stephenson's End to End Digital Investigation (EEDI) framework comes into play. Not only does EEDI meet the needs I was looking for but it didn't require any significant changes from what I was currently doing because it is just a different way to approach the investigation.

I know I can't do an adequate job of explaining EEDI compared to Dr. Stephenson which is why I am quoting his articles when discussing the framework. If you want to know more about EEDI then I would recommend you read one of his articles. Currently, there is limited information about EEDI on the Internet but I was able to locate a brief article which can be found here.

What is the EEDI

The premise of the framework takes into count that "every digital crime has a source point, a destination point and a path between those two points" (Stephenson, Getting the Whole Picture, 2002, 2003). This means EEDI takes into account the source of the incident, destination of the incident, and all the intermediate devices along the path through the network. EEDI is a "structured method of collecting evidence along the entire path from source to target, using each piece of evidence in that chain to corroborate other evidence (either digitally or traditionally developed) and an approach to presenting the completed chain effectively in court"(Stephenson, Getting the Whole Picture, 2002, 2003).

The EEDI process consists of the following nine activities:

* Collecting evidence
* Analysis of individual events
* Preliminary correlation
* Event normalization
* Event deconfliction
* Second level correlation
* Timeline analysis
* Chain of evidence construction
* Corroboration

Collecting Evidence

EEDI helped me with the issue I was having during the Identification and Collection phases. This issue was scoping an investigation to determine the systems involved and the data sources with potential evidentiary items. I have found the approach of viewing each case as having a source point, destination point, and a path between them to be effective when identifying the scope of an investigation. Take the previous example of a person accessing a file. The source point is the computer the person is using, the destination point is the computer storing the file being accessed, and the path is the network between those two computers. Following this path can help you identify the data sources with potential evidentiary items which needs to be collected.

Analysis of Individual Events

"This analysis step examines isolated events and assesses what value they may have to the overall investigation and how they may tie into each other" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). EEDI is framework to investigate security incidents so this activity's focus is on the examination of each event in a security incident. I had to modify this activity so it would accommodate any type of investigation from security incidents to policy violations to financial audits.

The first change I made was to change the purpose of the activity to be the analysis of individual events or individual case. This slight change enables an investigation to be performed into other types of cases which don't fall into the security incident category. The second change was to incorporate the examination of digital data to locate evidence which may be relevant to the investigation. I decided to organize the examination based on the data sources being examined. Two potential data sources are network logs and a computer's hard drive. This organization allowed me to examine each data source individually. The last change was to incorporate the various examination steps under each data source. The example below shows a few examination steps for examining a computer's hard drive:

* Analysis of individual events (or individual case)
     * System examination
         * Examination of volatile data
         * Hash the files on the system
         * Search for known malware

Basically, the changes I made were to incorporate all of my existing examination steps into this EEDI activity. This means there was hardly any change from the way I was currently performing examinations and the only difference is how I organized any found evidence.

Preliminary correlation

The "first correlation step is to examine the individual events and see how they may correlate into a chain of evidence"(Stephenson, Getting the Whole Picture, 2002, 2003). The "main purpose here is to understand in broad terms what happened, what systems or devices were involved and when the events occurred"(Stephenson, Getting the Whole Picture, 2002, 2003).

The slight change I made in the analysis of individual events trickles down into this activity. All of the evidence located through the examination of the various data sources is correlated into a chain of evidence. The chain of evidence provides an overview of the evidence in your investigation.

Event Normalizing

The definition of normalization is the "combining evidentiary data of the same type from different sources with different vocabularies into a single, integrated terminology that can be used effectively in the correlation process" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). One example of normalization is adjusting the times in order to take into account the time differences between data sources. All of the times should be normalized into a single time. For example, if there were two computers with different times then the time stamps of the evidence from one computer should be adjusted to the time of the other computer.

Event Deconfliction

The definition of deconfliction is the "combining of multiple reportings of the same evidentiary event by the same or different reporting sources, into a single, reported, normalized evidentiary event" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). This activity is required when an item is reported multiple times from the same source. The one example I have come across when this was required involved emails. During an email examination, I will review emails located on the email server, the person's email file, and any backup copies of the person's email file on their computer. Sometimes this results in multiple copies of the same email being found. All of the copies of the email doesn't have to be in the chain of evidence since only one email is required.

Second-Level Correlation

"Second-level correlation is an extension of earlier correlation efforts. However, at this point, views of various events have been refined through normalization or deconfliction" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009).

Timeline Analysis

"In this step, normalized and deconflicted events are used to build a timeline using an iterative process that should be updated constantly as the investigation continues to develop new evidence" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009).

Chain of Evidence Construction

The evidence in the timeline should be used to form a chain of evidence. "Ideally, each link in the chain, supported by one or more pieces of evidence, will lead to the next link" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). When it is not possible to establish a direct link between evidence a lead can be used to point to the next piece of evidence. "Leads can point us to valid evidence and that valid evidence can, at some point, become the evidence link" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). I briefly touched on this topic in an earlier post titled Broken Chain.


In this step, "we attempt to corroborate each piece of evidence and each event in our chain with other, independent evidence or events" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009). This final "evidence chain consists of primary evidence corroborated by additional secondary evidence" (Stephenson, Cyber Investigation, 2009).

To date, the majority of my digital forensic examinations are in support of an investigation being conducted by a group outside of the forensic unit. For example, the human resource department may be conducting an investigation of an employee violating company policy and asks for a forensic analysis to help their investigation. This results in the majority of the corroboration of primary evidence with the secondary evidence being conducted by the persons performing the investigation. However, there is still some secondary evidence which can be collaborated such as information obtained through research.


The EEDI framework combined with the overall digital forensic investigation process provided me with a flexible, scalable, and repeatable investigation process. This process could be used regardless if someone drops off a hard drive asking you to find how it became infected, if an audit team needs assistance investigating a suspected fraud involving multiple people with multiple data sources, or if a malware outbreak is affecting 50 computers on a network. All of these scenarios would require a cyber investigation and I wanted a process which could be used for any type investigation. At this point in my journey I feel that I have found this process.

To see how the cyber investigation methodology looks with the steps for a system examination can be located on the Journey into IR methodology page.


As I mentioned previously, one of Dr. Stephenson's articles titled A Comprehensive Approach to Digital Incident Investigation can be located here.

Stephenson, P. (2009). Cyber Investigation. In S. Bosworth, M. Kabay, & E. Whyne, Computer Security Handbook (pp. 55.1 - 55.27). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Stephenson, P. (2002, 2003). Getting the Whole Picture A Series of 12 Columns End to End Digital Investigation Appearing in Elsevier Advanced Technology's "Computer Fraud and Security" Publication in 2002 and 2003. Retrieved from Web Site of Peter Stephenson: Document is no longer hosted on Dr. Stephenson's webpage

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