PFIC 2011 Review

Monday, November 14, 2011 Posted by Corey Harrell
Last week I had the opportunity to attend Paraben’s Forensic Innovations Conference (PFIC). I had a great time at PFIC; from the bootcamp to the sessions to the networking opportunities. Harlan posted his experience about PFIC, Girl Unallocated shared her thoughts, and SANs Digital Forensic Case Leads discussed the conference as well. The angle I’m going to take in my post is more of a play by play about the value PFIC offers and how the experience will immediately impact my work. Here are a few of my thoughts ….


When I’m looking at conferences and trainings the cost is one of the top two things I consider. This is especially true if I’m going to ask my employer to pick up the tab. Similar to other organizations it is extremely hard to get travel approved through my organization. As a public sector employee at times it seems like I’d have better odds getting someone’s first born then to get a request approved through the finance office. The low cost to attend PFIC made it easier for me to get people to sign off on it. The conference with one day training was only $400. The location was the Canyons Resort and attendees got cheaper rates for lodging since it’s the off-season. Rounding out the price tag were the plane flight and shuttle from the airport; both expenses were fairly reasonable. Don’t be fooled by the low costs thinking PFIC is the equivalent of a fast food restaurant while the other conferences are fine dining. PFIC is not only an economical choice but the content covered in the bootcamp and sessions results in more bang for the buck. I like to think PFIC is the equivalent of fine dining with coupons. The cost was so reasonable that I was even going to swing the conference by myself if my employer denied my request to attend. That’s how much value I saw in the price tag especially when I compared it to other DFIR conferences.

Networking Opportunities

The one commonality I’ve see in other’s feedback about PFIC is how the smaller conference size provides opportunities to network with speakers and other practitioners. This was my first DFIR conference so I can’t comment about conference sizes. However, I agree about the ability to talk with people from the field. Everyone was approachable during the conference without having to wait for crowds to disperse. Plus if for some reason you were unable to connect between sessions then PFIC had evening activities such as casino night and night out in town. I meet some great people at the conference and was finally able to meet a few people I only talked to online. Going into the conference I underestimated the value in connecting with others since I was so focused on the content.


Let’s be honest. A conference can be affordable and offer great networking opportunities but if the content is not up to par then the conference will be a waste of time and money. I have a very simple way to judge content; it should benefit my work in some way. This means none of the following would fit the bill: academics discussing interesting theories which has no relevance to my cases, vendors pimping some product as the only way to solve an issue, or presenters discussing a topic at such a high level there is no useful information I can apply to my work. One thing I noticed about the PFIC presenters was they are practitioners in the field discussing techniques and tools they used to address an issue. Pretty much each session I walked away from I felt like I learned a few useful things and got a few ideas to research further. Harlan said in his PFIC 2011 post that “there were enough presentations along a similar vein that you could refer back to someone else's presentation in order to add relevance to what you were talking about”. I think the same thing can be said from the attendee’s perspective. I sat through several presentations on incident response and mobile devices and it seemed as if the presentations built on one another.

I pretty much picked my sessions on a topic I wanted to know more about (incident response) and another topic I wanted to get exposed to (mobile devices). There were a few presentations I picked based on the presenter but for the most part my focus was on incident response and mobile devices. PFIC had a lot more to offer including e-discovery, legal issues, and digital forensics topics but I decided to focus on two specific topics. In the end I’m glad I did since each presentation discussed a different area about the topic which gave me a better understanding. I’m not discussing every session I attended but I wanted to reflect on a few.

        Incident Response

I started PFIC by attending the Incident Response bootcamp taught by Ralph Gorgal. The overview about the process used in the session is shown below and the activities highlighted in red is what the bootcamp focused on (everything to the right of the arrows are my notes about the activity).

     * Detection => how were people made aware
     * Initial Response => initial investigation, interviews, review detection evidence, and facts that incident occurred
     * Formulate Investigation/Collection Strategy => obtain network topology and operating systems in use
     * Identify Location of Relevant Evidence => determine sources locations, system policies, and log contents
     * Evidence Preservation => physical images, logical images, and archive retrieval
     * Investigation
     * Reporting

The approach taken was for us to simulate walking in to a network and trying to understand the network and what logs were available to us. To accomplish that we reviewed servers’ configurations including the impact different configuration settings have and identified where the servers where storing their logs. The Windows services explored during the bootcamp were: active directory, terminal services, internet information server (IIS), exchange, SQL, and ISA. The focus was more on following a logical flow through the network (I thought it was similar to the End to End Digital Investigation) and thinking about what kind of evidence is available and where it was located.

The bootcamp provided a thorough explanation about the thought process behind conducting log analysis during incident response. Even though the course didn’t touch on how to perform the log analysis other sessions offered at PFIC filled in the void. The first session was We’re infected, now what? How can logs provide insight? presented by David Nardoni and Tomas Castrejon. The session started out by first explaining what logs are, breaking down the different types of logs (network, system, security, and application), and explaining what the different log types can tell you. The rest of the session focused on using the free tools Splunk and Mandiant’s Highlighter to examine firewall and Windows event logs. I thought the presentation was put together well and the hands on portion examining actual logs reinforced the information presented to us. The other session I attended about log analysis was Log File Analysis in Incident Response presented by Joe McManus. The presentation was how web server and proxy logs can generate leads about an incident by using the open source tool Log Analysis Tool Kit (LATK). LATK helps to automate the process of log analysis by quickly showing log indicators such as top downloaders/uploaders, SQL queries, and vulnerable web page access. The session was a lab and in the hands on portion we examined web server and proxy logs. This was another session that was well put together and I think the coolest thing about both sessions, besides the great information shared, was that free tools were used to perform log analysis.

        Mobile Devices

Mobile devices are a topic I want to become more knowledgeable about. I went into PFIC wanting to learn a basic understanding about the forensic value contained in mobile devices and get some hands on experience examining them.

The first of the three Paraben labs I attended was Smartphone and Tablet Forensic Processing by Amber Schroader. This wasn’t my scheduled lab so I watched from the back as others did the hands on portion. Amber laid out a case study for the attendees who had to locate a missing 15 year old girl by using Device Seizure to examine an ipad and itouch. What I liked about the session was that answers weren’t provided to the audience which forced them to have to figure out what information on those devices could help locate the girl. A few of the areas examined included: Safari browsing history, Safari download history, Youtube history, facetime history, wifi locations, and pictures. After the case study Amber laid out the different areas on mobile devices containing relevant information but mentioned the biggest issue with mobiles is the sheer number of apps which changes how you look at your data. The next Paraben lab I sat through was Physical Acquisitions of Mobiles by Diane Barrett. The session explained the different methods to acquire a physical image which were chip off, JTAG test access port, flasher boxes, and logical software that can do physical. The cool part about the session was the hands on portion since we used a Tornado flasher box and Device Seizure to acquire a physical image from a Motorola phone. The last Paraben lab I attended was Introduction to Device Seizure by Amber Schroader and Eric Montellese. As the title indicates the session was an introduction on how device seizure can be used to examine mobile devices. The entire session was pretty much hands on; we performed logical and physical acquisitions of a Motorola phone and a logical acquisition of an Android. We also briefly examined both devices to see what information was available.

The only non-Paraben session about mobile devices I attended was iOS Forensics by Ben Lemere. The presentation discussed how to perform forensics on iOS devices using free tools. The information provided was interesting and added to my to-do list but I thought the session would have been better if it was a lab. It would have been awesome to try out the stuff the presenter was talking about.

        Digital Forensic Topics

I couldn’t come up with a better description than Digital Forensics Topics for the sessions I picked based on the presenter or topic. The one session I wanted to mention in this category was Scanning for Low Hanging Fruit in an Investigation by Harlan Carvey. I was really interested in attending Harlan’s session so I could finally see the forensic scanner he has been talking about. Out of all of the sessions I attended I think this was the only session where I knew about the topic being discussed (I follow Harlan’s blog and he has been discussing his forensic scanner). Harlan explained how the scanner is an engine that runs a series of checks searching for low hanging fruit (known artifacts on the system). The usage scenario he laid out involves:

     * Mount an acquired image as a volume (or mount a volume shadow copy)
     * Plug-ins (checks) are based on a specific usage profile
     * Scanner reports are generated including a log of activity (analysts name, details image, plugins ran, etc.)

Harlan mentioned the scanner is still in development but he still did a tool demo by parsing a system’s Windows folder. A few things I noted about what I saw: there’s better documentation than Regripper (analysts name and platform included), still rips registry keys, lists files in a directory (prefetch folder contents were showed), runs external programs ( was executed), hashes files, and performs different file checks. I saw the value in this kind of tool before I sat through the session but seeing it in action reinforces how valuable this capability would be. I currently try to mimic some activities with batch scripting (see my triage post or obtaining information post). Those scripts took some time to put together and would require some work to make them do something else. I can foresee the forensic scanner handling this in a few seconds since plugins would just need to be selected; plus the scanner can do stuff that's impossible with batch scripting.

Speaking of scripts … Harlan mentioned during his presentation a batch script I put together that runs Regripper across every volume shadow copy (VSC) on a system. I was caught a little off guard since I'd never imagined Harlan mentioning my work during his presentation. I probably didn’t do a good job explaining the script during the session since I wasn’t expecting to talk about it. Here is some information about the script. As Harlan mentioned, I added functionality to the script besides running Regripper (I still have a standalone script for Regripper in case anyone doesn’t want the other functions). The script can identify the differences between VSCs, hash files in VSCs, extract data (preserves timestamps and NTFS permissions) from VSCs, and list files in the VSC. The script demonstrates that you can pretty much do as you please with VSCs whether if you are examining a forensic image or live system. In a few weeks I’ll provide a little more information about the script and why I wrote it, and over the next few months I’ll write a series of posts explaining the logic behind the script before I release it.

PFIC Summary

Overall PFIC was a great experience. I learned a lot of information, I have a to-do list outlining the various things to research/test further, and I meet some great people. The return on investment for my company sending me to the conference is that in a few weeks I’ll be able to perform log analysis, I’m more knowledgeable about mobile device forensics, and if I get into a jam I now have a few people I can reach out to for help.

Closing out my post I wanted to share a few thoughts for improvement. I didn’t have many which I guess is a good thing. ;)

1. Make the names on the name tags bigger. I think my biggest struggle during the conference was trying to figure out peoples’ names since I couldn’t read the tags.

2. Presenters should answer all questions during the session if time permits; especially if the question is a follow-up to something the presenter said. Another attendee asked a great question but I had to stick around for about five minutes after the session to hear the answer. It wasn’t like the question was controversial or something.

3. Verify that all equipment works before the session. One of the labs hit a speed bump when numerous attendees (me included) couldn’t acquire a phone since numerous phones didn’t work. Everyone was able to do the acquisition eventually but time was lost trying to find phones that actually worked.
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  1. Rob

    Great Post... It's good to see a review of a Conference like this. To be honest I never considered a Paraben Conf. just because I assumed it would be Vendor specific. Not that that is bad, it just if you don't use Paraben tools then it's a waste of time (and $$). It seems from your writeup that you only encountered a few Vendor classes and could avoid them at will if needed.

    I assume that the PFIC, being a fairly new conference, is growing and content probably gets better each year.

    Good info..

  2. Another cool thing at PFIC is that the agenda identifies the vendor sessions since it says vendor showcase. I was surprise to find most sessions focused on the process or technique then showed how free tools can be used to implement it.

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