Don’t Overlook Simulations

Monday, December 5, 2011 Posted by Corey Harrell
A few weeks ago my family and I were eating dinner at our dining room table. A car alarm started going off outside so I went to the window to see what was going on. I first checked to make sure our cars weren't the ones making the noise and then I saw it was my neighbor’s car across the street. I went back to the dining table when my three year old said "the car is saying there is a fire drill". Laughing aside his statement made a lot of sense. Before that moment the only time he has heard loud sirens have been during fire drills. Naturally, his first thought when he heard something similar was a fire drill was happening. Fire drills are one simulation people have practiced (most of the time forced) over and over again to help them know how to proceed when the real thing occurs. Simulations in DFIR work the same way in helping educate ourselves how to proceed in certain types of scenarios.

Most trainings I attended reinforced learning by having the attendees practice on test images or data. The attendees just don't stumble around in the data since their objective is dictated by working through a simulation based on some case scenario. The simulation training approach even carries over to when people want to improve their skills on their own. Similar to the fire drill, different DFIR scenarios can expose people to different types of cases so they are more aware about their options and what to do when a real case comes up. The choices one has available for scenarios are to either use a test case put together by someone else or create your own. I found the latter option to be extremely effective at better preparing me since I can focus on areas I want to improve on. Simulations are how I developed my skills to investigative malware infected systems.

Forensicator Readiness is the thought process I use to develop and implement different scenarios. The process focuses my efforts on the exact skills or knowledge I want to learn more about. One simulation I’ve been working on for some time is answering these two questions about infected systems: is the system infected and how did the system get infected. All the different scenarios I developed overtime and some research I conducted was a direct result of trying to answer those two questions.

My scenarios started out by manually infecting systems with different malware to develop my skills in finding malware both in memory and on disk. Once I was effective at quickly locating the malware - without scanning - then the next step was to purposely attack systems. Some attacks I conducted such as running Metasploit against systems with malware as the payload while other attacks involved finding malicious SPAM emails or active drive-by attacks. In all the scenarios I simulated infections with different initial infection vectors on systems to provide myself with test cases. I improved my skills by examining the infected systems so I could answer were the systems infected and how did it occurred.

My neighbor’s car alarm put my three year old in fire drill mode. He didn’t get up and start walking towards the door because it was my neighbor’s car. The drill was for my neighbor and not us; otherwise our cars would have told us. :) Putting ourselves through our own simulations in advance increases our ability to be in the right mode when we need it. I was better prepared when I took on my first infected system. Not only did I locate the malware (without av scanning) but I was successful in tracing the infection back to a drive-by against an Adobe Reader vulnerability. It wasn’t luck I was able to do this right out of the gates. Nor was it luck I have continued to do this on system after system. This ability is a direct result of honing my skills in advanced by putting together my own simulations focused on areas I want to improve on.

People and children are not able to just able magically figure out how to exit a building in chaos. It takes practice and when chaos occurs the training kicks him to help people know how to proceed. DFIR is the same way; we won’t magically know how to process certain cases or answer certain questions. It takes practice and overtime we develop the knowledge on how to proceed with certain cases. Practicing can take the form of trainings or self simulations. Trainings are a one size fits all where the content is the same across the board. An advantage that self simulations have over trainings is one’s ability to focus on whatever area one wants. Time can be better spent focusing on the areas one doesn’t have knowledge about while trainings can be used to supplement other areas (this approach is a better way to use training dollars as well). The next time one wants to develop their DFIR skills then self simulations shouldn’t be overlooked as a viable option.

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