Linkz 4 Advice

Monday, September 12, 2011 Posted by Corey Harrell
There won’t be any links pointing to Dr. Phil, Dear Abby, or Aunt Cleo. Not that there’s anything wrong that… They just don’t provide advice on a career in DFIR.

Getting Started in DFIR

Harlan put together the post Getting Started which contains great advice for people looking to get into DF. I think his advice even applies to folks already working in the field. DF is huge with a lot of areas for specialization. Harlan’s first tip was to pick something and start there. How true is that advice for us since we aren’t Abby from NCIS (a forensic expert in everything)? People have their expertise: Windows, Macs, cell phones, Linux, etc. but there is always room to expand our knowledge and skills. The best way to expand into other DF areas is to “pick something and start there”.

Another tip is to have a passion for the work we do. In Harlan’s words “in this industry, you can't sit back and wait for stuff to come to have to go after it”. I completely agree with this statement and DF is not the field to get complacent in. There needs to be a drive deep down inside to continuously want to improve your knowledge and skills. For example, it would be easy to be complacent to maintain knowledge only about the Windows XP operating system if it’s the technology normally faced. However, it would be ignoring the fact that at some point in the near future encounters with Windows 7 boxes and non-Windows system will be the norm. A passion for DF is needed to push yourself so you can learn and improve your skills on your own without someone (i.e. an employer) telling you what you should be doing.

I wanted to touch on those two tips but the entire post is well worth the read, regardless if you are looking to get into DF or already arrived.

Speaking about a Passion

Little Mac over at the Forensicaliente blog shared his thoughts about needing a drive to succeed in DF. I’m not musically inclined but he uses a good analogy to explain what it takes to be successful. Check out his post Is Scottish Fiddle like Digital Forensics?.

Breaking into the Field

Lenny Zelster discussed How to Get Into Digital Forensics or Security Incident Response on his blog last month. One issue facing people looking to break into the field is that organizations may not be willing to spend the time and resources to train a person new to the field. Lenny suggested people should leverage their current positions to acquire relevant DFIR skills.

Lenny’s advice doesn’t apply to how I broke into the field since DFIR was basically dropped into my lab when I was tasked with developing the DF capability for my organization. However, his advice is spot on for how I was able to land my first position in the information security field (which is what lead me into DFIR). I was first exposed to security during my undergraduate studies when I took a few courses on the topic. It was intriguing but the reality was there weren’t a lot of security jobs in my area which meant my destination was still IT operations. I continued down the track pushing me further into IT but I always kept my desire for security work in mind. After graduation I took a position in an IT shop where I had a range of responsibilities including networking and server administration. In this role, I wanted to learn how to secure the technology I was responsible for managing and what techniques to use to test security controls. This is due diligence as being a system admin but it also allowed me to get knowledge and some skills in the security field. In addition to operational security, I even tried to push an initiative to develop and establish an information security policy. Unfortunately, the initiative failed and it was my first lesson in nothing will be successful without management’s support. All was not lost because the experience and my research taught me a lot about security being a process that supports the business. This is a key concept about security and up until that point my focus was on security's technical aspects.

I leveraged the position I was in to acquire knowledge and skills about my chosen field (security). My actions weren’t completely self serving since my employer benefited from having someone to help secure their network. I didn’t realize how valuable it was to expand my knowledge and skills until my first security job interview. Going in I thought I lacked the skills and knowledge but over the course of the interview I realized I had a lot more to offer. I took the initiative to expand my skillset and it was an important factor in helping me land in the security field. My experience is very similar to the Lenny’s advice except his post is about getting into the DFIR field.

Get a plan before going into the weeds

Rounding out the links providing sound guidance, Bill over at the Unchained Forensics blog gave some good advice in his recent post Explosions Explosions. He shared his thoughts on how he approaches examinations. One comment he made that I wanted to highlight was “more and more of my most efficient time is being used at the case planning stage”. He mentions how he thinks about his plan to tackle the case, including identifying potential data of interest, before he even starts his examination. I think it’s a great point to keep reinforcing for people new and old to DFIR.

I remember when I was new to the field. I had a newly established process and skillset but I lacked certain wisdom in how to approach cases. As expected, I went above and beyond in examining my first few cases. I even thought I was able to do some “cool stuff” the person requesting DF assistance would be interested in. There was one small issue I overlooked. The person was only interested in specific data’s content while I went beyond that, way beyond that. I wasted time and the cool stuff I thought I did was never even used. I learned two things from the experience. First was to make sure I understand what I’m being asked to do; even if it means asking follow-up questions or educating the requestor about DF. The second lesson was to think about what I’m going to do before I do it. What data do I need? What steps in my procedures should I complete? What procedural steps can be omitted? What’s my measure for success telling me when the examination is complete? Taking the time beforehand to gather your thoughts and develop a plan helps to keep the examination focused on the customer’s needs while limiting the “cool stuff” that’s not even needed.

Books On demand

If someone were to ask me what is the best training I have every taken I know exactly what I would say. A book, computer, Google, and time. That’s it and the cost is pretty minimal since only a book needs to be purchased. I’m not knocking training courses but classes cannot compare to educating yourself through reading, researching, and testing. I never heard about Books24x7 until I started working for my current employer. Books24x7 is virtual library providing access to “in-class books, book summaries, research reports and best practices”. The books in my subscription include topics on: security, DFIR, certification, business, programming, operating systems, networking, and databases. I can find the information I’m looking for by searching numerous books whether I’m researching, testing, or working. A quick search for DFIR books located: Malware Forensics: Investigating and Analyzing Malicious Code, Windows Registry Forensics: Advanced Digital Forensic Analysis of the Windows Registry, Windows Forensic Analysis Toolkit Second Edition, Malware Analyst's Cookbook: Tools and Techniques for Fighting Malicious Code, EnCase Computer Forensics: The Official EnCE: EnCase Certified Examiner Study Guide, and UNIX and Linux Forensic Analysis Toolkit. That’s only a few books from the pages and pages of search results for DFIR. Talk about a wealth of information at your fingertips.

The cost may be a little steep for an individual but it might be more reasonable for an organization. If an organization’s employees have a passion for their work and take the initiative to acquire new skills then Books24x7 could be an option as a training expense. Plus, it could save money from not having to purchase technical books for staff. Please note, I don’t benefit in any way by mentioning this service on my blog. I wanted to share the site since it’s been a valuable resource when I’m doing my job or self training to learn more about DFIR and security.
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  1. ...organizations may not be willing to spend the time and resources to train a person new to the field.

    This can be a HUGE problem, but not because it doesn't give new people a chance. What it does mean is that an organization may hire someone and send them off on their merry way, assuming that they're an "expert". "Here's your dongles, now go have fun!" Seriously?

    If an organization hires DFIR analysts and doesn't have some idea of what they should be doing, then how do you know that what you're getting from their analysis is the real deal?

  2. Harlan,

    Great point and I've never seen the issue discussed from this perspective. It makes me wonder about the organizations who want to develop an in-house DF capability to support their investigations. The organizations won't have a clear idea about what a DF process is let alone what their analysts should be doing. I can see how they'll rely on people they think are experts. Do you have any recommended resources for organizations to help them judge what a expert is?

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