The basics of how digital forensics tools work

I’ve noticed there is a fair amount of confusion about how forensics tools work behind the scenes. If you’ve taken a course in digital forensics this will probably be “old hat” for you. If on the other hand, you’re starting off in the digital forensics field, this post is meant for you.

There are two primary categories of digital forensics tools, those that acquire evidence (data), and those that analyze the evidence. Typically, “presentation” functionality is rolled into analysis tools.

Acquisition tools, well… acquire data. This is actually the easier of the two tools to write, and there are a number of acquisition tools in existence. There are two ways of storing the acquired data, on a physical disk (disk to disk imaging) and in a file (disk to file imaging). The file that the data is stored in is also referred to as a logical container (or logical evidence container, etc.) There are a variety of logical container formats, with the most popular formats being: DD (a.k.a. raw, as well as split DD) and EWF (Expert Witness, a variant used with EnCase). There are other formats, including sgzip (seekable gzip, used by PyFlag) and AFF (Advanced Forensics Format). Many logical containers allow an examiner to include metadata about the evidence, including cryptographic hash sums, and information about how and where the evidence was collected (e.g. the technicians name, comments, etc.)

Analysis tools work in two major phases. In the first phase, the tools read in the evidence (data) collected by the acquisition tools as a series of bytes, and translate the bytes into a usable structure. An example of this, would be code that reads in data from a DD file and “breaks out” the different components of a boot sector (or superblock on EXT2/3 file systems). The second phase is where the analysis tool examines the structure(s) that were extracted in the first phase and performs some actual analysis. This could be displaying the data to the screen in a more-human-friendly-format, walking directory structures, extracting unallocated files, etc. An examiner will typically interact with the analysis tool, directing it to analyze and/or produce information about the structures it extracts.

Presentation of digital evidence (and conclusions) is an important part of digital forensics, and is ultimately the role of the examiner, not a tool. Tools however can support presentation. EnCase allows an examiner to bookmark items, and ProDiscover allows an examiner to tag “Evidence of Interest”. The items can then be exported as files, to word documents, etc. Some analysis tools have built in functionality to help with creating a report.

Of course, there is a lot more to the implementation of the tools than the simplification presented here, but this is the basics of how digital forensics tools work.


  1. […] a previous post I covered “The basics of how digital forensics tools work.” In that post, I mentioned that one of the steps an analysis tool has to do is to translate […]

Leave a Comment