The five phases of recovering digital evidence

This is the second post in a series about the five phases of recovering data structures from a stream of bytes (a form of digital evidence recovery). In the last post we discussed what data structures were, how they related to digital forensics, and a high level overview of the five phases of recovery. In this post we’ll examine each of the five phases in finer grained detail.

In the previous post, we defined five phases a tool (or human if they’re that unlucky) goes through to recover data structures. They are:

  1. Location
  2. Extraction
  3. Decoding
  4. Interpretation
  5. Reconstruction

We’ll now examine each phase in more detail…


The first step in recovering a data structure from a stream of bytes is to locate the data structure (or at least the fields of the data structure we’re interested in.) Currently, there are 3 different commonly used methods for location:

  1. Fixed offset
  2. Calculation
  3. Iteration

The first method is useful when the data structure is at a fixed location relative to a defined starting point. This is the case for a FAT boot sector, which is located in the first 512 bytes of a partition. The second method (calculation) uses values from one or more other fields (possibly in other data structures) to calculate the location of a data structure (or field). The last method (iteration) examines “chunks” of data, and attempts to identify if the chunks are “valid”, meaning the (eventual) interpretation of the chunk fits predetermined rules for a given data structure.

These three methods aren’t mutually exclusive, meaning they can be combined and intermixed. It might be the case that locating a data structure requires all three methods. For example the ils tool from Sleuthkit, when run against a FAT file system ils first recovers the boot sector, then calculates the start of the data region, and finally iterates over chunks of data in the data region, attempting to validate the chunks as directory entries.

While all three methods require some form of a priori knowledge, the third method (iteration) isn’t necessarily dependent on knowing the fixed offset of a data structure. From a purist perspective, iteration itself really is location. Iteration yields a set of possible locations, as opposed to the first two methods which yield a single location. The validation aspect of iteration is really a combination of the rest of the phases (extraction, decoding, interpretation and reconstruction) combined with post recovery analysis.

Another method for location, that is less common than the previous three is location by outside knowledge from some source. This could be a person who has already performed location, or it could be the source that created the data structure (e.g. the operating system). Due to the flexible and dynamic nature of computing devices, this isn’t commonly used, but it is a possible method.


Once a data structure (or the relevant fields) have been located, the next step is to extract the fields of the data structure out of the stream of bytes. Realize that the “extracting” is really the application of type information. The information from the stream is the same, but we’re using more information about how to access (and possibly manipulate) the value of the field(s). For example the string of bytes 0x64 and 0x53 can be extracted as an ASCII string composed of the characters “dS”, or it could be the (big endian) value 0x6453 (25683 decimal). The information remains the same, but how we access and manipulate the values (e.g. concatenation vs. addition) differs. Knowledge of the type of field provides the context for how to access and manipulate the value, which is used during later phases of decoding, interpretation, and reconstruction.

The extraction of a field that is composed of multiple bytes also requires knowledge of the order of the bytes, commonly referred to as the “endianess”, “byte ordering”, or “big vs. little endian”. Take for instance the 16-bit hexadecimal number 0x6453. Since this is a 16-bit number, we would need two bytes (assuming 8-bit bytes) to store this number. So the value 0x6453 is composed of the (two) bytes 0x64 and 0x53

It’s logical to think that these two bytes would be adjacent to each other in the stream of bytes, and they typically are. The question is now what is the order of the two bytes in the stream?

0x64, 0x53 (big endian)


0x53, 0x64 (little endian)

Obviously the order matters.


After the relevant fields of a data structure have been located and extracted, it’s still possible further extraction is necessary, specifically for bit fields (e.g. flags, attributes, etc.) The difference between this phase and the extraction phase is that extraction extracts information from a stream of bytes and decoding extracts information from the extraction phase. Alternatively, the output from the extraction phase is used as the input to the decoding phase. Both phases however focus on extracting information. Computation using extracted information is reserved for later phases (interpretation and reconstruction).

Another reason to distinguish this phase from extraction is that most (if not all) computing devices can only read (at least) whole bytes, not individual bits. While a human with a hex dump could potentially extract a single bit, software would need to read (at least) a whole byte and extract the various bits within the byte(s).

There isn’t much that happens at this phase, as much of the activity focuses around accessing various bits.


The interpretation phase takes the output of the decoding phase (or the extraction phase if the decoding phase uses only identity functions) and performs various computations using the information. While extraction and decoding focus on extracting and decoding values, interpretation focuses on computation using the extracted (and decoded) values.

Two examples of interpretation are unit conversion, and the calculation of values used during the reconstruction phase. An example of unit conversion would be converting the seconds field of a FAT time stamp from it’s native format (seconds/2) to a more logical format (seconds). A useful computation for reconstruction might be to calculate the size of the FAT region (in bytes) for a FAT file system (bytes per sector * size of one FAT structure (in sectors) * number of FAT structures.)

Since this phase is used heavily by the reconstruction phase, it’s not uncommon to see this phase embodied in the code for reconstruction. However this phase is still a logically separate component.


This is the last phase of recovering digital evidence. Information from previous phases is used to reconstruct a usable representation of the data structure (or at least the relevant fields.) Possible usable representations include:

  • A language specific construct or class (e.g. Python date object or a C integer)
  • Printable text (e.g. output from fsstat)
  • A file (e.g. file carving)

The idea is that the output from this phase can be used for some further analysis (e.g. timeline generation, analyzing email headers, etc.) Some tools might also perform some error checking during reconstruction, failing if the entire data structure is unable to be properly recovered. While this might be useful in some automated scenarios, it has the downside of potentially missing useful information when only part of the structure is available or is valid.

At this point, we’ve gone into more detail of each phase and hopefully explained in enough depth the purpose and types of activity that happen in each. The next (and last) post in this series is an example of applying the five phases to recovering a short name directory entry from a FAT file system.


  1. […] The five phases of recovering digital evidence – Part 2 in the series… This is the second post in a series about the five phases of recovering data structures from a stream of bytes (a form of digital evidence recovery). In the last post we discussed what data structures were, how they related to digital forensics, and a high level overview of the five phases of recovery. In this post we’ll examine each of the five phases in finer grained detail. […]

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