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How Computer Forensics Works

If the anti-forensic measures taken were drastic enough, investigators may not ever crack into the computer system.
If the anti-forensic measures taken were drastic enough, investigators may not ever crack into the computer system.
©iStockphoto/Marc Dietrich

Anti-forensics can be a computer investigator's worst nightmare. Programmers design anti-forensic tools to make it hard or impossible to retrieve information during an investigation. Essentially, anti-forensics refers to any technique, gadget or software designed to hamper a computer investigation.

There are dozens of ways people can hide information. Some programs can fool computers by changing the information in files' headers. A file header is normally invisible to humans, but it's extremely important -- it tells the computer what kind of file the header is attached to. If you were to rename an mp3 file so that it had a .gif extension, the computer would still know the file was really an mp3 because of the information in the header. Some programs let you change the information in the header so that the computer thinks it's a different kind of file. Detectives looking for a specific file format could skip over important evidence because it looked like it wasn't relevant.

Other programs can divide files up into small sections and hide each section at the end of other files. Files often have unused space called slack space. With the right program, you can hide files by taking advantage of this slack space. It's very challenging to retrieve and reassemble the hidden information.

It's also possible to hide one file inside another. Executable files -- files that computers recognize as programs -- are particularly problematic. Programs called packers can insert executable files into other kinds of files, while tools called binders can bind multiple executable files together.

Encryption is another way to hide data. When you encrypt data, you use a complex set of rules called an algorithm to make the data unreadable. For example, the algorithm might change a text file into a seemingly meaningless collection of numbers and symbols. A person wanting to read the data would need the encryption's key, which reverses the encryption process so that the numbers and symbols would become text. Without the key, detectives have to use computer programs designed to crack the encryption algorithm. The more sophisticated the algorithm, the longer it will take to decrypt it without a key.

Other anti-forensic tools can change the metadata attached to files. Metadata includes information like when a file was created or last altered. Normally you can't change this information, but there are programs that can let a person alter the metadata attached to files. Imagine examining a file's metadata and discovering that it says the file won't exist for another three years and was last accessed a century ago. If the metadata is compromised, it makes it more difficult to present the evidence as reliable.

Some computer applications will erase data if an unauthorized user tries to access the system. Some programmers have examined how computer forensics programs work and have tried to create applications that either block or attack the programs themselves. If computer forensics specialists come up against such a criminal, they have to use caution and ingenuity to retrieve data.

A few people use anti-forensics to demonstrate how vulnerable and unreliable computer data can be. If you can't be sure when a file was created, when it was last accessed or even if it ever existed, how can you justify using computer evidence in a court of law? While that may be a valid question, many countries do accept computer evidence in court, though the standards of evidence vary from one country to another.

What exactly are the standards of evidence? We'll find out in the next section.