An organization receives a ransom note from threat actors in the middle of the night and realizes critical data has been stolen, web applications are no longer functioning, and their SQL servers are encrypted. It’s the worst-case scenario. Thanks to an incident response (IR) team, which includes digital forensics specialists who are able to see how much of the environment is affected and determine the root case, the organization is back up and running in under 24 hours. In addition, the digital forensics team runs a full analysis of the attack, determines which data was stolen, and informs the organization on next steps.
When an incident occurs — be it ransomware, a vulnerability exploit, or another kind of sophisticated attack — digital forensics can be the difference between quick restoration and remediation or costly, extended down time.
But understanding the role digital forensics plays, what effective digital forensics is, and whether or not an IR provider has strong digital forensics, is more complicated.
What is Digital Forensics?
Digital forensics is the process of identifying, collecting, and analyzing digital evidence. In the case of a cyber attack or data breach, digital forensics is used to understand how the breach occurred and what data was taken, which informs restoration and remediation steps as well as proactive cybersecurity measures to prevent a future incident.
Digital forensics and incident response are often grouped together due to how they work in tandem and can be referred to as digital forensics incident response (DFIR).
In the example above, the digital forensics team was able to determine which servers were encrypted, what data was exfiltrated and the root cause of the incident. The team was able to provide an exact list to leadership of the volume and specifics of the data stolen and determine that an internal worker clicked on a malicious email attachment, giving hackers access to their workstation, which launched the ransomware attack. That kind of specificity and actionable insights can make a major difference during and after a cyber attack.
Digital forensics consists of four branches, which often work together on an incident investigation:
- Computer forensics, who investigate physical computer and digital storage evidence
- Mobile device forensics, who focus on digital evidence from mobile devices
- Network forensics, who monitor and analyze network activity
- Database forensics, who investigate database access, including user behavior and data changes
How Digital Forensics Works
While the specifics of digital forensics vary from incident case to incident case, the work always follows a set process. This process includes:
- Collection of digital evidence
- Identification and extraction of evidence
- Analyzing evidence and data to determine how the attack occurred, what occurred, and what steps can be taken next
- Reporting the results to the rest of the incident team and the client
This thorough process is why digital forensics plays such an important role in IR.
Digital Forensics Role in Incident Response
In the example above, the digital forensics team was able to determine which servers were encrypted, and by learning that it was only a small portion of the overall servers, was able to help the organization get up and running faster. In addition, digital forensics was able to determine which data was taken and identify the root cause. Both of these insights could be used to inform the organization’s response and next steps, for example an SEC disclosure filing or a public announcement, as well as guide them in proactive steps to prevent a repeat incident. In this case, security awareness training and employee education on social engineering.
Understanding the root cause of an incident, restoration, and remediation are the three main goals for an IR team, and all are heavily facilitated by digital forensics, which can not only help reduce the initial scope of the attack but can help organizations get up and running faster while preventing future cyber attacks.
By investigating and providing valuable information to the rest of the IR team, digital forensics allows the IR team to work fast, often in parallel, reducing overall downtime for the organization. The IR team will know, based on the digital forensics investigation, the exact scope of the incident, the root cause, and what steps are needed to restore an organization’s environment, fast. Days of downtime could equal millions of dollars lost, especially for large organizations, not to mention the impact of interrupted operations for sectors such as healthcare or government, so being able to restore operations as soon as possible is critical.
Just as incident response has proactive and reactive components, there are proactive steps an organization can take to streamline digital forensics during an incident. Having strong cybersecurity architecture, having knowledge of the IT environment, and having tools such as managed detection and response (MDR) that can gather and correlate data beyond the endpoint, not only can reduce the scope of an incident and stop it before it escalates, but can aid digital forensics in their investigation, leading to a better, more through, and faster response.
While digital forensics is just one piece of the incident response puzzle, it’s a vital one, and having experienced experts in digital forensics is critical when containing and remediating a major incident. Due to the modern IT landscape, digital evidence can be spread among multiple physical locations (such as applications, servers, and the cloud), the threat actor could have used advanced tactics, techniques, and procedure (TTPs) which could hinder digital forensics investigations, or the incident could be so severe that the forensics element becomes complicated and labor-intensive. This means it’s important that, if an organization has a retainer or is working with their cyber insurance provider, they choose a preferred partner with reputable, comprehensive digital forensics capabilities.
Arctic Wolf Incident Response and Digital Forensics
Digital forensics is at the core of Arctic Wolf Incident Response, and our advanced digital forensics team works in parallel with the IR team for a faster response, complete remediation, and quicker restoration. Our digital forensics team detects the root cause in over 90% of cases. For organizations, this means they will gain insights into both the incident and their own environment, allowing them to take actions to prevent future incidents. For incident response, this means the IR team will know exactly what’s needed to restore and rebuild and organization’s environment based on both the root cause and the extent.
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