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Microsoft Security
5 min read

Your guide to mobile digital forensics

The security community is continuously changing, growing, and learning from each other to better position the world against cyber threats. In the latest Voice of the Community blog series post, Microsoft Security Product Marketing Manager Natalia Godyla talks with Cellebrite Senior Director of Digital Intelligence Heather Mahalik. In this blog post, Heather talks about digital forensics, from technical guidance to hiring best practices, with a special focus on mobile forensics. 

Natalia: What is digital forensics and why is it important?

Heather: Cybersecurity is more about prevention, protection, and defense. Digital forensics is the response and is typically triggered by an incident. There are some people who say, “Oh no, we do things proactively.” For example, someone might be traveling to a foreign country, and they want to know if something is going to land on their mobile device. You may proactively scan or carry out forensics on that device before and then see what changed after. That would be a rare situation, but usually, it’s when an incident occurs and you need someone to come in and clean it up.

Natalia: How does mobile forensics differ from other forms of forensics?

Heather: Mobile forensics is fast-moving. Mobile device companies update devices and operating systems all the time. The applications we rely upon are updating. When I did digital forensics as a whole—computers, PC, and macOS—the updates weren’t the same as on mobile. There are also levels and encryption that keep us out, and they are different on every mobile device.

When I learned forensics in 2002, it was: “Here’s a hard drive. This is how the data is laid out. This is what you can expect every single time.” You can never expect the same thing every single time with mobile forensics. In every single case you work on, there will be a variance that requires you to learn something new. I love it because I can’t get bored, but it’s also frustrating. It’s so hard to say, “OK, I’m now a master.” You’re never a master of mobile forensics.

Natalia: What does the workflow for mobile forensics look like?

Heather: I always use the terminology cradle-to-grave forensics—you get it when it first starts, and you put it to rest with your report. If you are doing beginning to end, you’re starting with the mobile device in front of you. One thing to consider is remote access, which can be good and bad. Some of the third-party applications require that a device connects to a network to extract information, but that goes against everything you’ll read about forensics. Isolate from a network. Make sure it’s protected. No connections to the device.

The next phase is to acquire the data from the device, and there are many different tools and methods to do that. You need as much access to that file system as you can get because we need all the logs in the background to do a thorough analysis.

After that, I recommend triage. Consider how you’re going to solve the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Are there any clues that you can get immediately from that device? Then dive in deeper with your forensics and analytical tools.

Natalia: What’s the best way to approach an investigation?

Heather: There was a study where they had people work on the same case in different ways. One person was given the whole case scenario—“This is what we think happened”—and another person was just asked specific questions—“Please find these things.” In the middle is the best—“We are trying to solve for X. These are the questions that I think will help us get to X. Can you answer them?”

If other people start shooting holes in your report, you need additional evidence, and that’s usually what will force validation. If someone sees that report and they’re not fighting it, it’s because they know that it’s the truth.

Natalia: What common mistakes do forensics investigators make?

Heather: The biggest mistake I see is trusting what a forensics tool reports without validating the evidence. Think about your phone. Did the artifact sync from a computer that your roommate is using and now it’s on your phone? Is it a suggestion, like when you’re typing into a search browser and it makes recommendations? Is it a shared document that you didn’t edit? There are all these considerations of how the evidence got there. You should not go from extracting a phone to reporting. There is a big piece in between. Verify and validate with more than one method and tool before you put it in your report.

Natalia: Are forensics investigation teams typically in-house or consultants?

Heather: There could be both. It depends on how frequently you need someone. I’ve been a consultant to big companies that offer incident response services. They don’t typically see mobile incidents, so they wanted me there just in case. If you do hire one person, don’t expect them to be a master of mobile, macOS, PC, and network security.

If you’re doing incident response investigations, you want someone with incident response, memory forensics, and network forensics experience. In the environments I’ve been in, we need dead disk forensics experience, so we need people who are masters of PC, macOS, and mobile because it’s usually data at rest that’s collected. It’s more terrorism and crime versus ransomware and hacking. You must weigh what you’re investigating, and if it’s all those things—terrorism/crime and ransomware/hacking —you need a forensics team because it’s rare that people are on both sides of that spectrum and really good at both.

Natalia: What advice would you give a security leader looking to hire and manage a forensics team?

Heather: When hiring people, question what they know. I’ve worked at many places where I was on the hiring team, and someone would say, “If they have X certification, they can skip to the next level.” Just because I don’t have a certification doesn’t mean I don’t know it. You also don’t know how someone scored. Make sure it’s a good cultural fit as well because with what we do in forensics, you need to rely on your teammates to get you through some of the things you come across.

When it comes to skill-building, I recommend encouraging your team to play in any free Capture the Flag provided by vendors, like SANS Institute. An employer could even put people together and say, “I want you three to work together and see how you do.” Letting your employees take training that inspires them and makes them want to keep learning is important.

Natalia: I appreciate you mentioning the difficulties of the role. It’s important to openly discuss the mental health challenges of being an investigator. How do you handle what you find in your investigations? And how do tools, like DFIR review, help?

Heather: I lean on my coworkers a lot. Especially if it’s a big case—like a missing person, someone going to trial, or someone losing their job—it’s a lot of pressure on you. You need people who understand that pressure and help you leave it behind because if it’s constantly going through your mind, it’s not healthy.

Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR) review came out about two years ago. I have put many of my whitepapers and research through the deeper review process because it’s a group of other experts that validate your work. That makes a lot of organizations feel comfortable. “I know this device was wiped on X date and someone tried to cover their tracks because Heather wrote a paper, and it was peer-reviewed, and it got the gold seal.” That relieves a lot of pressure.

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