Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Understanding Slack Space

To understand slack space you must first understand how a computer manages files. This is quite simple. When you create a file, such as a word document, your computer assigns it a place in the File Allocation Table (FAT), creates a directory entry and saves the file to a cluster on the hard drive. For now we will call the file "forensics.docx" and we are going to pretend the document was 3 pages long with approximately 900 words and 7100 characters. (Characters include each letter of a word and the spaces in between. They are basically each stroke of the keyboard that is recorded by the computer.)

To further simplify that it basically files the document away using the computers storage system. The equivalent of that in the real world is the same as a doctor's office labeling a manila folder with your name and a unique identifying number (this is like using the FAT on a computer) so they can find you easier when you return and then placing that file into their records room (this is like the hard drive). The directory in an office setting is the nurse's knowledge of the offices record keeping. For example, they may assign all the patients by birth date and an initial for their last name resulting in a number such as 19841201B. On a computer you would see the directory as something like "C://User/Documents/forensics.docx" while logged into your user account.

When you delete a document or send it to the recycle bin on newer Window's operating systems, the file is not actually deleted. The first letter of the file name is changed by the system and the FAT entry is voided to indicate that the file can be ignored. The document is still there in the same place, but it cannot be seen any longer because the computer is ignoring it.

Now you have a new document to save. Let's consider that you name the new document the exact same name as the original document. This forensics.docx is only two pages long and less than 600 words. The computer completes the same activities when you save it. However, it may not have saved the file in the exact same place as the original. (Going back to the doctor's office example, the files would not have the same birth date and therefore may not be in the same location.)

If by chance the computer does save the file to the exact same location, it would only save the new document over part of the old document because the new document is smaller and does not need as much space. This leaves the remaining 300+ words of space that the original document used still visible to forensic software. This additional space is called "slack space" and is one of the first places a computer forensics examiner would look.

Now, let's consider one more possibility. You want to make sure the document is deleted and that no evidence remains that you created it. So you open the document instead of using the delete button on your keyboard. You highlight all 900 words in the document and you press the backspace key. Then you paste in some other words and save the document using the original name. The document has changed, those words are no longer there and you think you've beaten the system. You haven't! Unless you replace all 900 words and 7100 characters, there will still be remnants of the old information still in your slack space.

Then there is also the possibility that once upon a time your computer shut down while you were working on the document and there is an auto save copy on the hard drive you didn't know existed. If you printed it, there is the copy of the file that was spooled for printing still on the hard drive. Your best option -- don't save incriminating documents on your hard drive in the first place. Electronic evidence is often harder to dispute than real life evidence in a court of law.

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