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Harnessing MFT parsing for incident response investigations

In digital forensics, master file table (MFT) parsing and analysis stands as an efficient way to triage and quickly unravel complex cyber incidents. As the digital landscape evolves and threats become more sophisticated, the significance of MFT parsing for incident response (IR) investigations cannot be overstated. 

In this blog post, we delve into the importance and benefits of MFT parsing and how Axiom Cyber enables you to triage an endpoint with built-in MFT parsing and analysis. 

What is an MFT? 

In the Windows NTFS file system, the MFT is a database that stores metadata about every file on an NTFS file system volume. It contains records describing each file’s attributes, such as its name, size, timestamps, permissions, and more. As files are added, an entry is made on the MFT and the size of the MFT increases. When a file is deleted, the entry is marked as free, but the disk space allocated to it is not reallocated, so the size of the MFT does not decrease.  

To learn more about the MFT, check out Microsoft’s Master File Table article

Why use $MFT parsing in incident response? 

In the aftermath of a security breach or cyber incident, time is of the essence. Rapid and precise analysis is crucial to mitigate the impact and remediate vulnerabilities in the organization’s infrastructure.  

MFT parsing provides forensic examiners with insights that can be used to quickly triage an incident by reviewing the file system content and any changes. For example, MFT parsing can support: 

  • Investigating malware (including ransomware): Malware, including ransomware, creates several anomalies in the MFT including modifying file timestamps and creating or deleting files. MFT analysis is especially useful in ransomware cases as so many files are often modified at once. This makes it easy to spot when the infection occurred allowing you to work back from that point in time to find the vulnerability. 
  • Timeline reconstruction: By examining file metadata such as creation, modification, and access timestamps, analysts can trace the sequence of actions taken by threat actors, facilitating a clearer understanding of the attack chain. 
  • Identifying suspicious activities: Every time a file is accessed, metadata about that event is captured. Investigators can use the MFT to detect unauthorized file creation or unusual file access patterns which serve as red flags indicating potential malicious activity. 
  • User activity analysis: The MFT contains valuable information about user interactions with files and directories. By analyzing MFT records, investigators can attribute specific actions to individual users, supporting the identification of insider threats or unauthorized access to sensitive files such as IP.  
  • Evidence preservation for legal proceedings: By capturing MFT data in a forensically sound manner, investigators ensure the integrity and admissibility of evidence in legal proceedings. 

MFT parsing in Magnet Axiom Cyber 

Parsing an MFT in Axiom Cyber is simple. You’ll start by selecting Windows as your evidence source, and MFT as your file type which allows you to upload the MFT file for processing and analysis. Or you can remotely acquire the MFT using the remote acquisition capabilities in Axiom Cyber.

Using the File Explorer view, you can examine the entire file system tree and search and filter the data to locate suspicious or noteworthy entries. 

Once you’ve analyzed the MFT and confirmed that there is suspicious activity on the file system, you can go back and process the entire image. This saves you time from processing an entire image only to find that there is nothing suspicious on the endpoint. This workflow also gives you a great starting point for the rest of your deep dive. 


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