Microsoft Helps Law Enforcement Get Around Encryption

The growing use of encryption software -- like Microsoft's own BitLocker -- by cyber criminals has led Microsoft to develop a set of tools that law enforcement agents can use to get around the software, executives at the company said.

Microsoft first released the toolset, called the Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE), to law enforcement last June and it's now being used by about 2,000 agents around the world, said Anthony Fung, senior regional manager for Asia Pacific in Microsoft's Internet Safety and Anti-Counterfeiting group. Microsoft gives the software to agents for free.

While Microsoft can point to wide usage of COFEE, some experts are skeptical about using that type of tool to recover data, and even the developer of the product at Microsoft acknowledges that it's not accepted by some users.

Fung, who initiated the creation of COFEE, spent 12 years as a police officer in Hong Kong, with the final seven dedicated to fighting cybercrime. When he joined Microsoft, he sought to devise a way that agents could do better at finding valuable information on computers used by cyber criminals.

When he was an officer, the protocol for handling computer crime was to remove a computer from the scene of the crime, taking it back to the lab where computer scientists would search it for information. In many regions of the world this is still the standard procedure. "At that time everybody followed that principle, but they knew that once they unplugged the computer, which was the guideline, a lot of potential information was lost," Fung said.

That's because data on an encrypted system is accessible to police so long as the criminal has logged on and the PC remains on. But if police shut the system down, they need to have the criminal's password to get past the encryption software when the computer boots back up. The release of Vista has accelerated the problem because BitLocker, a data encryption feature, comes with Windows Vista Enterprise and Ultimate versions, Fung said.

"Criminals are taking advantage of these technologies like BitLocker," Fung said. "BitLocker was the real driving force because it's becoming ubiquitous." In addition to BitLocker, other hard disk encryption methods, like one from PGP, also frustrate agents, he said.

While COFEE doesn't break BitLocker or open a back door, it captures live data on the computer, which is why it's important for agents not to shut down the computer first, he said.

COFEE is a set of software tools that can be loaded onto a USB drive. Brad Smith, general counsel at Microsoft, called it a "Swiss Army knife for law enforcement officers," because it includes 150 tools. A law enforcement agent connects the USB drive to a computer at the scene of a crime and it takes a snapshot of important information on the computer. It can save information such as what user was logged on and for how long and what files were running at that time, Fung said. It can be used on a computer using any type of encryption software, not just BitLocker.

Previously, an officer might spend three or four hours digging up the information manually, but COFEE lets them do it in about 20 minutes, he said.

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