It seems to me that more and more cases I see only have evidence within unallocated clusters. It is also a frustration that the CPS seem less and less interested in any artefact found there. They seem to have the view that any thing currently living in unallocated clusters somehow magically arrived there and has nothing whatever to do with the computer's user.
Obviously we try and address this misconception, by trying to investigate how the evidence in question came to be on the computer, and to a lesser extent how it came to be deleted. Which brings me on to another frustration - file wiping software. This is another thing I see more and more. Properly configured file wiping software eliminates the little fragments of evidence we use to piece our cases together.
Recently I was faced with this scenario - evidence could only be found in unallocated and there was file wiping software sat there in program files. Sentencing Advisory Panel guidelines allude to the presence of file wiping software being an aggravating factor to consider when sentencing. But in this case it occurred to me that it would be evidentially useful to know just how often my suspect used the file wiping software concerned. File time stamps may indicate when the program was last executed and installation dates can be discerned from a variety of locations (registry entries, folder creation dates and so on) but where do you establish how often the program was used? You never know -it may write to a log file or create event log entries but many don't. In my case the answer lay in two areas - Prefetch and User Assist.
My suspect was using Microsoft Windows XP. This OS (as the later Vista and Windows 7) performs application and boot prefetching. This process is designed to speed up the loading of applications (with regards to application prefetching) by storing data required by the program during the first ten seconds of use in a file - a prefetch file. These files are stored in the Windows/Prefetch folder and have a .pf file extension. The file names are a combination of the applications name and a hash of its file path. The hash may be useful in some cases because it could indicate that an application lives in more than one location (which is often suspicious). Some work on analysing the hash algorithm has been carried out by Yogesh Khatri at 42llc. The files themselves contain some useful information including last time of execution, the number of times the program was run and references to files and the file system utilised by the program in its first ten seconds of use. Unfortunately prefetch files are not differentiated by user. In my case the file wiping software had a prefetch file. There are a number of options open to us to analyse the prefetch file.
If all you need is the time of last execution and number of time the application was run for just one file you may as well do it manually. For Windows XP at file offset 120 an 8 byte Windows Filetime is stored which is the Last Execution Time. At file offset 144 the number of executions is stored as a four byte Dword. For Vista and Windows 7 the offsets are different - 128 and 152 respectively.
If you have a number of prefetch files to analyse or you wish to corroborate your findings you could try the Mitec Windows File Analyzer program or run an enscript. Guidance Software's download center has two enscripts that fit the bill. PfDump.Enpack and Prefetch File Analysis. Pfdump outputs to the console and the Prefetch File Analysis enscript outputs to bookmarks.
UserAssist is a method used to populate a user's start menu with frequently used applications. This is achieved by maintaining a count of application use in each users NTUSER.DAT registry file. I use Access Data's Registry Viewer application to parse and decode this information. Simon Key has written a cool enscript which is bang up to date with Windows 7 support. Detailed information, including the changes introduced with Windows 7, and the script can be found within GSI's download center.
In my case I encountered a possible anomaly in that the Prefetch and UserAssist run counts were different. With multiple users you would expect this as the Prefetch run count is not user specific. I had only one user in my case and the UserAssist count was significantly greater albeit that both were four figure numbers. A possible explanation is that if the application's prefetch file is deleted when the application is next used the prefetch run count starts again from 1.