grep Search Limitations


Keyword searches are very basic in Autopsy. Autopsy uses the strings and grep tools on the image and when a hit is found, it uses ifind and ffind to identify the file that has allocated the string. This is a very simple and basic method of searching and is not ideal. This will cause false positives and will miss data that crosses a fragmented part of a file. The limitations are outlined in this file.

What Will Be Found

strings is first run on the image and the data is passed to grep to do the actual search. This process will find ASCII and UNICODE strings that are consecutive anywhere in the file. This is frequently referred to as the physical layout. For example, it will find strings in the middle of an allocated sector, in an unallocated sector, in slack space, and in meta data strutures. This will find a string that crosses sectors, which is good if the two sectors are for the same file.

This technique leads to several types of false positives. For example, a string that crosses from the allocated space of a file into the slack space would be found by grep. A string that starts in the slack space and ends in the allocated space of a file will also be found. A string that crosses sectors of two different allocated files will also be found. The user must identify if the hit is an actual hit or a false positive.

What Will Be Found, but May Be Confusing

If you are searching with regular expressions, then the exact location and number of hits may not be correctly reported. If the count is incorrect, then it will be too small. If the location is incorrect, then it will be too early (and could even be in the next data unit). The reason that this is in accurate is because the grep tool will return a long string to Autopsy that will contain one or more occurances of the keyword. Autopsy can not search the long string to find the exact number and location of the regular expression keywords like it can for non-regular expression keywords, so it returns only the starting location of the long string.

What Will NOT Be Found

The biggest category of 'hits' that will not occur using this technique is strings in a file that cross fragmented data units. For example, consider a file that has two clusters allocated, cluster 100 and cluster 150. A string "mississippi" could have "missi" in the final 5 bytes of cluster 100 and "ssippi" in the initial 6 bytes of cluster 150. The string exists from the logial level, but not at the physical level. Therefore, the grep search would not find the string.

Although not because of grep, Autopsy will also not find data in the slack space during an unallocated-only search. The extraction tool for The Sleuth Kit (blkls) differentiates between unallocated sectors in FAT and NTFS and slack space. There is currently no way in Autopsy to extract the slack space and search it. Autopsy currently only extracts the unallocated sectors and not the allocated sectors that may have deleted data in them.


Autopsy has basic keyword search functionality. Future versions may provide more features and better search results. In the mean time, it is important that users understand the abilities and limitations of the tool so that they can be taken into account during the investigation.
Brian Carrier