What did they take when they left? Part 2 – Finding out what they ran before they left

What did they take when they left? Part 2 – Finding out what they ran before they left

Hello Reader,

        In Part 1 we discussed how to determine if a CD was burned. Knowing what application it was burned with and what other tools they ran before they left is also important.

  1. User Assist

One way to determine this is with the user assist registry keys. Over the years since the user assist registry keys were first discovered (they were included in our windows analysis chapter in 2005) many people have realized the impact it can have on their case. The User Assistance functionality has existed since Windows 2000 and is a registry key divided into two parts that keeps track of recently used programs and files for the start menu.

The user assist registry key exists in each user's ntuser.dat under the key: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\UserAssist

Of which there are multiple keys depending on the version of windows you are examining, two for windows 2000, xp, 2003 and three for windows vista, server 2008, under which you will find a count key that contains the actual data we are looking for. Entries are encoded in rot13 and if you are not using one the tools listed in this blog you will need to decode them yourself to read the entries.

There are multiple tools that support the user assist registry keys for analysis (Accessdata's registry viewer and Didier Stevens tool for instance) that will quickly allow you to see:

  1. What program or file was accessed
  2. How many times the program or file has been accessed through windows explorer
  3. The last time the program or file was accessed through windows explorer

As a simple example, I use Microsoft Office a lot. In fact I write my blog posts in it as it can directly post them to blogger (hopefully catching all my typos). So a decoded user assist entry for Office in my registry looks like this:

"{75048700-EF1F-11D0-9888-006097DEACF9}","20","UEME_RUNPATH:C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office12\WINWORD.EXE","","54","37","3/22/2009 9:25:59 PM"

This entry was found in:


Decoding the entry section by section we see:

  1. {75048700-EF1F-11D0-9888-006097DEACF9} - the registry key under user assist that this belongs to, data appears to be grouped into categories based on these id's.
  2. 20 – The index number this number increments as entries are added to this key. In this case this is the 20th entry logged. If you have a program executed multiple times, such as my Word 2007 program, sorting by the index number will give you an idea of when it was first executed.
  3. UEME_RUNPATH:C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office12\WINWORD.EXE – This is two pieces of info combined into one:
    1. UEME_RUNPATH – This is the prefix for all entries that will give you a full path to the program or file being accessed
    2. C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Office12\WINWORD.EXE – this is the full path to the program or file executed
  4. 54 – This is the session, its use is still unknown
  5. 37 – This is the number of times the program has been executed
  6. 3/22/2009 9:25:59 PM – This is the last time the key was updated and should be the last time it was executed

Going through the user assist then allows us to find out what programs where being executed around the time that for instance a CD was burned. Sorting the entries for that time we can see what was being executed around that time. If there is no corresponding entry you may want to look at the restore points for backups of the ntuser.dat close to time of the burn to find the program executed.

If the user assist keys is missing two things could have occurred

  1. The user disabled them, there will be a registry key created showing this if true.
  2. The user has deleted them, this can be an indication of some type of 'cleaning' tool being run such as Crap Cleaner.

Now the user assist registry keys are not the only place to look for what programs have been executed. We don't want to rely solely on access times as they change so easily and don't prove that a program was actually executed. We want to focus on artifacts created because of an execution of which there are two other well documented sets of artifacts that show the actual execution of a program.

  1. Shortcut/Lnk Files

Stored in several locations depending on its function LNK files so named because of the extension '.LNK' that is given to them. We will discuss LNK files in more detail in the next post as they are an extreme wealth of information but for the purposes of this post it can suffice to say that we can use LNK files to determine if a program was executed through it.

The start menu for each user stored from windows 2000 and on is under the user's profile directory (\documents and settings\<user>\start menu in xp and \users\<user>\start menu in vista and 2008) contains a LNK file for each of the files listed in the user's start menu when the click the start button. So each time a user loads a program through it the modified date of the LNK file will change to reflect it. This also applies to any other instance of the lnk file such as in the quick launch bar or on the desktop.

So for instance my Office 2007 LNK file in the start menu shows a created time of 11/24/2008 which is when I installed office 2007 on this computer. The modification date is 3/22/09 9:25pm which is the last time I used the LNK file to load up office 2007. You can see that the prefetch reference below says 9:26pm, it takes a couple second between the time I clicked the LNK and when the prefetch file gets created.

  1. Prefetch Files

Stored in the \Windows\Prefetch directory there is one .pf file for each of a max of 128 programs and the last modified time is updated each time the program is executed. The Forensic Wiki has a nice write up on prefetch files. There are several tools out there for parsing prefect files, one that is free is part of the Windows File Analyzer program. If I were to analyze the prefetch file for Office 2007 I would see the following:

File name: WINWORD.EXE-6AC9169C.pf

Last loaded: 3/22/09 and 9:26PM

This is when I started writing this blog post, it's been a couple days of research catching up on old topics to see what people have figured out.

So the prefetch file is a third correlation point we can use to determine if and when a program has been executed.

  1. Conclusion

So we now have three separate sources on a typical Windows system that we can use to determine what programs had been executed (the first and last times), when and how many times they have been executed. These are not the only places we can look for this information but they are three of the most reliable due to the nature of their creation and use. If you find that all of this data is missing then it becomes almost certain that either

  1. The system is being reimaged each time it reboots/logs in (some public access terminals do this)
  2. A cleaning/wiping tool has been run

I plan to make a post on how to determine what a user has wiped after this series but if a cleaning tool has not been run one or all of these sources will allow you to state for a fact what program was executed to:

  1. Run a backup program (such as the ones that are packaged with some external hard drives like retrospect)
  2. Burn a CD
  3. Run an ftp program
  4. Access some kind of archiving or copy tool

Which will then lead to the next question and our next post in the series : Part 3 - Where did it go and what did they take?

Also Read - Links to All parts: 

What did they take when they left? Part 4 (External Devices) - Where did it go and what did they take?

What did they take when they left? Part 3 - Where did it go and what did they take?

What did they take when they left? Part 2 – Finding out what they ran before they left

What did they take when they left? Part 1 - Detecting CD Burning


  1. Really good post, looking forward to part 3.

  2. RegRipper extracts this information quickly and efficiently, as well. In fact, I am using rip and the useassist plugin on a current engagement, and I didn't find what I was looking for (ie, running a particular app). I knew that the app was installed due to the existence of a specific keyword in one of the Uninstall key entries (extracted from the Software hive file via RegRipper). I then ran the TypedURLs plugin across the 13 NTUSER.DAT files that I had extracted from the image, and narrowed the specific activity to two accounts. Now it's on to Pasco (after using ProDiscover's Find Internet Histroy function) to get the information I need in a reportable format.

  3. Hi Harvey,
    I really should have included regripper here, I've been using it lately instead of registry viewer for exactly this purpose. When I move into the next post where I detail more registry locations to view I will make sure to do so. Thanks for the tool btw, very handy.

  4. UserAssist entries can be extremely useful, particularly in determining the use of CD Burning functionality. Look for the use of a CD/DVD burning application, such as Sonic, Nero, or whatever is installed. Remember that on XP systems in particular, if a driver is installed when a burner application is installed, a System Restore Point will be created, and that can help you with your timeline information.

    Speaking of Restore Points, I have a variant of RegRipper that I call "ripXP" that I use to run RegRipper plugins across Restore Points automatically, giving me a historic view of the Registry entries. Very nice to have in a number of cases.

    Back to CD burning...RegRipper includes a plugin for extracting MRU information from the Registry with respect to the CD/DVD burning application GUI. By default, the only entries that I've seen here have been ISO files (Helix, Linux distros, etc.), but it still shows usage. As these files are accessed through the shell, in many instances, you will also find references to them in the user's RecentDocs subkey entries.

  5. You know Harvey, H(arlan C)arvey, everyone is abbreviating these days.

    Not really, I messed up but atleast I could find a good excuse. Thanks for the mention on your blog looking forward to your second edition.

  6. This is excellent information. Im looking forward to part 3 as this is what all my legal folks want to know. "What did they take, and where did it go?"

  7. Great post! Nothing is better than seeing some real content on the internet. Keep up the good work you should be proud. Most people do not know about the PreFetch folder in Windows! I touched basis on it on my blog in my windows tweak section. You should check out my Computer Hacking Blog when you have the chance. I have favorited this blog because I am looking forward to reading more great posts in the near future. Dont stop, knowledge is power.

  8. I really liked this post. very helpful and understandable.