Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mac Live Imaging: Functionality Versus Speed

My series on imaging a Mac would not be complete without covering how to do a live acquisition of a Mac. Now that FileVault2 appears to be the default during installs with Sierra, a live image may be very useful moving forward:

If a hard drive is encrypted, a live image will allow you to create a logical image of the partition in an unencrypted state. In my previous posts I covered how to image a Mac using single user mode and a Linux USB boot disk. I've put off doing this blog post because there is a very detailed and well written post by Matt at 505Forensics that covers this topic. In his blog post, Matt walks though step by step how to image a Mac using the FTK Imager command line tool for Mac OS X operating systems. As such, I wanted to cover how to do a live image using the dd command as another option.

Out in the field, I've found that it seems to take a longer time when using FTK Imager. I finally had a chance to do some testing and found that it took FTK Imager almost 2 hours to image a drive to a raw image (no compression). It took just 15 minutes using dd with an MD5. My test system was a MacBook Air, Early 2015, OS X El Capitan with a 75GB partition that was being imaged.

Using FTK command line has some distinct advantages over dd. There are options to compress the image, choose e01 format and supply case information.  However, if time and speed are an issue, dd may be a better option. For example, I've been onsite when 10 Macs needed to be imaged - dd was nice to use so we could finish up in time for dinner. If you can leave an image running overnight  - it's probably not as critical. See below for the test data:

FTK Imager: Total image time 1 hour, 49 min and 04 sec:

dd image with md5: 15 minutes

Please note - this testing is not by any means extensive (unlike the recent testing by Eric Zimmerman on some forensic software). I created several images using both methods and the image times listed above were about the same.

The first step is to run diskutil to see what the disk layout looks like and to determine what to image. I like to do this before I plug in my external USB. This makes it easier to see what drive needs to be imaged.

diskutil list

No FileVault2/No Encryption

My system has both OS X and Windows (Bootcamp) installed. As you can see /dev/disk0 is my physical drive. Partition 2 is the Machintosh HD and Partition 4 is the Windows aka Bootcamp partition. The logical, active device I want to image is /dev/disk1. As you can see in the screenshot above, it is listed as the logical, unencrypted volume and refers back to disk0s2. (If you do run across a system with Bootcamp you will probably want to grab that partition as well, but for the purpose of this blog post I am focusing on the Mac partition)

Below is a screen shot of what the same system looks like with FileVault2 turned on. Note that it says "Unlocked Encrypted". In this scenario, /dev/disk1 is logical volume I want to image.

Each /dev/disk has a corresponding /dev/rdisk:

rdisk is supposed to be faster than /dev/disk. As such, we are going to use /dev/rdisk1 instead of /dev/disk1 in the dd command.

Now would be a good time to plug in the external drive that will hold the image. On my system it auto mounted under /Volumes/<Device Name>

For dd, I am going to use the syntax suggested by the Forensic Wiki Page. The syntax looks something like this:

sudo dd if=/dev/rdisk1 bs=4k conv=sync,noerror of=/Volumes/MAC-Images/my_image.dd

Lets break down this command:

  • sudo: run as super user
  • if=/dev/rdisk1: this stands for input file. This will be the disk that requires imaging
  • bs=4k : this is the block size used when creating an image. The Forensic Wiki recommends 4k
  • conv=sync,noerror: if there is an error, null fill the rest of the block; do not error out

Better yet - let's add in an MD5 so we can have a hash of the image to make it more "forensicky". In order to do this:

dd if=/dev/rdisk1 bs=4k conv=sync,noerror | tee /Volumes/MAC-Images/my-image.dd | md5 > /Volumes/MAC-Images/my-image-md5.txt

According to the forensic wiki:
"The above alternate imaging command uses dd to read the hard-drive being imaged and outputs the data to tee. tee saves a copy of the data as your image file and also outputs a copy of the data to md5sum. md5sum calculates the hash which gets saved in"
Try not to fat finger the password like I did though...

That's it! Happy imaging whichever tool you use.


  1. Great post, I love seeing things like this! I just barely found out about your blog and the series you've been doing. Have you done any speed tests on Macquisition? Also, I'm have a hard time piecing it together for some reason, but what you're doing is unlocking your encrypted partition while booted into single user mode and imaging to an external hard drive, is that correct? If so, what are the specs of the external hard drive to which you are imaging and is the interface USB 3.1?

  2. Thanks for the great questions. I have not done any speed tests on Macquisition as I don't have access to the software. You are correct - when a user/examiner logs into the system, the partition is unencrypted and presented (in this example) as /dev/disk1. The link I presented earlier to 505forensics explains this really well. The external hard drive was an Western Digital My Passport Ultra formatted with HFS+, and the USB interface according to the specs is "USB 3 ports (up to 5 Gbps)".

    Also, you mentioned single user mode - this terminology actually refers to a special mode that I have covered in another blog post (, but the concept is the same. When you boot into single user mode using COMMAND-S and supply the username and password, the partition is mounted in an unencrypted state.