Email Headers

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Email Headers are lines of metadata attached to each email that contain lots of useful information for a forensic investigator. However, email headers can be easily forged, so they should never be used as the only source of information.

Making Sense of Headers

There is no single way to make sense of email headers. Some examiners favor reading from the bottom up, some favor reading from the top down. Because information in the headers can be put there by the user's MUA, a server in transit, or the recipient's MUA, it can be difficult to determine when a line was added.

Mail User Agents

Every MUA sets up the headers for a message slightly differently. Although some headers are required under the applicable RFC, their format and ordering can vary by client. Almost all clients, however, add their headers in a fixed format and order. The examiner can use the format and order for each client to show that messages were forged, but not that they were legitimate. For example, if a message purports to be from Apple Mail but the order or the headers do not match the Apple Mail Header Format, the message has been forged. If the headers of the message do match that format, however, it does not guarantee that the message was sent by that program.

Servers in Transit

Mail servers can add lines onto email headers, usually in the form of "Received" lines, like this:

Received: by servername.recipeienthost.com (Postfix, from userid 506)
	id 77C30808A; Sat, 24 Feb 2007 20:43:56 -0500 (EST)

Message Id Field

According to the current guidelines for email RFC 2822), every email should have a Message-ID field:

   The "Message-ID:" field provides a unique message identifier that
   refers to a particular version of a particular message.  The
   uniqueness of the message identifier is guaranteed by the host that
   generates it (see below).  This message identifier is intended to be
   machine readable and not necessarily meaningful to humans.  A message
   identifier pertains to exactly one instantiation of a particular
   message; subsequent revisions to the message each receive new message
   identifiers.

   ...

   The message identifier (msg-id) itself MUST be a globally unique
   identifier for a message.  The generator of the message identifier
   MUST guarantee that the msg-id is unique.  There are several
   algorithms that can be used to accomplish this.  Since the msg-id has
   a similar syntax to angle-addr (identical except that comments and
   folding white space are not allowed), a good method is to put the
   domain name (or a domain literal IP address) of the host on which the
   message identifier was created on the right hand side of the "@", and
   put a combination of the current absolute date and time along with
   some other currently unique (perhaps sequential) identifier available
   on the system (for example, a process id number) on the left hand
   side.  Using a date on the left hand side and a domain name or domain
   literal on the right hand side makes it possible to guarantee
   uniqueness since no two hosts use the same domain name or IP address
   at the same time.  Though other algorithms will work, it is
   RECOMMENDED that the right hand side contain some domain identifier
   (either of the host itself or otherwise) such that the generator of
   the message identifier can guarantee the uniqueness of the left hand
   side within the scope of that domain.

Where known, the Message-ID algorithms for known programs are given on the separate pages for those programs.

Sample Header

This is an (incomplete) excerpt from an email header:

Received: from lists.securityfocus.com (lists.securityfocus.com [205.206.231.19])
        by outgoing2.securityfocus.com (Postfix) with QMQP
        id 7E9971460C9; Mon,  9 Jan 2006 08:01:36 -0700 (MST)
Mailing-List: contact forensics-help@securityfocus.com; run by ezmlm
Precedence: bulk
List-Id: <forensics.list-id.securityfocus.com>
List-Post: <mailto:forensics@securityfocus.com>
List-Help: <mailto:forensics-help@securityfocus.com>
List-Unsubscribe: <mailto:forensics-unsubscribe@securityfocus.com>
List-Subscribe: <mailto:forensics-subscribe@securityfocus.com>
Delivered-To: mailing list forensics@securityfocus.com
Delivered-To: moderator for forensics@securityfocus.com
Received: (qmail 20564 invoked from network); 5 Jan 2006 16:11:57 -0000
From: YJesus <yjesus@security-projects.com>
To: forensics@securityfocus.com
Subject: New Tool : Unhide
User-Agent: KMail/1.9
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Disposition: inline
Date: Thu, 5 Jan 2006 16:41:30 +0100
Content-Type: text/plain;
  charset="iso-8859-1"
Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable
Message-Id: <200601051641.31830.yjesus@security-projects.com>
X-HE-Spam-Level: /
X-HE-Spam-Score: 0.0
X-HE-Virus-Scanned: yes
Status: RO
Content-Length: 586
Lines: 26

External Links

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