When digital forensics came into existence in the 1990s, it was considered a secondary stream in an investigation that would catch perpetrators of mostly white-collar crimes. It was labelled computer forensics, then a relatively new type of science, practiced by law enforcement officers, who were also computer hobbyists.  

What are digital forensics investigations?

Today, digital forensics examiners investigate an intrusion, gather evidence of a crime and uncover fraud by analyzing computer storage devices, network servers and other types of digital media to track down hackers. Digital forensics investigation is the process of identifying, extracting, preserving, and documenting computer evidence through digital tools to produce evidence used in the court of law.

While it seems evident that digital forensics investigations would be used to investigate cybercrimes, it’s also quite essential to more traditional crimes such as theft and murder. When we talk about crime scenes in today’s world, some scenarios range beyond the standard of physical fingerprints, blood splatter analysis, and even footprints. For example, it can be hard to track cybercriminals because they hardly leave any physical trails. Yet, even a well-thought-out crime with tracks covered becomes difficult as technology has advanced significantly. As a result, investigators heavily rely on digital forensics to solve cases.

Because digital forensics is so new (only three decades old), we haven’t yet discovered all the ways it can be helpful. However, in the short time, digital investigations have existed, it has proven essential to safeguard cyberspace and the real world. Here are three ways digital forensics investigations will blow your mind.

  • Evidence used as proof in courts: Digital forensics experts can work with available resources and employ methods and techniques to uncover deleted and destroyed evidence. This evidence can be from a phone, computer, app, server, memory card, Internet of Things device, wearable, video gaming system or camera. A digital forensic analyst collects and analyzes this data to reconstruct past events. This information is documented in the form of a well-written, detailed report. This report also consists of details and steps taken by the analyst while rebuilding the system to recover lost data. An expert is also called to testify in civil or criminal court, whether it is an investigation by a law enforcement agency or a corporate. When information is stolen, a digital forensics investigation works in tandem with corporate legal, cybersecurity and human resources teams and other professionals to help examine how the theft occurred and provide enough credible evidence for prosecution.

    One well-known instance where digital forensics was conducted in detective work was when police used the digital forensics methodology to catch the BTK killer, Dennis Rader. Between 1974 to 1991, Rader killed ten people and would send taunts to the Kansas Police Department in the form of letters describing his crimes. After a 10-year hiatus, Rader started sending more puzzles and photos to the Kansas Police, this time on a floppy disk. The disk was quickly traced to Rader through a computer at his church, and he was arrested. He is currently serving ten consecutive life sentences in prison.

  • Working with substantial electronic data: Most businesses, individuals, and even governments have their data exposed to the public in several hidden and open ways. Legitimate and illegitimate users can then use this data. There is a real danger in how a bad actor will use the information from open-source applications and licenses. With many applications and data on the cloud now, the risks have increased. For this reason, digital forensics experts have to be one step ahead in terms of dealing with electronic data because the clues left behind are like electronic fingerprints, hard to uncover and very easily manipulated. There are now several new and improved forensic processes, including data visualization, multi-device evidence and timeline resolution, data deduplication for storage and acquisition purposes, parallel or distributed investigations and process optimization of existing techniques. 
  • Newer areas and technologies: With emerging cloud computing and an increase in the usage of IoT devices, newer areas of forensics are emerging, which requires more advanced techniques to be employed by the digital forensics teams. Cloud forensics also faces several challenges associated with traditional digital forensic investigations. For example, encryption and other anti-forensic techniques are commonly used in cloud-based crimes. At times, computer forensic investigators may be asked to analyze or reverse engineer a piece of malware. Reverse engineering and malware analysis are skills that are put to use by those working within computer forensics, besides encryption and decryption skills.

Conclusion

Whether it is a computer or network intrusions, system hacks or criminal cases, digital forensics has changed dramatically over the 30 years it has been in existence. It is no longer only used for cases of credit card fraud, email fraud or employees stealing corporate intellectual property and information. Digital forensics is continuing to grow and become mainstream in how police conduct investigations. As we move into an even more digitally-centred society, digital forensics will continue to be vital for information security and catching criminals.