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Ego & Forensics: A Caustic Combination

As you may or may not be aware, I recently posted another article about the use of the iP Box (and similar devices) in digital forensics when attempting to hack into evidentiary devices.  If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to check it out here before reading this article further: http://prodigital4n6.blogspot.com/2015/01/read-this-before-you-use-ip-box.html

I received a number of different responses to this article.  Some were very positive and complimentary of my conclusions. Others were very critical.  And while I can take criticism, it crosses the boundaries of decency to essentially call me incompetent, untrained, pro- or anti- *insert opposing party here* or otherwise ignorant of the facts.  This brought to mind a much bigger threat to the field of forensics, ego.  For the purposes of this discussion, two of the several definitions of ego would be appropriate.  They include:

  1. conceit; self-importance
  2. the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world   and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment.

The two definitions are certainly not mutually exclusive and, as the author of this article, I don’t want to tell you which one is most appropriate, so I’ll just let you keep reading and see if you can figure out which is.

Background

One of the places I posted my past article was on a list serve dominated by forensic examiners and other practitioners in law enforcement.  Throughout the years, I’ve trained some of the most ego-driven law enforcement officers in the field dozens of times – the tactical officer – and I can say with certainty that, having been involved in both the tactical and technical worlds of law enforcement, the technical side is generally far less ego-driven than the tactical side.  However, there are the rare occasions when the two subsets are present in the same person, as is the case with yours truly.

Whenever I train tactical officers, patrol officers and/or very young & eager officers, I ask in the first hour of the course, what is the one thing that will get in the way of you learning anything during this training? (hint: it’s a three-letter word& we all have one).  Most don’t get it.  I’ve found the ones that do either have been through the course(s) previously or are older, more seasoned officers.  But after I tell them that ego is the thing that will stand in their way, I also ask them to lock their ego in the trunk of their car at the first break for the duration of the training and to be receptive, engaged and cooperative. You see, not only can you not learn as much if your personal beliefs about what you already know and have experienced are always on your mind, but you may actually rebel against any new, unconventional ideas that may be presented during your training based upon what you believe to be true, better, etc.  It’s the training equivalent of “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

As a trainer, it’s even more important for me to put my ego in check because if someone in the class who may be more experienced presents another point-of-view, then I have to realize that bit of information may be very helpful to the rest of the class, despite the curriculum I know quite well and have studied, honed, etc.  It’s a challenge to remind one’s self to put your ego in check every time you step in front of a new group to teach tried & true tactics, principles, concepts, etc.

Forensics vs. Ego

So why exactly do I propose that ego and forensics have no place together?  Because at the heart of forensics is the truth. Let us not forget that across the forensic science spectrum, the goal is to prove or disprove a hypothesis of a case.  We go where the facts steer us.  We don’t let emotion, ancillary facts, opinions about policies of a particular service provider, a left turn in an investigation or an article by a measly blogger deter us from seeking the truth.  The problem is, I’m not sure all forensicators keep this firmly and foremost in their minds when performing their jobs and this is somewhat supported by some of the responses I received to the above-referenced article.

Digital and crime scene (physical) forensic professionals are investigators at heart.  They take pieces of a factual puzzle and put them together to get a clearer picture of what went on at the crime scene, on the computer/device, etc.  Unfortunately, my experience suggests there are a lot of both forensic and non-forensic investigators who catch a case and almost immediately develop a theory of that case. They then work to prove their theory instead of working to see where the facts may lead them.  This isn’t investigation, its ego-driven patty-cake.  It’s a phenomenon where people who are supposed to be professionals are proving themselves right to make themselves feel better.  It’s lazy and ultimately not in the interest of justice.  Do they get it right sometimes?  Sure!  But the scarier thought is, how many times do they get it wrong and we don’t know about it?

Forensic examiners are, unfortunately, no different.  We all have egos, me included.  We all have life experiences and opinions (like this article) and practical expertise to draw upon.  No one is proposing that we shouldn’t use those things to help make us better examiners and investigators and instead choose to operate in a vacuum.  But when the past experience and personal beliefs start to border on potential tainting or destruction of evidence to help prove our case, then we’re done-for.  It’s only going to take one sloppy, ego-driven examiner wiping crucial data off of a device in a careless attempt to access the data before the whole house of cards comes crumbling down.  I certainly don’t want to see that happen to anyone on any “side” of any case.

Wrapping it Up

The bottom line is, when we talk about forensics, we’re talking about facts leading to truth —  Raw data that leads us to an investigative conclusion, NOT an investigative conclusion that happens to be supported by some data.  Digital forensics has the potential in any case to make a huge impact and be the most cut-and-dried forensic evidence you can get your hands upon.  It’s certainly more “reliable” than other, more subjective evidence areas like forensic psychology or forensic interviewing.  But if we don’t respect the impact our practices, procedures, findings and expertise have on even the smallest case, we start to take for granted the opportunity we’ve been given to work in this field.  And that will damage the integrity of the practice as a whole.

No one wants more child victims.  No one wants to see a murder or rapist back on the street two months after having committed the crime (yes, defense attorneys included).  So let’s all make the personal choice now, if you haven’t already, to adhere to the best practices of handling evidence, data preservation, complete data analysis and transparency in procedure and reporting.  Put your ego in the trunk of your car whenever you conduct a forensic examination.  Go where the facts lead you and look at the whole picture.  If the data is there, we’ll find it and report it.  If the larger picture surrounding the data is relevant, we will report that too.  One-sided and ego-driven work often leads to bad discovery later down the road and law enforcement and private practitioners alike value their professional integrity too much to want to make that an issue.

In the end, ask yourself, why do anything that might put your professional integrity in jeopardy?

Author:
Patrick J. Siewert, SCERS, BCERT, LCE
Owner, Lead Forensic Examiner
Professional Digital Forensic Consulting, LLC
Based in Richmond, Virginia

Available Globally

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