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Myth-Busting Digital Forensics

As we’ve said in previous posts, whenever the concept of a Digital Forensic Examiner is introduced to John Q. Citizen, the overwhelming reaction is “That’s cool!  What is it?”  Invariably, the next question is, “Is that like CSI?”  Well… yes and no.

As Author of this blog, I have to admit, I don’t watch CSI often.  But as a former law enforcement professional and one who has helped find the truth through the court process in numerous criminal jury trials, I can speak from experience in telling you that the “CSI effect” is a real thing.  Before it was called the “CSI effect”, it was probably called the “Law & Order effect”, but the issue is essentially the same:  citizens who are not involved in the criminal justice process on a regular basis find it hard to believe that cases don’t get opened and shut within 42 minutes (with commercial breaks).  Everything is not tied up in a neat little bow and the bad guy doesn’t always go to prison.

What we’ll try to do here is dispel some of the myths that may be propagated by Hollywood and show business in general.  See, when a case is investigated, it often takes months or years and some are never cleared.  Even the “easy” cases like drug dealing can often be much larger in scope than just catching the street-level drug dealer.  In fact, your author has worked cases that have begun and ended in one night and cases that have gone on for 10 months or more… it all just depends.

So what is realistic to expect from your investigators and forensic experts?  At the heart of every case, all we really want to do is find the truth.  It’s what drives and motivates us.  From the digital forensic standpoint, many factors can go into finding the necessary evidence to prove or disprove a case — And yes, some cases are disproven by the non-existence of evidence.  Some of these factors include the time in between the alleged incident and the seizure of the evidence, the technology involved in the evidence (i.e., what type of evidence), whether or not potential digital evidence has been deleted or wiped and what is the overall volume that is to be examined.  For instance, if you have a child exploitation case where the suspect had several 2Tb hard drives that were seized, it may take a large amount of time to image, parse, catalog and report that evidence.  If the suspect password-protected his devices, it may take a long time to crack the password… if it ever happens at all!  The overall point is, as previously stated, it just depends.

So now on to what we can’tdo.  We can’t send bugs over the internet to infiltrate your computer and show us everything that may be stored on it.  We can’t eavesdrop on your mobile phone conversations (at least not at our level). We can’t pinpoint a miniscule amount of evidence on a 2Tb hard drive to break your case within 5 minutes.  It just doesn’t happen that way.

What we can do is examine the digital devices for evidence of what was 1) going on at the time of the seizure and/or 2) what may have been going on prior to the seizure, but again, refer to the list of “maybes” above for whether or not that’s possible.  Given the right circumstances, we can tell where you were, with whom and when based upon evidence in your smart phone.  We will find your internet and email history and locate search strings that may have been input.  We can recover current and deleted text messages and pictures, at least in part.  We can perform link analysis to tell us who your friends are and how close they may be to you based upon your online activities.  And, of course, we can pull out all sorts of other information from your installed programs and apps to help paint the picture of what was going on before we got there.

Hopefully this has given you a glimpse of what we can and, more to the point, what we cannot do.  The main points are these:  it doesn’t take 5 minutes, 10 minutes or an hour (most of the time).  It requires adherence to a tried and true methodology that, in itself, takes time.  Second, it really just depends on the size, time frame and scope of the evidence that is requested to be found.  Evidence on the surface is easy to find.  Evidence which may be buried a bit can take a lot longer and definitely require a trained, experienced examiner.  Finally, we aren’t miracle workers and we don’t and can’t fabricate anything.  The evidence is either there or it’s not.  Plain and simple.

Patrick J. Siewert
Owner, Lead Forensic Examiner
Pro Digital Forensic Consulting
Based in Richmond, Virginia
Available Globally

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