Rapid technological development has given rise to cybercrimes. More often than not, criminals use technology in planning and committing other kinds of crime. Computers, smartphones, flash drives, and cloud data storage are among many types of devices that keep digital evidence. Not only do cybercrime specialists have to know how to collect and analyze data, but they also have to comprehend the legal basis of using this data in the judicial process. Read on to find out about digital forensics in 2020—2021.
Digital forensics is a forensic science branch that involves the recovery, analysis, and preservation of any information found on digital devices; this forensics branch often concerns cybercrimes. The term “digital forensics” was originally used as a synonym for computer forensics but has now expanded to cover the analysis of information on all devices that can store digital data.
Digital forensics experts react to incidents like server hacks or leaks of sensitive information. Their specialized forensic toolkits help them investigate incidents, analyze traffic, and look for hidden data and other evidence. They collect, recover, and store the data relevant for the investigation and prepare and present it in court.
Depending on the type of information and its sources, digital forensics has branches and requires specific professional training that gives excellent career prospects and exciting occupations.
WHAT IS DIGITAL FORENSICS? MEANING & DEFINITION
Digital forensics originated from the umbrella term of computer forensics. Now it is a separate applied discipline focused on solving computer-related crimes, the investigation of digital evidence, and methods of finding, obtaining, and securing such evidence. Digital forensics deals with any data found on digital devices.
In the first chapter, Understanding Digital Forensics, of Jason Stachowski’s book, Implementing Forensic Readiness, there is a historical overview of how the discipline emerged and evolved as well as a comprehensive explanation of the meaning and definition of this branch of forensic science.
For the last fifty years, digital forensics has evolved from unstructured activities of main hobbyists into a well-organized, registered applied discipline, which identifies, examines, and
preserves all possible data on digital devices. Digital forensics analysis is required by both law enforcement and businesses and can be used in and outside of court.
BRIEF DIGITAL FORENSICS HISTORY OVERVIEW
- In the 1970s, the United States introduced the 1978 Florida Computer Crimes Act, which was based on legislation against unauthorized alteration or deleting data in a computer system;
- 1983 was marked by Canada passing legislation in the field of cybercrimes and computer forensics;
- In 1985, Britain created a computer crime department;
- In 1989, cybercrimes were added to the official list of crimes in Australia;
- The 1990 Britain’s Computer Misuse Act made digital forensics well-recognized all over the world;
- In 1992, Collier and Spaul used the term “computer forensics” in an academic paper;
- In 2001, Britain created the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit;
- In 2004, 43 countries signed The Convention of Cybercrime;
- 2005 was marked by the appearance of an ISO standard for digital forensics.
At present, many scholars and specialists in digital forensics raise awareness of the issues the field is facing due to the rapid development of technologies.
WHAT DOES A DIGITAL FORENSICS SPECIALIST DO?
Digital forensic specialists play an important role in the process of investigation of cybercrimes. Mostly, they deal with the retrieval of data that was encrypted, deleted, or hidden. The tasks also include ensuring the integrity of the information that is to be used in court. At different stages of the investigation, computer forensics analysts may take part in interrogating suspects, victims, and witnesses. They also help prepare evidence to be represented in court.
Private companies cooperate with digital forensic specialists as well. Their expertise is also required in personal and network security, the defense sector, large-scale financial institutions, and information technology companies.
WHAT IS DIGITAL FORENSICS FOR?
The main application of forensics is the analysis and investigation of events that include computer information as an object of an attack, a computer as a tool of committing a crime, and collecting, storing, and protecting any digital evidence. The results of the expert analysis are used to either support or negate a hypothesis in court.
Digital forensics specialists may be involved in investigating both civil and criminal cases.
- In civil cases, any digital evidence is used to settle disputes between private persons
- Criminal cases imply investigations of breaking the law. Digital forensics experts may
help investigate any criminal case if any digital data is found and represented as
Private sector companies hire digital forensics analysts to prevent or investigate cyberattacks, security breaches, data leaks, or cyber threats. Many companies have their departments of information and cybersecurity. In many cases, computer forensics specialists deal with restoring lost data and protecting sensitive or classified information.
WHAT ARE THE PURPOSES OF DIGITAL FORENSICS?
Digital forensics ensures and supports cybersecurity in the private sector and assists law enforcement in investigating criminal cases. The fast-paced development and implementation of new technologies in all areas of human activity require training computer experts to deal with specific objectives. These objectives include:
- Facilitating the recovery, analysis, and preservation of the data and helping prepare digital evidence for court representation;
- Ensuring all the necessary protocols of gathering evidence as the digital evidence
must not be corrupted;
- Recovering any deleted or hidden data from any digital devices if the data is
particularly significant for the case;
- Helping identify a suspect and establishing a motive for a crime;
- Producing a computer forensic report that prompts the investigation;
- Ensuring digital evidence integrity.
DIGITAL FORENSIC PROCESS
Like any other branch of applied science, digital forensics has its protocols and a structured process. It can be divided into five stages: identifying, preserving, analyzing, documenting, and representing steps.
The first stage implies the identification of investigation goals and required resources. The analysts also identify the evidence, the type of data they deal with, and the devices the data is stored on. Digital forensics specialists work with all kinds of electronic storage devices: hard drives, mobile phones, personal computers, tablets, etc.
At this stage, analysts ensure that the data is isolated and preserved. Usually, it means that no one can use the device until the end of the investigation, so the evidence remains secure.
The analysis stage includes a deep systematic search for any relevant evidence. The specialists work with both system and user files and data objects. Based on the found evidence, the analysts draw conclusions.
At this stage, all the found relevant evidence is documented. It helps to extend the crime scene and prompts investigation. Any digital evidence is recorded together with the photos, sketches, and crime scene mapping.
At the final stage, all evidence and conclusions are reported according to forensics protocols, which include the methodologies and procedures of the analysis and their explanation.
WHAT TOOLS ARE USED FOR DIGITAL FORENSICS?
At the early stages of digital forensics development, the specialists had a very limited choice of tools used to analyze digital evidence. It led to multiple allegations that such analysis might have caused evidence to be altered and corrupted. Inevitably, there emerged sophisticated tools designed specifically for digital forensics analysis.
- Disk and data capture tools can detect encrypted data and capture and preview the information on physical drives;
- File viewers and file analysis tools work to extract and analyze separate files;
- Registry analysis tools get the information about a user and their activities from the Windows registry;
- Internet and network analysis tools provide detailed information about traffic and monitor user’s activity on the Internet;
- Email analysis tools are designed to scan email content;
- Mobile device analysis tools help extract data from the internal and external memory of mobile devices;
- Mac OS analysis tools retrieve metadata from Mac operating systems and provide disk imaging;
- Database forensics tools can analyze and manipulate data and provide reports of activities performed.
TYPES OF DIGITAL EVIDENCES
Digital evidence is any sort of data stored and collected from any electronic storage device. Digital evidence can also be retrieved from wireless networks and random-access memory. There are many types of electronic evidence and methodologies of their retrieval, storage, and analysis. The types of electronic evidence include but are not limited to the following examples:
- Media files (photo, video, audio);
- User account data (usernames, passwords, avatars);
- Emails (content, senders’ and receivers’ information, attachments);
- Web browser history;
- Phone calls (video, audio);
- Accounting program files;
- Windows registry system files;
- RAM system files;
- Any type of digital files (text files, spreadsheets, PDF files, bookmarks, etc.);
- Records from networking devices;
- ATM transaction logs;
- GPS logs;
- Electronic door logs;
- CCTV cameras records;
- Hidden and encrypted data;
- Printer, fax, and copy machine logs;
- Computer backups.
WHAT ARE DIFFERENT TYPES AND BRANCHES OF DIGITAL FORENSICS?
Digital forensics is a fast-growing scientific discipline. It evolves in response to the tremendous development of technology. At the current stage, digital forensics has its branches specializing in narrow fields.
Computer forensics provides the collection, identification, preservation, and analysis of data from personal computers, laptops, and storage computing devices.
Specialists in computer forensics are mostly involved in investigations of computer crimes, but their services are often needed in civil cases and the process of data recovery.
MOBILE DEVICE FORENSICS
Specialists in this branch can retrieve data from smartphones, SIM cards, mobile phones, GPS devices, tablets, PDAs, and game consoles.
This type of analysis is required to retrieve audio and visual data, contacts, and call logs from the devices presented in court as evidence.
Network forensics aims to monitor, register, and analyze any network activity.
The network specialists analyze traffic and activity in case of security breaches, cyberattacks, and other incidents in cyberspace.
FORENSIC DATA ANALYSIS
This branch of forensics analyzes structured data.
The data analysts are mainly involved in investigating financial crimes and fraud.
Database forensic specialists investigate any access to a database and report any changes made in the data.
Database forensics can be used to verify commercial contracts and to investigate large-scale financial crimes.
Email forensics analysts retrieve relevant data from email. This information can be the senders’ and receivers’ identities, the content of the messages, time stamps, sources, and metadata.
Email forensics tools are widely used when a company is suspected of email forgery.
The specialists in this branch detect, analyze, and investigate different malware types to trace suspects and reasons for the attack. They also evaluate the damage caused by the attack and determine the code of the malware.
This type of digital forensics is also called live acquisition. It retrieves the data from RAM. The recent development in cybercrime technology enables hackers to leave no traces on hard drives. In such cases, memory forensics helps to track down the attack.
Wireless forensics uses specific tools and methodologies to analyze and investigate traffic in a wireless environment.
This type of analysis is crucial when computer crimes or cyberattacks are committed through the breach of security protocols in wireless networks.
Specialists in disk forensics retrieve and recover data from hard drives and other physical storage devices, such as memory cards, servers, flash drives, and external USB sticks.
Disk forensics analysts make sure any data relevant to the case is recovered, analyzed, and presented as evidence.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES IN DIGITAL FORENSICS?
Digital forensics experts use forensic tools to collect evidence against criminals, and criminals use the same tools to conceal, modify, or remove traces of their criminal activity. It is known as the anti-forensics technique and is considered one of the key issues digital forensics faces. This branch of forensic science also deals with certain legal, technical, and resource challenges.
RAPID TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT
As an example, there are currently eight different operating systems for mobile devices, and their versions are regularly updated. It makes it challenging to develop standard methods of digital forensic analysis.
PC’s, mobile phones, tablets, game consoles, GPS devices, and other types of electronic devices are no longer a luxury for the average person.
AVAILABILITY OF HACKING TOOLS
The Internet contains information, how-to’s, software, and tools for hackers. Anybody can get access to this type of resource effortlessly.
BIG DATA ERA
Terabytes of information can now be found even on personal hard drives. Excessive volumes of data make its analysis and preservation a challenging issue.
The procedure of preserving and presenting electronic evidence is a complex process. It leads to some evidence being rejected by the court.
HOW CAN BIOMETRICS HELP IN DIGITAL FORENSICS?
With a high rate of cyber crimes and sophisticated types of fraud, biometrics becomes a necessity. The article Biometrics in Forensic Identification: Applications and Challenges, published in the Journal of Forensic Medicine, discusses possible ways biometrics can be used in digital forensics. In particular, the paper names the benefits of using biometric aspects like fingerprints and palm prints, facial and voice recognition, handwriting, odor, keystroke biometrics, iris scans, and DNA analysis. Read more about biometric types here.
HOW CAN YOU GET INTO A DIGITAL FORENSICS CAREER?
To become a digital forensics specialist, a candidate should have a solid background in informatics, programming, or computer science. Many analysts start their careers in the IT sector as sysadmins or similar positions. They are already familiar with some electronic forensic tools or, at least, with these tools’ principles and functionality. However, digital forensics has different specialized objectives, and working in this branch of forensics requires special training. There are a few options to get both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in terms of academic training — and it can be done both on-site and online.
- The School of Business and Justice Studies at Utica College has specializations in
cybercrime investigations and forensics as part of the Cybersecurity and Information
Assurance Bachelor’s degree;
- Champlain College offers an online Computer Forensics & Digital Investigations
Bachelor’s degree program;
- Purdue University’s Cybersecurity and Forensics Lab provides a Master’s degree in
- The University of Maryland offers a Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation Master’s
- John Jay College of Criminal Justice has a Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity Master’s
WHAT JOB CAN YOU GET IN DIGITAL FORENSICS?
Most of the jobs for digital forensics specialists can be found in the public sector. Apart from apparent positions in law enforcement and governmental agencies, there are also jobs offered in the private sector — private IT companies, public agencies, financial organizations, and many others. One can say that specialists in the field play two key roles. They either prevent possible cybercrimes and ensure cybersecurity, or they are involved in investigations of the crimes already committed. Depending on the academic degree, skills, experience, and seniority, there are different roles available in digital forensics.
- Computer forensic investigator;
- Digital forensic investigator;
- Computer expertise technician;
- Information security analyst;
- Digital forensics analyst;
- Digital/computer forensics engineer;
- Information systems security analyst;
- Forensic computer analyst;
- Cybersecurity consultant;
- Computer/digital forensic technician.
Under current circumstances, a career in the field of digital forensics has good prospects. Job search engines like Glassdoor, Payscale, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics have impressive salary projections for digital forensics jobs. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the growth in demand for this profession.
WHAT SKILLS ARE REQUIRED FOR A CAREER IN DIGITAL FORENSICS?
As was mentioned before, electronic forensic analysis involves the proper processing of all digital data related to a criminal case. To do this successfully, a future digital forensic analyst requires the following skillset.
- Good Technical Skills
For obvious reasons, good technical skills are highly required for a career in digital forensics. It may be prior experience in programming, cloud computation systems, networks, or working with hardware. It is a solid foundation of the profession.
- Strong Analytical Skills
It is not enough to only be able to retrieve, recover, and preserve data. A large part of a digital forensic specialist’s daily routine is analyzing the data and drawing conclusions to help solve cases.
- Deep Understanding of Cybersecurity
Although most computer forensic analysts work to help solve the crimes that have already been committed, it is essential to understand how and why this happens.
- Excellent Communication Skills
Digitals forensics specialists are always a part of a bigger team of investigators, police officers, and other analysts. Communication ensures the success of the entire investigation.
- Quick Learner
Technology is developing rapidly. Analysts have to be able to digest massive amounts of information daily to stay up-to-date with the latest threads.
- Digital forensics plays an essential part in diverse human activity areas in both the
public and private sectors;
- Digital forensics focuses on the investigation of digital evidence and methods of
finding, obtaining, and securing such evidence;
- For the past fifty years, digital forensics has come a long way from an unstructured
activity to a regulated applied science;
- Digital forensics has different branches according to the types of devices that data
analysts focus on;
- Each branch has a specialized set of tools that works with different types of evidence;
- Digital forensics analysts assist law enforcement in solving crimes. This is done while
following a particular set of rules and specific protocols;
- Digital forensics specialists are also actively hired by private companies and
individuals to ensure cybersecurity;
- Formal professional training opens plenty of employment opportunities in both the
public and private sectors, which makes this profession a good choice for people with
required technical and analytical skills.
DIGITAL FORENSICS FAQ
HOW DOES DIGITAL FORENSICS WORK?
Digital forensics specialists are involved in the investigation of computer-related crimes. They collect, recover, store, and preserve data relevant to the investigation. They also perform an in-depth analysis of the data and prepare it as evidence presented in court.
WHY IS DIGITAL FORENSICS IMPORTANT?
The number of cybercrimes increases every year. They may cause tremendous damage. And investigation of these crimes requires special training and skills. Digital forensics experts also work in the private sector’s cybersecurity teams to prevent cybercrimes.
IS DIGITAL FORENSICS A GOOD CAREER?
It is a solid career with good salary prospects and a predicted increase in demand for labor markets worldwide.
WHAT ARE DIGITAL FORENSICS TOOLS?
Digital forensics tools can be divided into several types and include:
- Disk and data capture tools;
- File viewers and file analysis tools;
- Registry analysis tools;
- Internet and network analysis tools;
- Email analysis tools;
- Mobile devices analysis tools;
- Mac OS analysis tools;
- Database forensics tools.
WHAT IS DIGITAL FORENSICS USED FOR?
Digital forensics specialists prevent possible cybercrimes to ensure cybersecurity in the private sector, or they are involved in investigations of the crimes already committed. In the latter case, they work closely with law enforcement and governmental agencies.
WHO BENEFITS FROM DIGITAL FORENSICS?
It is beneficial for both the public and private sectors. Digital forensics experts work not only with law enforcement but also with private companies and individuals.
HOW IS DIGITAL FORENSICS DIFFERENT FROM DIGITAL RECOVERY?
Digital recovery is only one possible objective of digital forensics specialists. They also perform an in-depth analysis of recovered data and actively participate in crime investigations.