In May of 2012, a man from Raleigh, NC spotted an ad on Craigslist that got his attention. Someone in his area was selling a motorcycle at an unbelievably low price. Intrigued, he contacted the person and arranged a time and place to meet. But, when he arrived, there was no motorcycle on hand. Instead he was assaulted by three men, who had placed the message to lure unwary victims. They robbed him of a ring, cell phone, and $4,000.00 in cash.
Fortunately, the trio wasn’t able to enjoy the ill-gotten gains for long. Police investigators traced the email used in the Craigslist ad to the home from which it was placed. There the authorities found and confiscated a desktop computer. Later examination proved that it had been used by the residents to place the phony ad, and the three received lengthy prison terms for their crimes.
This is just one example of how computer forensic techniques are used every day. As more crimes are committed using computing technology, these methods will play an ever more important role in the legal system.
What Is Computer Forensics?
Simply put, computer forensics is analysis of data contained in, created by, or associated with computing devices. The objects of investigation can include desktop or laptop computers, tablets, smart phones, or even hand-written notes pertaining to actions performed using a digital device. In almost all cases computer forensics experts are employed either by law enforcement agencies, private detectives, or attorneys to obtain evidence relevant to a particular case.
The Stages of a Computer Forensics Investigation
Computer forensics investigators typically employ the following steps in their investigations:
Gathering and preserving of evidence
Documenting the chain of custody during this stage is vital, so that whatever is found will later stand up to legal challenges. Just as important is ensuring that both the data and the media on which it’s contained (such as a hard drive) are preserved. One way of doing this is to make a forensic image of the information and use that for analysis, rather than risk damaging or destroying the actual storage media.
This involves sifting through the data for anything that is relevant to the matter under investigation. This can be a tedious process, as sometimes the pertinent information is buried within gigabytes of unrelated material. Sometimes even code-breaking skills are brought into play, as criminals often encrypt their data in case it falls into the hands of law enforcement.
This is what separates a skilled forensics expert from an average person with some data sniffing software. For example, many popular GUI apps can supposedly recreate an individual’s Internet activity. However, such programs are notorious for giving misleading results, such as when they confuse clicking on a hyperlink with conducting a Google search. Errors such as these underscore the importance of actually understanding how the underlying technology functions, in order to avoid unwarranted conclusions.
The best evidence is useless if the opposition can claim that it has been tampered with in some way. To avoid this, forensics investigators must be meticulous in how they follow chain of custody procedures and other rules for handling evidence.
The Role of Computer Forensics, Today and in the Future
Across the world, crooks are turning to technology to help them carry out their crimes. There’s already a vital role for computer forensics experts to play, both in deterring lawbreakers and in gathering evidence for criminal and civil cases. The day when investigators trade in their trench coats and magnifying glasses for lab jackets and IT certifications is upon us. Their skills will be ever more crucial in the years to come.
Disclaimer: Opinion piece written by Jared, a Dell employee.
Jared Jacobs is an employee of Dell that engages with the latest technologies and solutions every day. These opinion pieces are written to raise awareness and educate people about the available technologies that can make our lives easier. I’m a big fan of the NBA, I enjoy weightlifting, and pleasure foods like fried chicken.