What is Digital Forensics?

Digital forensics is the process of extracting and analyzing data contained within digital systems to find evidence that can help resolve cyberattacks, disputes, litigation, and criminal cases. Using methods of electronic discovery, trained computer forensic analysts examine computers, cell phones, hard drives, networks, systems, and digital components for digital forensics investigative purposes.

Digital forensics is often a critical component of criminal cases, civil fraud cases, whistleblower complaints, internal investigations, and other matters that require analysis to understand when, how, and who used technology to perpetrate misdeeds.

Digital forensic investigations can unearth a great deal of information after cyberattacks, including:

  • Identifying the cause and implications of cyberattacks
  • Containing and remediating attacks
  • Safeguarding digital evidence before it becomes obsolete
  • Retracing hacker steps, and finding hacker tools
  • Identifying whether data was accessed or exfiltrated
  • Identifying the duration of unauthorized access to the network
  • Geolocating the hacker logins and mapping them

What types of investigations require Digital Forensics?

There are broadly two types of investigations where Digital Forensic expertise is called upon:

Public Investigations

Investigations that involve criminal or civil cases. Criminal cases involve alleged breaking of laws and offenses against individuals and the state while civil cases involve disputes or lawsuits in which the questions of property or money must be settled. Lawyers often rely on Digital Forensic expertise to present digital evidence in court to support or refute allegations. In criminal cases, computer forensic investigators could obtain and investigate computers and other digital devices that may have been used for the crime.

Private Investigations

Private investigations are often corporate investigations where organizations hire Digital Forensic experts to identify the cause of a data breach, a data leak, or a cyberattack that the organization faced. Violations of organizational policies could also lead to such private investigations where Digital Forensic experts could be called upon. Examples of such situations include corruption, misbehavior or misconduct of employees, and such.

What tools are used in forensic investigations?

Various phases of a Digital Forensic Investigation can be significantly aided and made a lot more efficient with the use of forensic tools – both hardware tools and software tools. A very large number of very good tools, both open-source and proprietary, are available in the market today. Each tool supports a specific purpose and phase of the forensic investigation process.

For instance, there are tools for disk data capture, registry analysis, email analysis, mobile device analysis, database analysis, and so on. There are also forensic tools that offer broader functionalities such as network forensic tools and Internet analysis tools.

However, it is important to remember that tools are meant to supplement and support. The real value in a Digital Forensic Investigation is brought to the table by the investigator’s expertise and experience.

Furthermore, when using tools, it is a good idea to use multiple tools when trying to validate findings and/or increase the reliability of the evidence. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) have established methodologies and guidance on general tool specifications, hardware, test procedures and more that help organizations and investigators decide upon the best set of tools to use depending on the situation and organization. The Computer Forensics Tools & Techniques Catalog is a great resource at: https://toolcatalog.nist.gov

When can Digital Forensic Investigations help?