By Dr. Andre Slonopas  |  03/22/2024

digital forensics


"What is digital forensics?” is a question that I’m often asked. Digital forensics, an integral part of current criminal and corporate investigations, uses many data interpretation methodologies.

In an investigation involving digital forensic science, digital evidence is meticulously acquired, preserved, assessed, and documented. Criminal and civil processes require the collection of digital evidence from mobile phones, laptop computers, and other digital devices.

During an investigation, cyber forensic scientists search Mac® and Windows® operating systems, electronic data, and encrypted data for vital information. Data validity and legal evidence validation rely on their expertise.

Cyber forensics helps police combat cybercrimes. The methods that cyber forensic scientists might use include recovering missing data and monitoring complex network user activities.

There are also investigators who handle electronic forensics at crime scenes in order to provide courtroom evidence. This method requires a knowledge of computer forensics to protect and preserve data.

Law enforcement, companies, and governments employ cyber forensic experts with various skills in network, database, mobile, and cloud forensics. People with this type of expertise might include certified forensic analysts who investigate computers, mobile devices, and data carriers.

The purpose behind digital forensics is to preserve original evidence for identifying and analyzing digital data. For instance, the data stored on mobile devices, cloud computing servers, and networks are a vital part of digital forensics.

Ideally, law enforcement officers, cybercrime detectives, and corporate security personnel should have a knowledge of digital forensics to protect public safety and corporate security.


The Historical Background and Evolution of Digital Forensics

The increasing use of personal computers and law enforcement's need to extract and store digital data from increasingly sophisticated electronic devices inspired digital forensics in the early 1980s. Developments in technology broadened computer forensics beyond computer crime. Smartphones, the internet, and cloud platforms have further expanded digital forensics.

In the early days, cyber forensics was crude, but better data extraction, analysis, and documentation tools expanded this discipline. More cybercrime laws created by authorities also necessitated the collection of digital evidence.


How Data from Digital Forensics Is Used

Digital investigators can reconstruct data from the operating systems of different computers, mobile devices, and cloud servers. A methodical incident response process helps law enforcement officers to ensure evidence integrity and the dependability of digital devices, digital media gathering, investigation, analysis, and reporting.

Preserving digital evidence in the right way is key to forensic investigative credibility. But as technology advances, forensic instruments and methodologies will change.

However, digital forensics is not limited to law enforcement. For instance, commercial and criminal investigations need digital forensics. Private businesses use cyber forensics for audits, compliance, and investigation, which is crucial in a data-driven business world.

Digital forensics can also be improved by a competent computer forensic analyst. This type of person can speed up data recovery through organized analysis and encryption examination.

Network forensics analyzes network traffic, and mobile device forensics gathers phone and tablet data. Digital investigations professionals must learn about obsolete computer media and cloud settings as gadgets improve.


What Is Computer Forensics?

Computer forensics involves the retrieval and analysis of digital information from computers and storage devices. Police and corporate investigations of digital fraud and internal policy breaches rely on computer forensics professional to gather evidence when crimes occur. In this area of digital forensics, data from network and hard disk forensics are provided for examination by law enforcement personnel, business executives and courts.


Investigative Techniques

Data forensic investigators utilize several methods to extract data from hardware systems, recover lost data, and assess digital device user behavior. While software can recover data from storage media, hardware and software solutions can copy evidence without damage.

The fundamental techniques in digital forensics include:

  • Decrypting and recovering deleted files, encrypted, or corrupted data – Because of their effectiveness, forensic tools like EnCase® and FTK® are preferred for this demanding work. These tools assist forensic crime scene investigators in solving challenging digital cases by finding key evidence from seemingly inaccessible digital sources.
  • Examining database data and metadata – This type of examination is essential for sophisticated database and computer analysis and hidden pattern discovery. Modern technology lets forensic crime investigators assess database structure, content, modifications, unauthorized access, and deleted files. Databases record user interactions, transactions, and computer system activity, so database forensics may help solve crimes and pinpoint security breaches. For this type of work, digital investigators need a knowledge of database structure and querying languages.
  • Investigating network communications – Network communications must be analyzed by security personnel to detect, prevent, and investigate criminal breaches. For instance, network traffic, including data packets and logs, can be checked for signs of intrusion or malicious destruction. With the right tools, cyberattacks against infrastructure and digital communications can be detected and minimized.
  • Checking mobile devices – Data can be stored on – and quickly deleted from – mobile phones. Mobile operating systems and devices may be examined by investigators, who might view phone logs, text messages, and emails for communication patterns, connections, and conversations that can aid a forensic investigation. However, the data must be recovered and interpreted to build case narratives from digital evidence.
  • Inspecting hard disks – Hard disk copying, which involves the copying of data sector-by-sector on a hard disk, provides reliable digital evidence for investigators. This method of data collection allows law enforcement agencies to study an identical clone of the hard disk without compromising the original. This type of cyber evidence must be carefully reproduced to ensure data validity and dependability.


Case Studies of Digital Forensics

Digital forensics can be used for a variety of investigations. Here are some examples:

  • Corporate embezzlement investigation – A cyber forensics expert examined a suspect's PC. That digital forensics investigator identified erased files and chats indicating criminal financial activities, which ultimately led to a conviction for the employee.
  • Cybercrime – Using digital forensics, police discovered a network of criminals distributing illicit content on their laptops. Through digital evidence, digital forensics practitioners were able to arrest and prosecute the criminals.
  • Intellectual property (IP) theft – Software businesses use electronic forensics to retrieve stolen IP from unauthorized users. Certified forensic investigators were able to extract encrypted mobile and cloud storage data from digital assets.


Digital Evidence Comes in Different Forms

Digital documentation is a valuable part of computer forensics and criminal investigations. Data stored electronically on computers, mobile phones, and other storage devices collected using well-defined forensic methods can provide convincing proof for digital forensics investigations. Emails, papers, databases, audio/video recordings, cloud software, and metadata can also be useful forms of digital evidence if they are suspected digital assets.


The Process of Collecting, Preserving, and Analyzing Digital Evidence

Collecting digital evidence is not a simple process. Many processes are required to manage digital evidence:

  • Identification – Forensic law enforcement agencies carefully find and classify electronic evidence. This vital stage includes the collection of data from many digital sources, including desktop computers, mobile devices, and network servers. Investigators repeatedly scan platforms for pertinent data, guaranteeing a complete and comprehensive evidence collection process.
  • Collection – Electronic evidence is collected from its source through the seizure of an electronic product or by remotely accessing storage media. Maintaining evidence integrity using well-defined forensic methodologies is crucial in this step.
  • Preservation – Data duplication or data imaging helps forensic detectives preserve digital evidence. These approaches replicate the original data, preserving evidentiary integrity and security. Keeping proof from being altered, damaged, or lost throughout the investigation is essential.
  • Analysis – Investigators come to various conclusions and recommendations by analyzing forensic data. A digital forensic investigator uses multiple specialized tools and many approaches to examine digital media, retrieve data, and recreate occurrences.
  • Documentation – Cyber forensics evidence must be handled carefully by digital forensics experts and recorded from collection to processing. Every action, decision, and method must be documented by investigators, which ensures evidence integrity by providing a clear and chronological trail. It is also a crucial reference for judicial processes and audits.
  • Presentation – The digital forensic investigation's final report must be court-admissible. Results must be correctly reported to support legal arguments and survive judicial inquiry.

Network forensic techniques need digital forensics investigators to apply advanced methods. One of an investigator's main jobs is operating system (OS) analysis – checking Windows or Linux® for user activity, system changes, and file transfers.

The investigator must also find lost, encrypted, or corrupted data on digital storage devices, a complicated process that demands advanced software and hardware. Hard disks, solid-state drives (SSDs), and external storage devices can all be carefully examined to recover and preserve digital data, which ensures a thorough inquiry and evidence integrity.


The Legal Considerations and Processes of Collecting Digital Evidence

There are various challenges that arise with the collection and preservation of digital evidence. Court admissibility relies on data quality and collection/analysis procedures, which includes the need to follow correct procedures during the search and seizure phase and maintain high forensic examination standards.

Forensic data handling concerns include decrypting, retrieving, and ensuring data integrity. Also, investigators checking cloud computing servers and mobile devices may need help with data volume and diversity.

Law enforcement and investigators must keep up with research and technology to combat and investigate digital crimes. This growth demands rigorous training, high forensic standards, and a legal and technological knowledge of cyber forensic analysis.

Digital forensic techniques strictly enforce evidence integrity and admissibility. The core processes include:

  • Incident response – A digital forensic investigation begins with preparing, detecting, containing, eliminating, and recovering from digital security incidents. This work requires the use of a specialized team.
  • File recovery and analysis – To recover encrypted, damaged, or lost data, data restoration and analysis is needed. Investigators can examine digital storage devices and recover crucial evidence for an inquiry using contemporary digital forensics tools. Data storage device byte-for-byte copying is also essential to forensic imaging; this method preserves data for analysis and allows forensic technicians to safely assess data without risking loss or contamination.
  • Network forensics – Digital investigators can analyze network traffic to investigate network crimes, scanning network data packets for suspicious activities, illegal invasions, and policy breaches. This area of forensics can be challenging because technology rapidly changes, requiring new tools and approaches to investigations. Forensic tools must be updated to enable them to be used to identify and assess digital crimes.
  • Database and mobile device forensics – Database and mobile device forensics are becoming more important as mobile and database technologies spread. Current systems can be used to analyze device and database data using digital forensics. As technologies become more complicated and diverse, thorough investigations need particular forensic procedures for collecting and processing data, and the fast-changing digital environment requires forensic methodologies to evolve.
  • Operating system forensics – OS forensics helps digital forensics analyze Windows and Linux user and system behavior. Understanding user/system interactions and functions require this approach. This area of forensics uses OS-specific computer forensics to detect human and system irregularities. For instance, a hardware system analysis may reveal hidden or deleted data and track activities that could be important to forensic inquiry.


The Role of Digital Forensic Scientists

Digital forensic investigators may collaborate with others to solve crimes. Forensic investigators identify, capture, and analyze cyber evidence at a crime scene using forensic equipment. For instance, they may retrieve erased data from a suspect's computer or examine user accounts and structured data for criminal activity.

Investigators can also collect company data through internal investigations and digital forensic tools. In addition, testing and calibration labs can verify digital forensic tool accuracy. But as fresh information emerges, digital investigators might need to repeat the various steps of digital forensics.

Digital gadgets saturate our contemporary life, making cyber forensics essential. Computers and cloud technologies are evolving quickly, so forensic law enforcement personnel must adapt to technological changes to solve crimes.


Current Trends in Digital Forensics

Rapid technical advances and more complicated internet crimes have changed digital forensics. Technological developments will provide new challenges for computer forensics investigators, so they must be familiar with cloud resources and the Internet of Things (IoT) while fighting complex cybercrimes.

Fraudsters have become ever more sophisticated. As a result, digital forensics practitioners must continually learn to fight digital crime and recover critical electronic evidence.

Digital forensics comes in various formats, including:

  • Cloud forensics – Cloud forensics involves the access of cloud data, which involves mining sophisticated cloud networks and faraway workstations for data.
  • Mobile device forensics – Digital forensic investigations need to be familiar with mobile device forensics due to regular mobile phone usage by the public. A modern digital forensics investigator must comprehend mobile data storage and extract evidence from several mobile operating systems.
  • IoT forensics – Forensic investigators can collect IoT data from digital devices because more residential and industrial equipment is internet-connected. Researchers may look at smart home gadgets and industrial control systems to conduct digital forensic research and find critical data. Analyzing data from different sources requires innovative forensic methods and technical knowledge. Consequently, IoT has broadened database forensics and required new digital forensic tools and procedures for fast-changing digital forensic science environments.
  • Big data and advanced analyticsBig data and advanced analytics provide opportunities and challenges with digital forensics. Advanced data analysis helps law enforcement and computer crime department evaluate massive data collections during an investigation. Digital investigators may use specialized software, technology, and forensic data analysis techniques.


The Challenges of Digital Forensics

Digital forensics comes with its own challenges, including:

  • Encryption – Better encryption makes data retrieval more challenging for forensic investigators conducting digital forensics research.
  • Data volume and complexity – Digital forensic investigators need time and resources to search gigabytes of data. Data types and architectures, from traditional computer media to complicated database systems and cloud storage, complicate investigations.
  • Rapid technological changes – Technology changes quickly, and digital forensic tools and methodologies must adapt to those changes. Digital investigations require frequent OS, software, and device updates for successfully extracting data. Ideally, investigators must invest in cutting-edge forensic methods and technology and participate in continuous learning.
  • Legal and ethical considerations – The database forensics framework operates within strict ethical and regulated boundaries. Officers and certified forensic practitioners must be familiar with national computer crime laws and privacy legislation. When legislation changes, practitioners might face search and seizure and data privacy issues and need to change their methods.
  • Remote and decentralized data locations – Accessing digital forensic data in remote locations can be difficult because of cloud platforms and decentralized data storage servers. As a result, investigators need exceptional data imaging, data recovery, and remote data security and analysis skills.

Advances in technology makes digital forensics more crucial. Digital forensic consultants and practitioners must adapt to each trend and difficulty, as well as change their ways to keep up with crime and technology. Our increasingly linked world requires digital forensics for criminal investigations and ensure digital security.


The Future of Digital Forensics

Technical advances and the ever-changing world of digital offenses have led to several cybercrime forensics forecasts.

Artificial intelligence (AI), the cloud, and IoT devices will transform digital forensics. AI will increase data analysis in digital forensic investigations, particularly for investigations involving significant data volumes. Cloud infrastructure will require novel methods of data extraction to exploit forensic information and create forensic analysis issues.

Digital forensics may move beyond phones and PCs. As the field of electronic evidence analysis grows, the use of database, network, and mobile device forensics will increase.


The Impact of Technological Advancements

Technological advances will affect the gear and tactics of a digital forensic investigator. Digital investigation tools must be able to handle encrypted, complicated, and destroyed data. Data retrieval and forensic imaging must evolve for the examination of digital media and smart devices.

Police and cyber forensic professionals must train well and equip their teams with modern gear. This strategy entails keeping up with national e-crime regulations and ensuring that new digital misconduct event response and forensic investigation technologies work.


Forging a Future in Academic Excellence

The digital forensics concentration of APU’s online bachelor of science in cybersecurity is designed to prepares students for the challenges of digital forensics, including digital forensic analysis. APU courses are intended to train students in the retrieval of data, network forensics, and forensic data analysis.

Mac is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.
Windows is a registered trademark of the Microsoft Corporation.
Linux is a registered trademark of Linus Torvalds.
EnCase is a registered trademark of Open Text Holdings, Inc.
FTK is a registered trademark of AccessData Group, Inc.

About the Author
Dr. Andre Slonopas
Dr. Andre Slonopas is an Assistant Department Chair in the Department of Strategic Intelligence. From the University of Virginia, he holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering, a M.S. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He also holds a plethora of relevant certifications, including Certified Information Security Manager (CISM®), Certified Information System Security Professional (CISSP®), Certified Information Security Auditor (CISA) and Project Management Professional (PMP®).

CISM is a registered trademark of Information Systems Audit and Control Association, Inc.
CISSP is a registered trademark of International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, Inc.
PMP is a registered trademark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

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