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The Evolution of Digital Forensics

Revised: February 12, 2024

What is digital forensics? With people relying on computer systems to exchange information more than ever, digital forensics is increasingly vital from a cybersecurity and information security perspective.

Digital forensics is a part of cybersecurity that focuses on retrieving, analyzing, and examining digital evidence, usually in criminal or legal proceedings. If you are considering a career in digital or computer forensics, it is necessary to understand the history of digital forensics, current principles, and the complicated legal issues surrounding it. This will enable you to make a more informed decision about whether this career path is right for you.

Tracing the Origins of Digital Forensics

The history of digital forensics dates back to the 1980s—making it a relatively new field in the grand scheme of things. Despite its comparatively recent beginnings, the field has come quite a long way.

Emergence in the 1980s and 1990s

Early forms of digital data first emerged in the late 1970s, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the digital forensics field gained traction. During this time, more people began to purchase personal computers, and computer-related crimes started to occur. In its earliest stages, digital forensics strategies were used to analyze computer systems and collect evidence for criminal investigations.

By the 1990s, the field established foundational techniques and formal methodologies for collecting evidence and investigating crimes. Later in the decade, Internet use became more widespread, resulting in a need for more robust digital forensic methods to address growing issues like identity theft and hacking.

Standardization Efforts in the 2000s

By the early 2000s, more people were using the web globally, resulting in widespread cybercrime. In response, the digital forensics field began working toward standardizing its processes. During this time, the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were founded and began guiding best practices.

Through the remainder of the early 2000s, digital forensic investigators worked to refine these strategies while adapting to the changing digital landscape.

The Evolution of Digital Forensic Tools

Forensic tools have evolved over the years, aiding in investigations as the scope and ubiquity of technology has changed. One of the earlier tools still in use today is the hard-drive duplicator, a piece of hardware that can copy all files from one device onto a clean drive for more accessible investigation and research.

Decryption tools have also come a long way, especially when cracking device passwords for analysis and investigation. Today, password recovery devices use algorithms like brute force and even dictionary attacks to access password-protected devices. Some examples of other digital forensics tools commonly used today include:

  • File viewers and file analysis tools
  • Database and network forensics tools
  • Registry analysis tools

Understanding the Digital Forensic Process

The digital forensic process can vary depending on the type of investigation being conducted or the type of crime being analyzed. In general, however, a basic series of steps are followed during a digital forensic investigation to yield the best results.

In the initial stage of the process, the specific digital media is seized, usually by law enforcement agencies. Then, a hard drive duplicator or a similar tool is employed to generate a forensic replica of the data in question. This allows the original device to be returned safely to storage while files and other digital evidence are analyzed.

During the analysis or investigation portion of the process, files are scrutinized for evidence. Specific evidence collected may include emails, chat logs, and browsing history and files. From there, the findings from the investigation are documented in a report. Law enforcement and relevant agencies may continue to be involved in this investigation aspect.

Exploring the Application of Digital Forensics

With so many digital devices and forms of digital data, the potential applications of digital forensics are seemingly endless. Some common examples of applications include:

  • Computer crime investigation
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Data and security breaches
  • Uncovering evidence of fraud or unauthorized access
  • Civil litigation in court proceedings
  • Incident response during or after a cybersecurity incident
  • Malware analysis
  • Investigation of unauthorized traffic and network traffic in a web attack

Practical Limitations in Real-World Scenarios

Industry professionals still face practical challenges despite significant advancements in digital forensics over the past few decades. Data encryption is a challenge that makes it difficult to decode passwords and analyze data in criminal and civil investigations. Encryption involves converting the text or data into an unreadable code that can be interpreted only with a decryption code. The text or data can only be interpreted with a decryption code. Over the years, hackers and other cybercriminals have become more advanced in encrypting their data, requiring digital forensics investigators to step up their decryption game.

Likewise, as cloud computing and the use of mobile devices become more widespread, the field of digital forensics has struggled to keep up with these evolving technologies.

Legal Aspects Surrounding Digital Forensics

In addition to practical limitations surrounding the field of digital forensics, professionals working in this field must also consider the many legal aspects that come into play. This is especially true regarding the use of digital evidence in courts and the integrity and authenticity of data.

The Use of Digital Evidence in Courts

In the United States, many laws limit members of law enforcement and digital investigators regarding what kind of evidence can be admitted and used in court.

For example, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) makes obtaining search warrants for transmitted communication (such as VOIP data) more difficult than stored communication.

Meanwhile, even when digital evidence can be used in court, requirements over the chain of custody and audit trails make it extremely challenging for computer forensics professionals to submit authentic evidence in every case. Those working in this field must understand the ins and outs of these laws and follow best practices for maintaining data integrity.

The Role of Investigative Tools in Legal Cases

Investigative tools have come a long way in digital forensics and continue to play an important role in criminal and civil cases. Tools and methods such as forensic imaging, forensic analysis, data analysis, and forensic testing make it possible for experts to gather evidence and conduct meaningful data analysis that can crack a case wide open.

Diversified Branches of Digital Forensics

Within the field of digital forensics, various branches focus on different areas of expertise. From computer forensics and mobile device forensics to digital image and database forensics, there's bound to be a niche that suits your interests.

Exploring Computer Forensics

This branch of digital forensics concerns data found on computers and in digital storage media. Computer forensics practices tend to be used most in civil and criminal cases involving computers, using common methods like data recovery and following a clear chain of custody to ensure the strongest case.

Unveiling Mobile Device Forensics

In recent years, the branch of mobile device forensics has grown significantly as more people use mobile devices (such as smartphones and tablets) to generate and share data worldwide. The branch of mobile device forensics focuses on any type of device with communication abilities and some form of internal memory. Examples include cell phones, tablets, GPS (global positioning system), and PDA (personal digital assistant) devices.

Understanding Network Forensics

Another aspect of digital forensics to consider is network forensics, which focuses on monitoring and analyzing network traffic for legal evidence or intrusion detection. Network forensics is generally used when law enforcement agencies need to capture network traffic as part of a criminal investigation or when a network is being monitored for unauthorized traffic and other intrusions. Network forensics investigations work can be challenging, especially since network traffic is constantly changing and thus can be difficult to study.

The World of Forensic Data Analysis

Forensic data analysis (FDA) examines structured data, often related to financial crime. Someone working in forensic data analysis may be looking to uncover a pattern that indicates fraudulent activities on a device or account. Such data can come from specific software devices, apps, or even email communication—and analyzing this type of data requires a great deal of expertise.

Grasping Digital Image Forensics

Digital image forensics (or digital media forensics) is another growing branch of digital forensics that has emerged in recent years. This field focuses on multimedia files, including audio recordings, images, and videos. Often, investigators look for signs of tampering or manipulation, but this can vary from one investigation to the next.

An Insight Into Database Forensics

Another complex niche in the broader field of digital forensics is database forensics, which involves investigating and analyzing individual databases to uncover signs of crime. Crimes committed on a database can include unauthorized access and data tampering. Such investigations are often necessary after a significant data breach or when suspicions of a more extensive and ongoing crime occur.

Learning About IoT Forensics

In recent years, the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices has grown significantly across the globe. These devices (from smart assistants to Wi-Fi-connected doorbells) aim to make our lives easier—unfortunately, they can also lead to security breaches and cybercrime. Specifically, hackers use IoT devices to carry out larger-scale attacks (such as botnet attacks).

In response, a new branch of digital forensics known as IoT forensics has been born out of necessity. This niche is focused on investigating and analyzing smart devices, other IoT technologies, and the data generated by these devices. While this branch of the field is still relatively nascent, it has already successfully provided digital evidence useful for cases related to privacy and data breaches.

The Significance of Digital Forensics in Today's World

There's no overstating how digital forensics solves and even prevents cybercrime in today's always-connected world. The field itself has come a long way since its beginnings in the 1980s—and it will continue to evolve and meet the world's changing needs as new technological innovations emerge.

If you're interested in joining the fight against cybercrime and making a positive difference in the digital world, then a career in digital forensic science may be right for you.

Not sure where to begin? If you already have a bachelor's degree, Champlain College Online offers an online graduate certificate program in digital forensics and incident response. Our program is offered 100 percent online and can be completed in as little as three terms. Request more information or get started with your online application today.

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