Digital forensics is the practice of recovering and investigating digital information involving a cybercrime. Digital analysts (those who perform the practice) collect email addresses, domains or IP addresses, malicious files, and other digital evidence to identify and prove the guilt of suspects. It’s a tedious but essential process in persecuting cybercriminals.

Digital forensics is the cyber equivalent of a full-scale criminal investigation. Criminal investigators unearth a wealth of physical evidence from a crime scene. Likewise, digital analysts can reveal patterns and irregularities in computer activities that can establish that a crime was committed and may point to who the criminals are.

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A more low-level definition of digital forensics refers to it as a cyber-investigation procedure that focuses on discovering, evaluating, and preserving electronic evidence (for example, emails, Internet browser histories, databases, spreadsheets, etc.). It goes hand in hand with incident response, hence the specialized field of digital forensics and incident response (DFIR). It is worth noting that the term “digital forensics” is only applicable for cyber investigations where the procured evidence is in court proceedings or explicitly requested by law enforcement agents.

Digital Forensics History

Digital forensics traces its roots back to the late 1980s after a slew of hacking attacks against privately owned companies. A defining moment in its history took place in 1986 when a German hacker stole data from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California with a honeypot (a computer or a computer system intended to lure cybercriminals in order to understand their techniques and subsequently detect or study attacks). By the 1990s, the practice has evolved from tracking down hackers to uncovering the source of child pornography. The military also used computer forensics to evaluate digital evidence from adversaries.

What does Someone Working in the Digital Forensics Field Do?

Offenders inevitably leave footprints behind in the aftermath of cyberattacks or real-world crimes. The job of a digital forensics professional is to take apart or reconstruct memory dumps and files from electronic devices, such as computers, smartphones, and USB drives, to support legal cases. Digital forensics analysts also deconstruct applications, browsers, and Internet resources to recover essential pieces of evidence.

Digital forensics examiners are senior-level analysts or system administrators who are entirely hands-on when working with the authorities. They play an essential role in e-discovery and are required to follow the rigors or protocols of related cyber investigations. As far as skills go, digital forensics analysts should also possess proper documentation and reporting skills. That’s because they have to translate their findings into a language that’s easily understood by non-tech-savvy individuals.

What are Some of the Tools Used in Digital Forensics?

Digital forensics experts rely on a variety of open-source tools that perform very well and support a variety of formats. Among the standard tools in their toolkit are:

  • The SANS Investigative Forensic Toolkit (SIFT), which in simple terms is a forensics toolkit for data capture (i.e., capturing the content of packets), folder and log examination.
  • Wireshark is a popular packet sniffer that is widely used by cybersecurity researchers for analyzing network traffic.
  • HashKeeper is, meanwhile, used for examining digital media files, and categorizing them as good or bad based on “known to be good” hash functions.