Created: April 4, 2002
Updated: Aug 29, 2014
Author: Steve Hailey
This document is provided
for informational purposes only, and represents the
opinions of the author. It is not intended to represent
legal advice, and should not be construed as such.
If you are using the information contained within
this document to help prepare for a computing investigation,
review this document in its entirety with your legal
In the digital forensics community, you'll
often hear talk about forensic tools "proven
in court." On a pretty regular basis, I receive
emails asking for our opinion on this topic, and whether
or not "this particular tool" or "that
particular tool" should be used based on whether
or not its use has been "proven in court."
Vendors that sell digital forensics software will
typically use statements such as "our tool has
been proven in court" as a marketing technique.
Really what these vendors are saying is that their
tool was used in a case where the results of the tool
as well as the underlying methodology and testimony
of the forensic computer examiner were admitted. Understand
that there are various tests that courts can apply
to expert testimony, methodology and opinions in order
to determine admissibility, reliability, and relevancy.
The particular test(s) used will vary from state to
state and even from court to court within the same
In the digital forensics business, we typically refer
to an attack of the methods, tools and techniques
we use as a "junk science" attack.
I do believe that commonly used commercial tools such
as FTK, EnCASE, ProDiscover, and X-Ways Forensics
should be used for forensic analysis, as the tools
have already been authenticated by experts in many
court cases. There is more to this equation however.
While I am not an attorney, I believe that the primary
question that should be asked here is not whether
a particular tool has been proven in court, but rather:
Does the analyst have the technical
background to support the results of their investigation,
have they properly authenticated their results, and
was a sound investigation performed from start to
Think about this for a moment. If the tools being
used are the mechanism to find evidence on a computing
device, and several different tools can replicate
the process, then it doesn't matter what tools were
used. The evidence is simply
there and can be found by any competent forensic analyst
using a variety of tools. Proper interpretation
of the evidence, however, is another story - that's
where the smarts of the forensic examiner come in
Regardless of the tools that an analyst uses, the
following questions should be pondered to help determine
the likelihood of admissibility of evidence gathered
during a forensic analysis. Whether or not evidence
is admissible has more to do with factors other than
the specific tools used for the technical processing.
If you are a digital forensics analyst, the following
questions will most probably arise in some form during
a deposition, hearing, pretrial or trial situation.
Any attorney that you work for would be wise to affirm
the answers to these questions with you, as they will
go a long way in helping to determine whether or not
the evidence gathered will be admissible in a court
of law as well as whether or not your expert testimony
will hold up under scrutiny. These questions can also
be used as the basis for formulating additional questions
to be asked of opposing experts:
1. Was the evidence gathered,
authenticated, and verified in a sound manner?
One of the tenets of digital forensics is to assure
that the original media is not altered, and that the
methods used to create forensic quality copies of
media and data assure that the integrity of the original
is maintained. This is one of the most important steps.
In situations where evidence must be gathered "live,"
we need to make sure that whatever process used has
been verified beforehand to cause minimal changes
to the overall system, and that other professionals
given the same set of circumstances would have used
the same methodology. Write blocking / prevention
mechanisms should be used for imaging media, and thoroughly
tested beforehand by the examiner to assure that the
mechanism works without fail.
If you are going to use physical media for your working
copy versus image files of the media, assure that
the working copy media is sterile (contains no data)
and has been verified as such before imaging the original
to the working copy.
Cryptographic hash functions should be used on the
original media and/or data beforehand and then on
the subsequent copies in order to show that integrity
was maintained as well as the fact that the copies
are identical to the original. Contrary to what many
forensic analysts have been taught, a simple checksum
(a process that adds up byte values and outputs the
result) is not recommended for this process. I recommend
that an MD5 or SHA cryptographic hash function be
used. As an aside, if you've heard that MD5 was "broken"
and should no longer be used for digital forensics,
I recommend that you read "MD5 collisions and
the impact on digital forensics" by Eric Thompson
Well done Eric.
As well, always check your images to make sure that
they can be read before returning the original media
back to a client or owner. Don't take for granted
that since the original and forensic copy hashes match
that all is well. I have experienced images not being
read properly when proprietary image formats were
used for the working copies. When possible and practical,
use the RAW format versus proprietary, and do not
take for granted that everyone uses your format -
especially when you have to provide forensic images
to another party involved in a case. Remember - a
competent forensic examiner verifies whenever possible,
not taking anything for granted. Murphy's law is just
as prevalent in digital forensics as anywhere else.
At this point you might be saying something like "if
the hash value for the original and the hash value
for the working copy match, that's all that matters."
Not so. If you are the first to image a piece of media,
you could have altered the original prior to the first
hash. You have to show that your imaging process from
start to finish did not alter the original in any
2. Was a chain of custody maintained?
All media, documents, and evidence related to a case
or situation should be kept in your custody and closely
controlled. Only those that have a right to see the
information should see it and have access to it. We
call this creating and maintaining a chain of custody.
Detailed documentation needs to be kept and readily
available relevant to the chain of custody, and the
analyst needs to have a secure location used to store
all materials. I believe this goes beyond merely documenting
when a particular item was received or returned. You
should document when any information pertinent to
a case or situation is removed as well as placed back
into its secure location.
3. Is the ownership and licensing
appropriate for the tools used?
Whatever software is used for the technical processing
needs to be properly licensed. If you are in business
for yourself, the software needs to be licensed to
you or your company. If you are performing work as
an employee, the software needs to be licensed to
your company and you should have the authorization
to use it. If you are going to use shareware for an
analysis, pay the licensing fee.
The opposing experts for a case CSI was involved in
used a "demo" version of software to process
the Internet history of a particular computer. The
repeated word DEMO could be clearly seen on the printed
reports. How professional do you think these folks
looked? They were being paid handsomely for their
work on the case, yet were using demo versions of
In another case, the opposing attorney tried to impeach
me by intimating that I had used software licensed
to a college I instructed at to process a case. The
attorney had failed to recognize that I also owned
my own business and had properly licensed copies of
all software used in my analysis.
4. Was the proper examination
environment being maintained?
An analyst that is lackadaisical in this area will
most assuredly have questions raised relevant to the
efficacy of their overall methodology and procedures.
For one, the workstation(s) used to process evidence
must be kept in good working condition. Prior to a
forensic analysis, I recommend that diagnostic software
be run on the forensic system, and that the results
be kept. When maintenance is performed on the system
or upgrades are performed, keep documentation. Your
forensic workstation is a tool used for your profession,
and you need to show that it is in proper working
Regularly scan your workstation for viruses and malware,
and always scan the original media (with a write blocking
/ prevention method in place) or the resultant images
for viruses and malware. Many forensic analysts fail
to scan for viruses and other malware, thinking that
their forensic software will find and identify all
of these items. Don't make this mistake.
5. Can the results of the technical
analysis be duplicated using other tools?
Any competent examiner knows that you do not use
a single tool. Granted, we all have our favorite primary
tools to use, but once the evidence has been extracted
that is pertinent to the situation and will be used
in some type of proceeding, it needs to be authenticated
using other tools.
For example, at CSI, we use some of the popular GUI
tools to process the bulk of information. When evidence
is found pertinent to the situation, we then use several
other tools to authenticate that specific evidence,
such as the fact that it is indeed on the media at
this specific cluster, block, or sector, and that
any time stamp information matches up.
The key is to use different tools from different vendors
and different sources. DO NOT rely solely on tools
from a particular vendor or source. Another competent
forensic analyst should be able to find the same data
at the same location on the working media or image
using an appropriate tool.
6. Does the Analyst understand
what the tools they use are actually doing, or are
they merely taking for granted what an automated process
With digital forensics having such a big "WOW"
factor these days, we are seeing more and more people
hanging out a shingle to do digital forensics work,
with many of them being "point and click"
analysts. In other words, using a GUI based tool with
little knowledge concerning what the tool is actually
For example, regardless of the tool you use and the
specific algorithms employed by your tool, the way
in which computer forensic software tools perform
the following is pretty much based on the same underlying
Creating forensic quality or sector-by-sector images
Locating deleted/old partitions
Ascertaining date/time stamp information
Obtaining data from slack space
Recovering or "undeleting" files and directories
"Carving" or recovering data based on file
Performing keyword searches
Recovering Internet History information
If you lack the experience and technical knowledge
to defend your use of a particular tool because you
don't really understand what the tool is doing, then
your results will not withstand scrutiny regardless
of the tool used. If you do not understand how a tool
could perform one of the functions mentioned above,
I would recommend that you obtain some additional
training. There are many fine training programs available.
I would recommend the Digital Forensic Examiner course by CyberSecurity Academy if you are already an IT professional. If you bootcamp style training is not for you or you are a bit rusty with your technical skills, a program at your local college migth suit you best. The Digital Forensics Certificate or Information Security and Digital Forensics ATA degree at Edmonds Community College is an example of such a program.
Truth be told, I'm one of the the instructors for the certificate
and degree programs at Edmonds Community College,
so I'm a bit prejudiced.
Whatever you choice is for education, interview your
instructor and make sure that they have experience
not only teaching, but actually doing. This will make
a world of difference in the education that you will
7. Do other professionals use
the same techniques and methodology?
If you are doing digital forensics related work and
truly know what you are doing, you are using techniques
that other professionals use. If you've developed
your very own tool or methodology that no one else
is in the profession is using yet, or that has not
been subject to a review of your peers and thorough,
documented testing, you're heading for trouble. Think
about having to explain to a jury how your homegrown
Understand that when you have evidence that is damning
to the other side, opposing counsel will bring up
arguments that your software tool or methodology is
not "generally accepted in the digital forensics
community" and so forth. If you have authenticated
your results using several different tools, really
understand the meaning of what the evidence shows
- and can prove it - you'll be fine. To help avoid
problems in this area that will draw attention away
from the real matter at hand, I do recommend (at the
time of this writing) that your primary tool be a
widely accepted commercial tool.
8. Is the Analyst technically
capable of defending/supporting their interpretation
of the evidence?
I could write an entire document citing instance of
the opposing experts misinterpreting the results that
their tools presented to them. We'll cite one example.
The opposing experts in a case used a popular GUI
tool that came with a script for finding Internet
search engine activity. When they ran the script,
they found literally hundreds and hundreds of "searches"
that supposedly had been conducted by our client.
Therefore, our client had intentionally accessed certain
types of information related to these searches, because
- in their interpretation - the searches showed intent.
On examination, I realized that each and every one
of these "searches" were actually hyper
links and not searches at all. The hyper links were
formed in such a way that when a link was clicked,
a database was searched to pull up the most current
information related to the link. Our client had not
conducted any searches whatsoever.
The opposing experts took for granted that their automated
tool was accounting for any variables, and would only
show them searches that had actually been conducted.
A big mistake. The opposing experts lacked the technical
skills to actually authenticate their results, so
they depended entirely on a single automated tool.
Results from any tool should always be thoroughly
checked by someone versed in the underlying technology
to see if what appears to be a duck is actually a
In the very same case, I recovered reams of email
that the opposing experts did not find. This was because
they simply did not know how to find it.
By the way, I used the same primary tool in our investigation
as they did. The differences in what was found as
well as the differences in interpretation was due
to the inexperience of the opposing experts - it had
nothing to do with the tool being used.
At CSI, we use a variety of tools to process cases.
We use the well-known and popular GUI tools, command
line tools, and open source tools. The fact of the
matter is, many of the tools "already proven
in court" are fantastic tools and do a great
job. I want you to realize however that if you feel
you must use a specific tool to defend your results,
you are probably in need of additional technical training
more than you are a specific tool.
Methodology and technical knowledge is far more important,
in my opinion, than the tool.
As you can see, whether the tool being used has been
"proven in court" or not, the digital forensics
practitioner needs to know what he or she is doing,
and should have a technical background that includes
more than just a course or two in digital forensics.
There are situations in which a particular tool has
been chosen as the primary tool for a company or law
enforcement agency. So if you work there, you'll be
using the tool that has been accepted and adopted.
Even in this situation however, you'll find the experienced
forensic practitioners will use additional tools to
authenticate the results of the primary tool.
If you have a positive answer to the 8 items presented
above, then you have done your job and are prepared.
It is now up to the attorneys to argue whether or
not the evidence you have recovered is admissible
based on its relevancy to the situation amongst other
As mentioned previously, there are various tests
that courts can apply to the methodology and testimony
of an expert in order to determine admissibility,
reliability, and relevancy. The particular test(s)
used will vary from state to state and even from court
to court within the same state.
The Frye test (Frye v USA, 1923) used to be the standard
for the admissibility of expert witness testimony.
Frye indicated that scientific evidence would not
be admissible unless the scientific community to which
it was related had generally accepted it. Some states
still use the Frye test.
The Frye test remained the standard for about 50
In 1973, Congress adopted the Federal Rules of Evidence.
The rules relevant to our document here are:
FRE 401 and 402: All relevant evidence is admissible,
except as otherwise provided ... Evidence which is
not relevant is not admissible. Relevant evidence
is defined as that which has any tendency to make
the existence of any fact that is of consequence to
the determination of the action more probable or less
probable than it would be without the evidence.
FRE 403: Although relevant, evidence may be excluded
if its probative value (serving as proof) is substantially
outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion
of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations
of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation
of cumulative evidence.
FRE 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized
knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand
the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness
qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience,
training, or education, may testify thereto in the
form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony
is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony
is the product of reliable principles and methods,
and (3) the witness has applied the principles and
methods reliably to the facts of the case.
Please see http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/overview.html if you need more information on the Federal Rules
Stemming from the Federal Rules of Evidence, came
the Daubert (Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals,
1993) reliability test. The Daubert reliability test
requires special pretrial hearings for scientific
evidence and special procedures on discovery. The
Supreme Court in Daubert declared that the more flexible
Federal Rules of Evidence had completely replaced
the Frye test in determining whether an expert's testimony
was admissible, and that the Frye test would no longer
be used in federal courts.
In its basic form, Daubert says that experts must
use objective methodological principles in their work,
and that they should also be qualified to testify
as a true expert in their field. Federal trial judges
were granted the right to screen an expert's qualifications
and test the reliability of the expert's methodology.
A number of reliability factors can enter into the
Daubert reliability test:
- Whether the expert's technique or theory can be
or has been tested -- that is, whether the expert's
theory can be challenged in some objective sense,
or whether it is instead simply a subjective, conclusory
approach that cannot reasonably be assessed for
- Whether the technique or theory has been subject
to peer review and publication
- The known of potential rate of error of the technique
or theory when applied
- The existence and maintenance of standards controlling
the technique's operation
- Whether the theory or method has been generally
accepted by the scientific community
Individual states and even jurisdictions within these
states have their own rules of evidence, and you'll
find many are based on the Federal Rules of Evidence:
|States accepting Daubert:
||States accepting Frye:
||States with their own tests:
It is our belief that as a digital forensics expert,
you should be aware of the Federal Rules of Evidence,
as well as those for your state or jurisdiction. You'll
want to go over these with the legal counsel you are
As you begin to work on a case and process the evidence,
you'll want to ask yourself and legal counsel if your
methods will survive the rules of evidence tests for
your particular situation. All of your work will mean
nothing if the evidence you recover is not admissible.