Digital Forensics: What's to Come?

Mobile devices have opened Pandora's Box, making digital forensics a much more volatile technology as cyber criminals find new avenues to carry out attacks. And law enforcement needs to keep up.

When digital forensics emerged more than 20 years ago, personal computers were the epitome of consumer technology. Today, desktops and laptops are less common due to the rise in mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, and "wearable technology" such as Google Glass headsets and the Samsung Bluetooth Watch.

This shift into a digital society raises concerns with privacy and security issues surrounding such technology. These devices have opened Pandora's Box, making digital forensics a much more volatile technology as cyber criminals find new avenues to carry out attacks. How, then, will changes in technology shape the future of digital forensics for law enforcement?

Cyber Crime Increase, Cyber Security Investment

According to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, more than 280,000 complaints of online criminal activity were reported in 2012. Much more is at risk in a digitized society, and companies, governments, and individuals are taking notice.

More than ever, companies are making significant investments in digital forensics and cyber security. Many have already suffered losses from hacking, and more are at risk of the same. Data is often the most valuable asset a company owns and must be the focus of protection. The cost of this is staggering with nearly $1.4 billion invested to protect sensitive data. Digital protection is no longer an option, but is a must for a company's well-being.

Future Issues

Companies are not just dealing with outsiders seeking to steal data, but also with employees who have system access. Governments face more serious threats than simple Website hacking. Recent headlines show that classified information is vulnerable to inside threats.

Enforcement agencies must keep up with technology to not only solve the explosion of digital crimes, but to prevent them in the first place. Over the next decade, agencies will focus increasingly on cloud forensics and personal data security issues.

Cloud Forensics

Cloud forensics issues will continue to expand. Massive remote servers host a variety of files and applications. Microsoft Office 365 is an example of this technology. This product is a subscription-based, online portal designed to provide a range of computing services on the cloud. Technology research firm Gartner predicts the overall global cloud computing market will be worth more than $150 billion this year.

Cloud computing issues have already arisen for law enforcement. Consider jurisdiction. What happens when data is stored across international jurisdictions? Law enforcement agencies are facing difficulty with search warrants and subpoenas for cloud-based data.

Existing computer crime laws were developed before the widespread use of cloud-based systems. How do you serve a subpoena or warrant on data that is somewhere on the cloud when it may be constantly moving around? Load balancing and other storage technologies shift data around the globe as a matter of efficiency. Even efforts such as the G8 24/7 Cybercrime Network, created in the late 1990s for G8 member nations to communicate on cybercrime matters, did not foresee the existence and scale of cloud computing.

Personal Data Safety

With advancements in cloud and mobile computing, one wonders about the safety of personal data. Financial, medical, employment, and government information are moved around from computer system to computer system, with cyber criminals able to hack into and obtain data along the way. These criminals are now operating in the virtual and mobile world. Their footprints can disappear at the closest cyber café or free Wi-Fi connection.

Better procedures must be developed to keep data secure and enable law enforcement to adapt to the digitization of society. As the nature of evidence continues to change, courts will need to be more accepting of evidence that did not exist a few years ago. The technical and legal ability of law enforcement to acquire and analyze that data will also have to change.

In New Zealand, for example, the Parliament is struggling with modifying existing search and seizure law to include the lawful seizure of remote data when the investigative target's computer is online with a remote data storage device.

In coming decades, more changes will take place in digital forensics. There may even come a time when our society is so mobile that one's entire digital life is stored on one small, wearable device.

Bill Crane is an associate professor and program director of the Digital Forensics Graduate Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. He has international digital forensics experience and has served in various capacities over the past four decades with the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of State, the FBI National Academy, The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the College of Policing in the UK and the New Zealand Police Academy.

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