Cyber forensics is the process of gathering data from a computer or a similar device and then documenting the findings. Once the information has been extracted, it is analyzed and used to find the person or people who committed a crime.
This evidence, as part of a larger investigation, can be presented in court by law enforcement officials and used to obtain a conviction. Experts in this field make a digital copy of the device that is being investigated and then carry out their examination on the digital copy, while the original is stored securely.
Cybersecurity specialists who work in forensics have to abide by a strict set of legal guidelines to remain compliant and for the report they produce to be admissible as evidence.
They have to produce a highly structured investigation that incorporates a chain of evidence, documented from the first relevant keystroke to the last.
This ensures that they can locate and present a factual account of what happened on the device and who initiated those processes.
Cyber forensics, or digital forensics as it is sometimes known, involves collecting data in such a way that it maintains its integrity. No guesswork or conjecture is used or needed, as the information has been drawn from a digital source that, as long as it is complete, will reveal a trail that can be followed.
However, investigators will also need to evaluate this data to determine whether it was tampered with or altered to throw them off the scent. If they suspect that this is the case, they will concentrate equally on how the changes were made and who was responsible.
Much of the evidence that cyber forensics teams work with is invisible to the average person. We all have computers in our cars, for instance, which continually gather information on our driving.
Should we be involved in an accident, this could be harnessed to explain what happened by analyzing whether we were speeding, braking suddenly or driving normally.
This is a specialized but fascinating industry that will continue to grow as our use of digital technology increases.
People with a passion for computing who have considered how to become a cybersecurity specialist should look into enrolling on the Master of Science in Cybersecurity at St. Bonaventure University.
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Although computer forensics is useful in solving real-world crimes, it can also be used to recover data that has been lost or corrupted as part of a cyber-attack.
Ideally, all businesses would utilize a data management and governance system with multiple layers of security to keep their customers’ information and proprietary data safe.
This simplifies the forensic process should the company ever become compromised. However, frequently, companies have failings in their security measures, and they can lead to full-blown malware invasions or denial-of-service attacks.
They leave the system in a virtually unusable state, meaning that the network and any attached devices are, essentially, a crime scene. Evidence is found in various formats, from documents to the browsing history of employees and emails that have been sent or received.
Most investigations carried out by cyber forensics experts tend to follow a standardized pattern. There may be a few variations on this, depending on the crime and the context of the inquiry, as well as the devices and the information they contain. However, generally, these are the key stages that will be covered.
Information that is stored on the hard drive of the system has to be copied in a way that keeps it secure. This will often mean that the device has to be physically isolated so that there is no question of it being tampered with while the evidence is collected.
Files, folders and more will be collected and replicated, piece by piece, until every bit of data is gleaned from the drive.
Once completed, this forensic image, or copy, will be stored separately. The original device or devices will be locked, moved to a secure location and kept there to preserve the current condition.
The investigation begins shortly afterwards using the copy. Sometimes this will be combined with information from public sources, such as posts on social media or payments for illegal services on dark web pages.
Once it has been collected, experts ensure that the data is a full and accurate representation of the original and that nothing appears to be compromised or missing.
If information is to be used as evidence in a future prosecution, it needs to be forensically sound. The copy must be compatible with the operating system (OS) that will be used to analyze it, even if it was gathered from a different OS.
During this process, investigators will take steps to ensure that the data is not changed, and they will often use a write blocker to prevent any information from being added or rewritten during their inquiry.
When we click the delete button, most of us feel confident that the information is gone for good. However, deleted files are never really gone, as far as the computer is concerned.
Extracting them can be a laborious process, but these hidden folders or actions can be very telling. Therefore, forensic experts who understand how to recover them will work hard to do so.
Space that the computer has not allocated anything to can contain vast amounts of crucial evidence. Getting to it is not easy. It involves a process known as file carving, which can be done using a software tool or manually by someone with experience.
Operating systems use free space in various ways. One is the storing of new files and another is the holding of temporary files. These temporary files, used for cache or backup purposes, may not have been used for years.
Nevertheless, they will stay in position until the computer needs more space and writes over them. Once they are discovered, these files can be recreated and the data they contain is examined.
Searching for keywords that are suspicious or have some relevance to the investigation is a tried-and-tested forensics technique. It can save investigators hours of sifting and research by yielding immediate results – assuming that the right keywords are used.
Frequently, they will begin by compiling a list of email addresses, ports, IP addresses, phrases and words that could be connected to an attack or breach. Next, they will input them and examine the network events that are displayed to search for important data.
The final part of the investigation, before the results are handed over to the business or law enforcement, is the analysis.
This will often take place in a sterile environment, using devices that have been wiped (or sterilized) so that they contain no pre-existing data.
Computer forensics uses tools such as mouse jigglers that simulate input. These prevent a computer from falling asleep during long, automated processes and ensure that no data is missed as a result.
Once the report is ready, the cyber forensic investigators present their findings to the legal team of a business or a law enforcement team. It has to be written in language that is accessible to a layperson, as many people do not understand the complex terms used in the industry.
Additionally, rather than reiterating the various processes that have been employed, the report should focus on the task at hand. This means explaining more about the offense, who the offender could be, and how the cybercrime was committed.
Computer forensics can be broken down into several specialisms. Each of these specialisms is focused on a different aspect of information technology. The most commonly used are outlined below.
Investigators examine a system’s database to preserve the information it contains and analyze its history. As part of this work, they will retrace historical activity on the system, recover information that was deleted, and determine how the information was altered.
This provides a deeper understanding of the scope of the breach and insight into its wider impact on the organization that was targeted.
Once a breach is detected, emails can provide a lot of valuable clues as to who was involved and how the crime was carried out. The details are often found on schedules and contacts, as well as in messages, attachments and passwords.
Monitoring the activities of individuals helps examiners to see whether they were sending hidden messages and to search for proof of their part in the crime.
Email forensics is a great way of tracking data breaches back to a source, whether the individual played an active role in what unfolded, or they innocently opened a malware virus that spread throughout the system.
Malware is found in code, and the programs that carry it are sometimes referred to as ransomware, Trojan horses or, simply, viruses. This malicious software can be designed to carry out various harmful attacks on data, deny access or collect information.
Malware forensics activities will find the virus and the method it used to enter a system. Investigators in this field can establish its impact, the ports it used, and how it could be removed in the future.
Memory forensics can reveal which processes were running during an incident, which users were logged into the system, and which files they had open. It can show what actions were authorized and whether any activity was anomalous, on a device or within the server as a whole.
The data that is collected forms snapshots of the system before, during and after the event took place. This record will allow malware to be tracked back to its sources, even if no evidence has been left behind.
Mobile devices hold huge amounts of information in the form of searches, phone records, texts and location history. Investigators can use them to look through a person’s contacts, photos and video files to gather evidence.
If a cyber-attack resulted in intellectual property theft, this might also be apparent on a phone because people rely on their devices for data collection, sharing and storing tasks.
Corporations might also turn to mobile forensics if they are concerned that an employee is committing cyber fraud.
The individual’s phone usage may reveal important information about their activities and also their attitude toward the company and their job.
People who work in this specialism examine the traffic that moves around a network. To do so, they may use intruder detection systems, firewalls or other tools. They focus on traffic that could be suspicious and involved in a malware event, whether it is stealing information or disrupting daily processes.
The results can be used to prevent further attacks and learn more about how they take hold in the first place. Network forensics is especially important when a system is connected to network-based services such as the internet or an email server – as most are in the modern world.
Investigators look into network protocols to retrieve messages, browsing history and more, and they then reconstruct the event to watch how it unfolded and learn more about it.
Cyber forensics provides the evidence that law enforcement needs to prosecute criminals. It is also key to understanding how digital crimes are carried out and preventing future attacks.
Investigators use advanced techniques and act quickly, not just to catch perpetrators but also to repair damage and restore systems.
At a time when cybercrime is on the rise, this meticulous work allows companies to get to the heart of an incident and learn how to protect their assets more robustly.
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