Protect Your Assets by Neal B. Custer: A secret leaks out, a spouse cheats: Digital data tell-all

Neal B. Custer, president of Reveal Digital Forensics & Security, a subsidiary of Custer Agency Inc. Adjunct professor at Boise State University.April 23, 2013 

When William Gibson penned his novel Neuromancer in 1984, he envisioned a world where every person and every object was connected by technology. Human beings could integrate digital technology directly into their bodies, connect to a vast worldwide network called "cyberspace" using brain-computer interfaces, and interact with the rest of the world on an unprecedented scale. Information could be shared across vast distances, and the line between the real world and cyberspace was constantly blurred. In 1984, these ideas were completely fictional. DOS was still the king of operating systems, Apple had just announced the first Macintosh computer, and the Internet as we know it today did not exist.

Fast-forward to 2013. Almost all U.S. citizens interact with a digital device on a daily basis. More than half of U.S. adults own a smartphone, which through an Internet connection provides access to the complete sum of human knowledge at any given moment. Fifty-six percent of all people have at least one social networking profile, and around 40 percent socialize more online than in face-to-face interactions. New cars come equipped with GPS navigation and Bluetooth connectivity, and some are being constructed with Wi-Fi hotspots built into the car.

Even Gibson's concept of digital technology integrated into the human body has started to become reality. Google's "Project Glass," set to release later this year, provides a wearable heads-up display to consumers that can offer everything from the ability to record anything you see at any time, to real-time GPS directions with a semitransparent map that pops up right in front of your eyes.

To somebody in 1984, the world of 2013 would seem like something out of a science fiction novel. Ubiquitous computing is a reality of the modern age - our questions get sent to search engines, and our deepest secrets are stored not only in our own memories, but on a computer's.

Digital forensics is the art and science of analyzing technological data to discover the truth behind a given situation. The concept of forensic science has been made popular through television shows like "CSI," "Bones," and "NCIS," but these portrayals have always focused on the application of forensics toward criminal cases.

In reality, forensic science, especially digital forensics, is just as applicable to the private sector, especially when it becomes apparent that nearly everything a person does today leaves a digital trace behind. These traces can manifest in a variety of ways: a piece of Web browsing history on a laptop, a deleted text message in a smartphone, a photograph on a digital camera tagged with GPS coordinates, or even an address saved in a car's onboard navigation system.

The possibilities in the civil sector are endless. In divorce cases, a spouse's Web browsing history, social network profiles, or emails can reveal startling details that can turn the entire case around. For business owners, suspicions of employee misconduct or digital embezzlement can be investigated by simply turning to the data on the network.

So what is the digital forensic process like? Because no two situations are alike, the equipment and techniques used can vary, but the most common type of case involves digitally imaging and analyzing a hard drive.

Consider the following true case. A member of a Boise company's executive board noticed that information spoken during private meetings was somehow making its way out to the rest of the employees, when such information should have been known exclusively by the executive board. The company paid for a traditional bug-sweep, which turned up nothing. Confused about where the information leak could be coming from, company executives then hired outside digital forensic investigators, thinking the problem may have originated from the computer in the room.

After a detailed investigation, it was discovered that a smartphone belonging to one board member had been compromised with spyware. This software allowed the phone's microphone to be activated remotely, recording the surroundings as audio files to a Web server from the safety of the phone owner's pocket. It was determined that physical access to the phone was necessary to install this software, and because the owner kept it on a charger in his office, reviewing the security camera footage outside the office revealed the employee who installed the spyware.

Consider another true case, a common type in private computer forensics. The client, a mother of two, suspected her husband of having an affair. She provided the family computer to digital forensic investigators, who created a write bitstream image - a perfect bit-for-bit copy - of the hard drive. The client had her computer back by the next day, but over the following week, the copy of her hard drive was meticulously examined for evidence of an affair.

Every word on the hard drive was indexed by a special text parser, and searches for a few hundred keywords commonly seen in affairs were conducted against the drive. These searches led to deleted emails, Facebook data, an extensive Skype log, and data from 12 dating profiles set up by her husband. From this data, the investigators were able to determine that her husband was not just involved in one affair; he had gotten involved with close to 20 women during his marriage, including during time he spent overseas. The final report, close to 100 pages in length, was admitted as evidence in the divorce case his wife soon filed.

Every crime, every instance of employee misconduct, and every personal relationship has a digital component in the modern world, and that trend will continue to become more and more prominent as technology becomes even further ingrained into everyday life. When faced with unanswerable questions, business owners must simply ask themselves one thing:

"Where is the data?"


Written in collaboration with information-security expert Dylan Evans, Reveal's vice president of operations.

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