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How Computer Forensics Works

Phases of a Computer Forensics Investigation

Judd Robbins, a computer scientist and leading expert in computer forensics, lists the following steps investigators should follow to retrieve computer evidence:

  1. Secure the computer system to ensure that the equipment and data are safe. This means the detectives must make sure that no unauthorized individual can access the computers or storage devices involved in the search. If the computer system connects to the Internet, detectives must sever the connection.
  2. Find every file on the computer system, including files that are encrypted, protected by passwords, hidden or deleted, but not yet overwritten. Investigators should make a copy of all the files on the system. This includes files on the computer's hard drive or in other storage devices. Since accessing a file can alter it, it's important that investigators only work from copies of files while searching for evidence. The original system should remain preserved and intact.
  3. Recover as much deleted information as possible using applications that can detect and retrieve deleted data.
  4. Reveal the contents of all hidden files with programs designed to detect the presence of hidden data.
  5. Decrypt and access protected files.
  6. Analyze special areas of the computer's disks, including parts that are normally inaccessible. (In computer terms, unused space on a computer's drive is called unallocated space. That space could contain files or parts of files that are relevant to the case.)
  7. Document every step of the procedure. It's important for detectives to provide proof that their investigations preserved all the information on the computer system without changing or damaging it. Years can pass between an investigation and a trial, and without proper documentation, evidence may not be admissible. Robbins says that the documentation should include not only all the files and data recovered from the system, but also a report on the system's physical layout and whether any files had encryption or were otherwise hidden.
  8. Be prepared to testify in court as an expert witness in computer forensics. Even when an investigation is complete, the detectives' job may not be done. They may still need to provide testimony in court [source: Robbins].

All of these steps are important, but the first step is critical. If investigators can't prove that they secured the computer system, the evidence they find may not be admissible. It's also a big job. In the early days of computing, the system might have included a PC and a few floppy disks. Today, it could include multiple computers, disks, thumb drives, external drives, peripherals and Web servers.

Some criminals have found ways to make it even more difficult for investigators to find information on their systems. They use programs and applications known as anti-forensics. Detectives have to be aware of these programs and how to disable them if they want to access the information in computer systems.

What exactly are anti-forensics, and what's their purpose? Find out in the next section.