Digital forensics is defined as the process of preserving, collecting, validating, analyzing, interpreting, and documenting digital evidence from digital devices and storage media to be presented in a court of law (https://www.bcs.org/articles-opinion-and-research/what-is-digital-forensics/). The goal is to extract credible and verifiable digital information for identifying, re-constructing, and examining past events or crimes. It involves applying scientific and analytical techniques to digital evidence related to computer crime or misuse (https://www.gartner.com/en/information-technology/glossary/digital-forensics).
Origins in the 1980s
The origins of digital forensics can be traced back to the 1980s, when personal computers started becoming more common in homes and businesses. This growth in personal computing unfortunately led to new types of cybercrimes. One of the first major cyber crimes was the Morris worm in 1988, which infected around 6,000 computer systems and became the first worm to be prosecuted under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act 1. Law enforcement agencies began realizing they needed specialized skills and tools to investigate these new types of computer-based crimes. This necessity was the genesis of digital forensics as a discipline.
Law enforcement adoption
Law enforcement agencies were among the first to recognize the potential of digital forensics. In 1984, the FBI Laboratory and other law enforcement agencies began training agents in techniques for retrieving digital evidence from computers (An Historical Perspective of Digital Evidence: A Forensic Scientist’s View, n.d.).
The FBI developed its own tools and began building capacity in digital forensics, recognizing its importance in investigating cybercrime. By the late 1980s, the FBI had created a computer analysis response team that could be deployed to support investigations across the country (What is Digital Forensics? History, Types, and Use Cases, n.d.).
Other police agencies soon followed the FBI’s lead. By the early 1990s, major city police departments were training selected officers in computer forensics and creating digital forensics labs and units. This allowed them to conduct examinations on seized computers and recover evidence in cases involving cybercrime, fraud, child pornography and more (An Historical Perspective of Digital Evidence: A Forensic Scientist’s View, n.d.).
Early tools and techniques
In the 1980s, early digital forensic investigations focused on recovering data from storage media by creating bitstream copies or disk images. Some of the first disk imaging tools were developed at FBI labs in the mid-1980s. These tools allowed investigators to make an exact copy of a hard drive while preserving the original evidence.
Data carving also emerged as an important technique in the 1980s and 90s. Data carving analyzes binary data to recover files based on file headers and footers without any metadata. Early data carving tools like Foremost could recover images, documents and other files. However, these basic carving tools also produced a lot of fragmented files. Later tools incorporated smarter carving with validation methods to improve the quality of recovered files.
Notable early cases
Two of the most well-known hacking incidents in the 1980s involved German hackers Thomasommen and Robert T. Morris. In 1987, Thomasommen hacked into NASA and the Department of Energy’s computers, stealing software and technical data related to the Space Shuttle (Source). Thomasommen was eventually caught and sentenced to probation.
The following year, graduate student Robert T. Morris released the Morris Worm, considered the first computer worm distributed via the Internet. The worm quickly spread, infecting tens of thousands of computers and causing millions of dollars in damage. Morris claimed it was an unintended consequence of an experiment gone awry, but he was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and sentenced to three years of probation (Source).
Growth in the 1990s
Widespread adoption of the internet and personal computers in the 1990s led to an increase in cybercrimes like hacking, fraud, and piracy. Law enforcement agencies began dedicating more resources to training personnel in digital forensics techniques (Oxygen Forensics, 2023). The new crimes being committed required new investigative approaches. Whereas traditional forensics relied on techniques for fingerprinting and document analysis, digital forensics emerged to analyze the traces of data left behind on computers and digital storage devices.
According to the Open University (2022), “The first computer forensic technicians were law enforcement officers who had an interest in technology, such as Federal Bureau of Investigation field agents.” Techniques were developed on an ad hoc basis to gather and analyze digital evidence. The onset of major cases like the Morris worm in 1988 demonstrated the need for more robust capabilities in this emerging field.
Advances in technology
In the 1990s, rapid advances in computer technology enabled significant progress in digital forensics. Faster networks, increased storage capacity, and more powerful processing opened up new possibilities for collecting, preserving, analyzing, and presenting digital evidence. Law enforcement agencies began connecting offices through local and wide area networks, allowing for collaboration on cases. They also started using floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and other digital media to store the exponentially larger amounts of data that could now be extracted from computers and devices.
With faster computers, forensic examiners could employ more advanced techniques like data carving to recover deleted files. They could also leverage powerful search functions to quickly scan hard drives for keywords and patterns of interest. Higher resolution displays and imaging devices improved visualization and documentation capabilities. Overall, these rapid technology improvements enabled digital forensics to transition from a niche capability to an essential investigative tool for law enforcement.
Development of standards
In the 1990s, best practices began emerging for the proper handling of digital evidence. Several organizations helped develop standards and guidelines, including:
The International Organization on Computer Evidence (IOCE) published guidelines in 1995 on how to handle digital evidence from seizure to disposition. This helped establish proper procedures for maintaining chain of custody.
In 1996, the US Department of Justice formed a working group to develop standards for the forensic examination of digital evidence. Their efforts led to guidelines on evidence collection, preservation, documentation, analysis, and reporting.
The Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence (SWGDE) formed in 1998 to promote standards for credibility and acceptability of digital evidence.
These early efforts helped solidify best practices like maintaining a documented chain of custody, verifying integrity of copies, using validated tools and methods, and thoroughly documenting processes.
Commercial tools emerge
In the 1990s, several commercial digital forensics tools emerged to meet the growing needs of law enforcement. Some of the earliest and most well-known tools included:
- EnCase – One of the first commercial computer forensics tools, created in 1993 by Guidance Software. EnCase quickly became popular with law enforcement for acquiring digital evidence from computers and mobile devices .
- FTK (Forensic Toolkit) – AccessData released the first version of FTK in 2000, providing comprehensive computer forensic capabilities including evidence acquisition, analysis, and reporting .
- X-Ways Forensics – Developed in Germany in 1998 and released commercially in 2002, X-Ways Forensics is noted for its speed, flexibility, and affordability .
These new commercial tools gave investigators improved capabilities to acquire digital evidence in a forensically sound manner, conduct thorough analysis of that evidence, and generate reports to document their findings.
In summary, digital forensics began emerging in the 1980s as law enforcement recognized the need for tools and techniques to investigate computer-based crimes. Early cases like the Morris worm and hacking groups like the Legion of Doom demonstrated the challenges of this new frontier. Rudimentary tools were developed in-house, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that commercial tools started becoming available. With the ubiquity of personal computers and the internet’s growth, digital crimes exploded, forcing the rapid evolution of digital forensics. Standards and professional organizations were formed to advance the field. Over 30 years, digital forensics has grown from law enforcement’s niche interest into a mature science underpinning cybersecurity and the legal system.