What is forensic investigation in cyber security?

Forensic investigation in cybersecurity refers to the practice of collecting, analyzing, and preserving digital evidence after a cybersecurity incident occurs. The goal of a forensic investigation is to uncover details about cyber crimes, data breaches, or other security events in order to determine what happened and who was responsible.

According to Spiceworks, “The end goal of cyber forensics is to conduct a structured investigation informed by guidelines, resulting in a document. This document must be admissible as evidence in a court of law if the need arises” (Source).

Forensic analysis involves utilizing specialized techniques and software tools to extract and interpret electronic data. Some of the key tasks include identifying sources of potential evidence, acquiring and authenticating that evidence while preserving its integrity, examining the data, analyzing findings, documenting the investigation, and reporting results.

Performing timely and thorough forensic investigations is crucial for understanding cyber attacks, strengthening defenses, assisting law enforcement, and complying with regulatory requirements. As cybercrimes become more frequent and sophisticated, expertise in digital forensics is increasingly important for the cybersecurity field.

Types of Cybersecurity Investigations

There are three main types of cybersecurity investigations: criminal, civil, and internal. Criminal investigations involve suspected illegal cyber activities and are usually conducted by law enforcement. These investigations aim to gather evidence to identify and prosecute cyber criminals. Civil investigations deal with cyber activities that cause harm to an organization or individual, like data breaches, privacy violations, or intellectual property theft. The evidence gathered can support lawsuits and litigation. Internal investigations are initiated by an organization to look into a cybersecurity incident or allegation of wrongdoing within the company. They help identify the root cause, assess damage, and prevent future occurrences.

Criminal investigations are often complex and involve examining digital evidence to establish intent, attribution, and violations of cybercrime laws. Law enforcement agencies like the FBI have dedicated cybercrime units and use forensic tools to retrieve data from devices, servers, networks, and cloud platforms. The evidence gathered can lead to arrests and criminal prosecution. Civil investigations by organizations aim to determine liability, negligence or culpability for incidents like data breaches. The evidence can demonstrate how security failures enabled the incident. It can be used to seek damages from responsible parties or defend against lawsuits. Internal investigations determine if insider activity violated company policies or practices. IT teams and forensic experts examine systems, logs, communications, and metadata to uncover details about security events.

The goals and procedures vary across the different investigation types. But they all rely on systematically gathering, validating, interpreting, and documenting digital evidence. Proper evidence handling using forensically sound methods is crucial for proving wrongdoing in legal proceedings or organizational actions.

Steps in the Forensic Investigation Process

Forensic investigation in cybersecurity typically follows a standard process with multiple phases. Though specific procedures may vary between organizations, the core steps are:


The first step is to identify the event or incident that warrants an investigation, assess its impact, and determine the scope of the investigation. This involves confirming and documenting the reasons for initiating the investigation (Splunk).


Next is the collection of relevant data and evidence from digital sources like computers, networks, mobile devices, cloud platforms, etc. Proper collection procedures are crucial to ensure the integrity and admissibility of evidence. Various forensic tools and techniques are used to acquire, preserve, and document the evidence.

Examination and Analysis

This phase involves thoroughly examining and analyzing the collected evidence using digital forensics tools and techniques. Investigators reconstruct events, uncover activity timelines, extract relevant information, decode encrypted data, and gain insights to determine what happened.

Documentation and Reporting

All the findings, techniques, processes, and results of the examination must be completely and accurately documented to support conclusions. A detailed forensic report is prepared and presented to stakeholders highlighting the key facts and findings of the investigation.

Evidence Collection and Handling

Proper evidence collection and handling is crucial in cybersecurity investigations to ensure the integrity and admissibility of digital evidence. Investigators follow certain guidelines:

Order of volatility – Evidence should be collected from most to least volatile storage media. For example, evidence from RAM and running processes would be collected before hard drives or external storage.1

Chain of custody – Maintaining a well-documented chain of custody shows who has handled evidence, when, and for what purpose. This demonstrates the evidence wasn’t tampered with.2

Documentation – All steps taken during evidence acquisition must be documented, including notes, photographs, and sketches. Documentation also covers inventory of hardware and software, ownership details, encryption, and interviews.

Proper handling as per guidelines preserves integrity of original evidence and establishes its authenticity and reliability in legal proceedings.

Digital Forensics Tools and Techniques

Digital forensics tools are used to extract and analyze data from digital devices and systems to uncover and preserve electronic evidence. Some key categories of digital forensics tools include:

Imaging: These tools create an exact sector-by-sector copy of a digital storage device, such as a hard drive or USB stick. Popular imaging tools include FTK Imager, Encase Forensic, and DC3DD.

Data recovery: These tools retrieve deleted or corrupted files from storage media. Common data recovery tools are Foremost, Scalpel, and PhotoRec.

Network analysis: Network forensic tools capture and analyze network traffic for evidence. Wireshark and NetworkMiner are widely used for network forensics.

Mobile device forensics: Mobile tools extract and parse data from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Popular mobile forensics tools include Cellebrite UFED, XRY, and Oxygen Forensic Detective.

Other specialized tools perform functions like decryption, password cracking, and file carving to uncover potential evidence. Forensic toolkits like CAINE, DEFT, and Kali Linux bundle multiple tools used in digital investigations.

Role of Forensic Investigators

Forensic investigators play a crucial role in investigating cybercrimes and gathering digital evidence. Their main responsibilities include:




  • Proficiency with forensic investigation tools and techniques
  • Understanding of applicable laws and regulations
  • Critical thinking and attention to detail
  • Excellent written and verbal communication abilities

Challenges in Cyber Forensics

Cyber forensics investigators face several challenges that make investigations difficult. Three key challenges are encryption, anti-forensics techniques, and jurisdictional issues.

Encryption is increasingly being used to secure data in transit and at rest. While encryption protects data, it also makes it difficult for investigators to access and analyze data that may be relevant to an investigation. Investigators need to find cryptographic keys to decrypt data or use brute force methods which can be very time consuming.

Anti-forensics refers to techniques used by criminals to prevent detection and erase traces of their activities. This includes using specialized software to wipe storage devices, alter log files, scramble data, and more. Anti-forensics significantly hampers evidence collection and analysis efforts.

Jurisdictional challenges arise when crimes involve multiple geographic locations. Differing national and state laws related to cybercrimes and evidence admissibility create hurdles for investigators. There may also be legal complexities in accessing data stored in foreign countries. Cross-border coordination is essential.

Investigators need advanced technical skills, specialized tools, legal knowledge, and cooperation across agencies and borders to overcome these roadblocks and conduct successful investigations. Development of sophisticated capabilities in encryption cracking, data recovery, and coordination frameworks is critical to stay ahead of criminals.

Best Practices

When conducting forensic investigations in cybersecurity, it is crucial for investigators to follow best practices and standards to ensure the integrity of the investigation. Some key best practices include:

Following established standards and guidelines – Organizations like the Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence (SWGDE) have published best practices for evidence collection, examination, and documentation that should be followed to ensure procedural integrity and meet legal standards like Daubert [1].

Proper documentation and chain of custody – All steps taken during an investigation should be thoroughly documented to establish a chain of custody. Detailed notes should record how evidence was collected, analyzed, preserved and handled. Careful logs should be kept of who accessed evidence at each phase [2].

Using write-blocking and preservation tools – Special hardware and software tools should be used to prevent modification of original evidence. Forensic images should be examined instead of original data sources whenever possible [3].

Staying up to date on tools and techniques – The field evolves rapidly, so ongoing training is essential. Investigators must continuously expand their skills and knowledge to employ state-of-the-art forensic tools and methods.

Following best practices preserves evidentiary integrity and helps investigations withstand legal scrutiny and challenges.

Ethical and Legal Considerations

Conducting forensic investigations in a legal and ethical manner is crucial. Investigators must balance gathering sufficient evidence with respecting privacy and confidentiality. Some key considerations include:

Privacy: Investigators must minimize invasion of privacy as much as possible. They should only access and collect data relevant to the investigation. Indiscriminate searches and seizures can violate privacy laws (https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=fb018971-9604-405b-a13c-2ec2e3c19fcc).

Confidentiality: Investigators must keep collected evidence and findings confidential. Only authorized parties should access sensitive data uncovered during an investigation. Releasing confidential data without permission can have legal consequences.

Legal requirements: Investigators must fully comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and policies. These include laws governing data privacy, intellectual property, evidence handling procedures, and authorization requirements. Failure to adhere to proper legal processes can jeopardize an investigation.

It’s critical that digital forensics procedures balance thoroughness of investigations with ethical and legal considerations. Investigators should document that proper protocols were followed. Consulting legal counsel helps ensure investigations stay within appropriate bounds.

Future of Forensic Investigation in Cybersecurity

The future of forensic investigation in cybersecurity looks bright with the emergence of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT). These innovations will transform how digital forensics is conducted and provide new capabilities for cybersecurity professionals.

AI and ML have tremendous potential to enhance forensic tools and techniques. AI can search through massive datasets quickly to identify patterns and anomalies. ML algorithms can be trained on past cases to uncover new insights. Automating certain forensic processes with AI/ML will increase efficiency and enable investigators to focus on higher-level analysis.

Advancements in automation and IoT forensics will also aid future investigations. The proliferation of IoT devices provides more entry points for cybercriminals. New automated IoT forensics tools can help collect and analyze evidence from these connected devices more efficiently.

Despite the advantages, AI and automation also introduce challenges. There are transparency concerns around “black box” AI systems. Steps must be taken to ensure automated tools are unbiased and procedures are reproducible. As with any technology transition, training and governance processes will need to evolve. But thoughtfully leveraging AI, ML and automation will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of forensic investigators.

Looking ahead, cyber forensics will play an increasingly vital role. As technology advances, so too must the tools, techniques and knowledge of forensic investigators. With innovation and collaboration across public and private sectors, the future of forensic investigation in cybersecurity is filled with possibilities.