Digital forensics (otherwise known as computer forensics) is a blanket term referring to the practice of “collecting, analyzing and reporting on digital data in a way that is legally admissible,” according to Forensic Control. Sometimes, it’s used to prevent crime, and other times, it’s used to gather evidence necessary to prosecute or exonerate someone accused of a crime.

In many ways, digital forensics mirrors the procedural requirements and touchstones of other areas of forensics, but the applications are further reaching—and in some cases, even more important.

Most Important Applications

These are some of the most important ways digital forensics can be used and applied:

  • Crime prevention

First, and perhaps most importantly, digital forensics can be used to prevent crimes from happening. Forensics experts, with the right tips and initial investigative direction, are able to uncover pieces of information on suspects, including messages they’ve sent and people they’ve contacted, to determine whether a crime could take place. For example, in a case of stalking, they may be able to recover old messages sent by the suspect, and recognize the possibility of a threat.

  • Digital crime recognition

Digital forensics can also be used to reconstruct how previous events have unfolded. This is especially important in the world of accounting and banking. If someone’s credit card information is stolen and used by someone else, digital forensics teams need to be able to determine where the information was stolen, when it was used, and how it was used in order to prosecute effectively.

  • Supplementary evidence gathering

Some digital forensics experts focus on gathering supplementary data to build a case. In these instances, the crime is usually physical, rather than digital. For example, if someone is involved in a car accident, digital forensics can prove or disprove whether they were texting while driving, possibly leading to the crash. In a personal injury case, forensics experts can gather information on where you were and what you were doing to reconstruct the event.

  • Position tracking

Most of the time, your phone is tracking your location and movement—even if you’ve turned off position tracking in your settings. While this may be uncomfortable to recognize as an individual, it’s a good thing for building strong cases. Being able to recognize where you were at various points in time is a must-have for high-profile cases.

  • Exoneration

In some cases, evidence gathered through digital forensics can be used to exonerate someone, by proving they couldn’t have taken a specific action, or that they were in a location far away from where the crime actually took place. If you’re falsely accused of a crime, your phone’s metadata could be all it takes to set you free.

Biggest Challenges

It’s important to remember that digital forensics has some key limitations, however:

  • Legal hurdles

One of the biggest hurdles is the fact that digitally collected evidence must still be collected legally. In most cases, that means your devices can’t be searched without a warrant, and you’re entitled to a degree of privacy. Most laws here were written before the advent of digital technology, so it’s an ambiguous battleground for investigators.

  • Evidence preservation

Sometimes, preserving evidence can also be difficult. Merely copying a piece of data could be enough to corrupt it, and any mishandling of a given device could render its files unusable.

  • Spoofing and anonymity

In many cases, digital data is easy to manipulate or fake. Spoofing your location, or making yourself anonymous could be all it takes to lead forensic investigators down the wrong path.

Despite these challenges, digital forensics remains one of the best legal tools we have to proactively detect and prevent crime, as well as investigate it after the fact. If you’re interested in becoming a computer forensics expert, you’ll first need to be well versed in computer science, as well as any sub-field you want to specialize in, such as accounting. After that, you can begin forensics training to apply your skills to the field. The demand for digital forensics grows with our technological sophistication, so the job availability is unlikely to wane in the coming years.