The Scientific Method Applied To Digital Forensics






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Computer forensics is the process of digital investigation combining technology, the science of discovery and the methodical application of legal procedures. Judges and jurors often do not understand the inner workings of computers and rely on digital forensics experts to seek evidence and provide reliable, irrefutable testimony based on their findings. The scientific method is the process of diligent, disciplined discovery where a hypothesis is formed without bias, and analysis and testing is performed with the goal of effectively proving or disproving a sound hypothesis. When investigative teams do not follow standard investigative procedures it can lead to inappropriate and inaccurate evidentiary presentations that are extremely difficult for non-technical participants to refute. The practitioners of digital forensics can make strides to measure and improve the accuracy of their findings using the scientific method. This paper includes a summary of the scientific method as applied to the emerging and growing field of digital forensics and presents details of a specific case where both the prosecution and defense would have benefitted greatly from the use of this proven method of discovery and analysis. Findings can only be deemed reasonably conclusive when the scientific process is correctly applied to an investigation, findings are repeatable and verifiable, and where both the evidence collected and the tools used are subject to the utmost scrutiny.


The Scientific Method Applied To Digital Forensics


The forensic analyst and investigator must use a unique combination of technical, investigative, and scientific skills when approaching a forensic case. Most adults remember the Scientific Method from their middle school science class as a set of six steps beginning with stating a problem, gathering information, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, analyzing the data and drawing conclusions that either support or do not support the hypothesis. Peisert, Bishop, & Marzullo (2008) note that the term computer forensics has evolved to mean “scientific tests of techniques used with the detection of crime” yet note that many academic computer scientists also use the term to refer to the “process of logging, collecting, auditing or analyzing data in a post hoc investigation”. The necessity to maintain chain of custody requires methodical and detailed procedures, as does the formulation of a legitimate and unbiased hypothesis and conclusion using the scientific method. Since many judges and jurors assume that computer forensic evidence is as “reliable and conclusive” as it is depicted on television, the legal system is unaware of the volatile nature of computer forensics investigations and the significance of a scientific approach to evidence gathering and analysis (Peisert et al., 2008).

The Scientific Process as Applied to Computer Forensics

Peisert et al. (2008) discuss in detail the need for the use of the scientific method in forensic investigations, not only for the process of discovery and analysis of evidence, but for measuring the accuracy of the forensic tools used in an investigation. Casey (2010) agrees, and cautions that evidence must be compared to known samples so that investigators better understand the scope and context of the evidence that is discovered or presented and to better understand the output of forensic tools. Casey (2010) further elaborates that the scientific method is a powerful tool for forensic investigators who must be neutral fact finders rather than advocates for one side of a case or the other.

The process of creating a hypothesis and completing experiments to prove or disprove them allows an investigator to gain a concrete understanding of the digital evidence or mere traces of evidence under analysis. Casey (2010) also notes that while there is no ethical requirement to do so and may be impractical, a thorough investigative practice would consider investigation of alternate scenarios presented by defense.

Forensic examination tools can contain bugs, or behave differently with various types of data and forensic images. Casey (2010) recommends that investigators examine evidence at both the physical and logical layers since both methods can provide unique perspectives, and the physical layer may not yield deleted, corrupted or hidden data. Suspects with limited technical experience can rename image files with different extensions not used for images, and those with more technical knowledge can use advanced steganography techniques to embed data within other data in an attempt to defy detection.

The 2004 case of State of Connecticut v. Julie Amero in Norwich, Connecticut is one where the scientific method was clearly missing from both the defense and prosecution. Eckelberry, Dardick, Folkerts, Shipp, Sites, Stewart, & Stuart (2007) completed a comprehensive post-trial analysis of the evidence as provided to the defense and discovered very different evidentiary results using a structured scientific approach to their investigation. Amero was a substitute elementary teacher accused of displaying pornographic images that appeared on pop-up’s to her students from what ultimately was proven to be a spyware-infected school computer. The credibility of the legal system was compromised and the prosecution made a numerous incorrect assumptions based on results provided from inadequate forensic tools and poor investigative techniques (Eckelberry et al., 2007).

The computer that Amero was using in her classroom was a Windows 98 machine running Internet Explorer 6.0.2800 and a trial version of Cheyenne AntiVirus that had not received an update in several years. The content filtering at the school had expired several months prior to the incident. The prosecution presented non-factual statements that may easily have been misconstrued by a non-technical jury and that likely caused a guilty verdict. The false testimony made by the school IT specialist indicated that the virus protection was updated weekly when in fact they were not since computer logs and the signatures clearly showed that virus updates were no longer supported by the vendor. The updates may have been performed but against files that had no new updates for many months. The IT Manager who testified also incorrectly claimed that adware was not able to generate pornography and especially not “endless loop pornography”. This information was received as a fact by the non-technical jury and incredibly not refuted by the defense. The detective for the prosecution also stated that his testimony was based completely on the product ComputerCop which the vendor admits is incapable of determining if a website was visited purposefully or unintentionally. The forensic detective astoundingly admitted that he did not examine the computer for the presence of adware (Eckelberry et al., 2007, p. 7-10).

The case against Amero was largely based on testimony stating that she deliberately visited the offensive pornographic websites and that the sites visited subsequently showed the links in red. The post-trial investigative team quickly verified that the ‘sites visited’ color setting in Internet Explorer on the suspect machine was set to “96,100,32” which is a greenish-gray color. One of the web pages that the defendant allegedly visited had an HTML override to highlight one of the links presented in red and was not colored based on a deliberate visit to the site. According to Eckelberry et al. (2007) the page in question was not discovered in “any of the caches or Internet history files or the Internet History DAT files. The post-trial investigative team through meticulous investigation and use of the scientific method were able to present facts that were “exculpatory evidence showing that the link was never clicked on by the defendant” or any other person, and disproved most of the statements made by the forensics examiner and the witnesses for the prosecution (Eckelberry et al., 2007, p. 12-14).

The prosecution testimony stated that there was no evidence of uncontrollable pop ups found on the suspect machine, however, the post-trial investigative team discovered irrefutable evidence that the page in question was loaded twenty-one times in one second using a computer forensics tool called X-Ways Trace. Eckleberry et al. (2007) detail many other instances where testimony was haphazard and discovered that a Halloween screen saver was the source of the adware that presented the continuous stream of pornographic sites. The chain of custody was also compromised in that the disk image was from a Dell PC but the defense witness saw a Gateway PC stored at the police station. The officer reportedly seized a computer but the police report contradicts this and states that only a drive was taken (Eckelberry et al., 2007, p. 14-17).

The case described and investigated by Eckelberry et al. (2007) resembles a staged blunder designed as a humorous sample case for beginning forensic students to discuss. The case was however very real and even though the defendant was eventually acquitted she suffered lasting harm from the notoriety based on the initial conviction of contributing to the delinquency of minors. If the prosecution or defense had investigated the evidence using the scientific method and maintained a credible chain of custody, or at least used clear critical thinking while performing a thorough forensic investigation this case may never have gone to trial. It wasted the time and resources of judge, jury, and countless other participants in the trial and permanently damaged an innocent victim (Eckelberry et al., 2007).


The scientific method is a process that allows confidence in a hypothesis when it can be subjected to repeated identical tests. The use of the scientific method not only provides a methodical structure to a forensic investigation, it lends credibility to a case in the very nature of the steps used to document and diligently test any given hypothesis. The case independently investigated post-trial by Eckelberry et al. (2007) was performed by a team of trained experts who were well aware of the necessity of the methodical requirements and necessity of the scientific method of discovery. Their findings proved that the suspect was in fact a victim of poorly maintained computers by a local Connecticut school system, that the forensic expert and witnesses who testified in the case were untrained and uninformed and used inadequate tools for the investigation. Cases such as State of Connecticut v. Julie Amero illustrate the importance of using the scientific method, and the necessity of proper training in the art and science of digital forensics.




Carrier, B. (2002, October). Open Source Digital Forensics Tools: The Legal Argument. In @ Stake Inc. Retrieved September 8, 2011, from

Casey, E. (Ed.). (2010). Handbook of Digital Forensics and Investigation (Kindle ed.). Burlington, MA: Elsevier, Inc.

Eckelberry, A., Dardick, G., Folkerts, J., Shipp, A., Sites, E., Stewart, J., & Stuart, R. (2007, March 21). Technical Review of the Trial Testimony of State of Connecticut vs. Julie Amero. Retrieved September 9, 2011, from

Nelson, B., Phillips, A., & Steuart, C. (2010). Guide to Computer Forensics and Investigations (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Course Technology, Cengage Learning.

Peisert, S., Bishop, M., & Marzullo, K. (2008, April). Computer Forensics in Forensis. Retrieved September 8, 2011, from