Digital forensicsDigital DNA the new DNA

Published 29 November 2011

With the increasing ubiquity of computers, smart phones, and other electronic devices comes a torrent of “digital DNA,” which can be used to record an individual’s every move and even convict them of a crime

With the increasing ubiquity of computers, smart phones, and other electronic devices comes a torrent of “digital DNA,” which can be used to record an individual’s every move and even convict them of a crime.

Digital DNA is everywhere. From frequent shopper cards to digital photos, EZPass toll booth technology to emails, and smartphones to Word documents, every time an individual uses technology a digital stream of evidence is left behind that law enforcement agencies can use to trace their actions.

Digital evidence is the new DNA,” said Ira Victor, a forensic analyst with Data Clone Labs and a member of The High Tech Crime Investigator’s Association (HTCIA).

As digital DNA becomes more prevalent, privacy advocates fear that it could lead to abuse.

Last week before the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a case on the limits of GPS tracking when deployed by law enforcement officials, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) argued that information from GPS devices can easily be misused.

The proliferation of GPS tracking technology creates … detailed travel profiles of American citizens,” the group said. “Law enforcement access to such information raises the specter of mass, pervasive surveillance.”

In addition, digital DNA can also be easily misrepresented in court.

“Attorneys are very good at taking digital evidence out of context and then convincing a jury of the guilt of someone based on it,” Victor said.

In one case from 2002, an individual was sent to jail after police found pornographic images on his computer, but security experts later said law enforcement officials had mishandled the digital evidence.

The experts explained that a “browser hijacker” could have been used to remotely plant the pornographic images on the suspect’s computer without their knowledge.

Additionally it is difficult for prosecutors and law enforcement officials to establish intent with digital DNA.

Sergeant Kevin Stenger, a computer crimes supervisor with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, said, “Exactly how did a criminal use a smartphone in the commission of a robbery, if at all? Was he using it to look up an address, to take pictures of the potential robbery site? Was he using it to text message other members of his crew? Did he use it when the robbery was in progress?”

Like DNA, the devil’s in the details,” Victor said.

According to Victor, if the information is not properly stored and an exact process is not developed to handle the information, the data can easily become corrupted or falsified.

As laws governing digital evidence struggle to keep pace with changes in technology, Andrew Hildebrand, the associate dean of DeVry University’s College of Business and Management, said, “Yes, we should be worried, but not to the point of paralysis.”

But this is a national dialog that needs to take place,” he said. 

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