Digital & Multimedia Sciences: Celebrating the Forensic Science Family Cyber-Style

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Source: Peter R. Stephenson, PhD, Section Program Chair

Of all of the forensic sciences, a digital and multimedia science has the potential to be one of the most collaborative. Unlike some more rigidly-defined sciences, digital science touches almost every aspect of life. In doing so, it becomes part of crime scenes that also are characterized forensically by other disciplines. The difference, though, between digital science and other sciences is that digital science contributes to much of the overall crime scene analysis in ways that may not appear obvious at first.

For example, the analysis of a murder may be aided materially by the analysis of the victim’s digital devices such as computers, cell phones, or tablets. These devices may assist investigators as they look for forensic evidence in a multitude of other ways. Fingerprint analysis, for example, is performed fastest using digital analysis.

However, finding fingerprints on the keyboard of a computer may lead to additional clues for the investigator. Following that trail can take the investigator to important information stored on the computer. In this example the digital sword cuts in both directions. Not only does it assist in rapid, accurate analysis, it may direct the investigator in an entirely new direction.

Another example goes in the opposite direction. Leads found in the victim’s computer or mobile device may lead investigators to search for important clues using other forensic disciplines. Several years ago, a killer in one of the earliest murder cases solved, in part, using computer forensics kept a list on his computer of things he needed to do to kill his wife. The list was specific for the kind of poison he was planning to use. The forensic toxicologist, then, had a head start on where to look for the cause of death.

Forensic analysis of video images can lead to important crime scene information that can be used to reconstruct a crime. Following a cyber trail across the internet, as revealed by social media communications on a cell phone, can lead to a stalker who communicated over the Web, visited the victim, murdered her, and then left to return to his home location. There have been several stalking cases with similar behavior patterns and colleagues in forensic psychiatry and psychology can use those data to help draw important conclusions.

In many regards, the digital and multimedia sciences are a sort of microcosm of the forensic science family, working collaboratively to solve crimes and explain crime scenes. But perhaps the most important family connection is the analysis of forensic data itself. NIST recently released a request for proposals for a national center of excellence in forensic science. The core of the call was to perform research in ways of characterizing forensic evidence probabilistically. The RFP included both digital forensics and other forensic disciplines.

The point of the new center was simply that forensic evidence often is voluminous and, at the same time, largely ambiguous or irrelevant. However, if one could develop a way of characterizing forensic evidence mathematically, with rigor and consistency, one might have a way to standardize the way that we analyze forensic artifacts. Note that the call was not for characterizing digital evidence, or blood spatter evidence or, perhaps, ballistic evidence. It was for characterizing forensic evidence in general. In many ways, that request for proposals tells a strong story about the forensic science family. It included digital and multimedia evidence and several other types of forensic evidence as well. With that in mind, the Digital & Multimedia Sciences Section is proud to be part of the forensic science family and looks forward to contributing to the field of forensic science as a productive and collaborative family member.

This year, our section acknowledges two outstanding members. The Outstanding Research Award goes to Kathryn Siegfried-Spellar for her presentation, “Assessing the Relationship Between Asperger Syndrome, Hacking, Identity Theft, Virus Writing, and Cyberbullying.” The Outstanding Case Study Award will be presented to Mark McCoy for “Digital Forensics and Service Learning: The Oklahoma Tornados Project.” Congratulations to both members for their fine work.