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Digital Forensics

AI and Human Insight in Digital Forensics

By Justin Tolman | June 12, 2024

In the ever-evolving realm of digital forensics, the delicate balance between technological advancements and human intuition remains a critical focal point. This article addresses how artificial intelligence (AI) can serve as a powerful tool in the preliminary stages of an investigation, while also stressing the indispensable role of human oversight and investigative mindset.

AI: A Double-Edged Sword in Forensic Investigations

While AI accelerates the triage process and swiftly sifts through vast amounts of data, it is not infallible. Its capabilities, although impressive, are confined to the parameters set by current technology. AI can efficiently handle straightforward, rule-based tasks but falls short when nuanced interpretation or judgment is required. This underlines the necessity of a human counterpart who can contextualize findings and navigate the complexities that AI may overlook.

AI's role in digital forensics is undeniably transformative, yet it comes with significant caveats. As Farand Wasiak articulated, “AI can find it, but the human's gonna have to validate it.” This underscores a critical limitation of AI: its inability to fully grasp and interpret complex human contexts and languages. The human examiner must ensure the accuracy and relevance of AI's findings. Without this crucial human validation, there is a risk of relying on potentially flawed or misunderstood data, which can jeopardize the integrity of an investigation.

Moreover, AI's utility is largely confined to its programming and existing knowledge base, which can quickly become outdated in the rapidly evolving landscape of digital forensics. Wasiak highlighted this by saying, "AI has a problem with, it does have a certain limit of parameters, okay? And of course it grows every day, but it doesn't have the human mind.” 

This limitation means that while AI can handle repetitive and data-intensive tasks efficiently, it lacks the nuanced judgment and creative problem-solving abilities inherent to human investigators. These human qualities are indispensable when it comes to interpreting ambiguous evidence or making connections that are not immediately apparent through data alone. As such, the role of AI in forensics should be viewed as complementary to human expertise rather than a replacement, ensuring that the depth and breadth of investigations are maintained.

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Developing an Investigative Mindset

The core of digital forensics is not just about possessing technical skills but also about fostering an investigative mindset. This mindset involves curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, and a nuanced understanding of human behavior—traits that machines have yet to replicate. Investigators must engage actively with the material, asking the right questions and following through on leads that software alone might disregard.

“The DFIR Investigative Mindset is a systematic process of gathering and processing information objectively for an eventual retelling of an event… DFIR is not ‘forensicating’ electronic data for the sake of doing it. DFIR is investigating an event to convey a story in the pursuit of justice, whether justice is recovering stolen petty cash or identifying a nation-state’s attack on critical infrastructure. A DFIR analyst examines digital evidence. A DFIR investigator is an expert factfinder in cases with digital evidence.” (DFIR Investigative Mindset Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard Vol 2, Brett Shavers, 2024)

While some cases may be 100% digital, most cases investigators will work are a mix of digital and “real world” information and circumstances. It is important that investigators who specialize in digital examination don’t neglect the “real world” aspect of cases. An investigator can never ask too many questions about the motivations and environment that surrounds the case. Listening to the answer will provide greater insight into what digital evidence may be available. 

Education and Collaboration: Pillars of Professional Growth

The field of digital forensics thrives on continuous education and the exchange of knowledge. Training programs and workshops are invaluable for professionals to stay abreast of the latest developments and techniques. Moreover, collaboration among experts helps in refining methods and discovering innovative solutions to intricate problems.

One of the key venues for education and collaboration in the field of digital forensics is the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) conference. This event is renowned for being one of the largest and most diverse gatherings of forensic professionals. Each year, the conference sees an increase in attendees, which includes both staff and students, with specialized classes designed to cater to a wide range of expertise levels. 

The IACIS conference is a prime example of how continuous learning and professional development are facilitated through expert-led workshops and seminars. It also serves as a crucial networking hub where forensic professionals can share experiences, discuss challenges, and explore innovative solutions in a collaborative environment. This event significantly contributes to the ongoing advancement of forensic methodologies and the strengthening of the professional community.

Practical Tips for Enhancing Investigative Skills

During the FTK over the Air and IACIS Podcast crossover episode released in April 2024, Farand Wasiak gave three tips for investigators to enhance their effectiveness when conducting digital investigations.  

1. Documentation and Detail-Oriented Approach 

"Documentation is key. It is the zenith of police work. Write it down or it didn't happen." - Wasiak

Thorough documentation is foundational in forensics. Keeping detailed records not only aids in the clarity of the investigation but also ensures that all procedural steps are reproducible and defensible in court.

The best investigators are always learning. Don’t limit your documentation to just your reports. If during the course of an investigation you learn information about a new artifact or workflow, write it down! Keep a journal of effective questions and approaches used during interviews. Save filter configurations, queries, and methodologies for accessing new technology. Store these to a secure location that are easily referenced later when you will encounter these challenges again. 

2. Sticking to Knowns

"Stick with what you know, what's in front of you, your ‘knowns’. We know this, and we know that, all right? We have these findings. Stick with that."  - Wasiak

Focus on the evidence you have rather than getting sidetracked by what is missing. This approach helps in building a coherent narrative based on solid facts, gradually leading to the illumination of unknown aspects of the case.

A good first question to ask when starting a digital investigation is: “Do I have any evidence to support or refute the main assumption in this case?” By starting with this question you force yourself to look for “known” values. Then after answering the questions an investigator can identify what is missing, and explore the unknowns.

3. Taking a Step Back 

"It's like baseball in the outfield. Your first step should always be back. If you charge after it, you're going to miss something." - Wasiak

Sometimes, the best step forward is to take a step back. This tip is crucial, especially when dealing with overwhelming amounts of information. By stepping back, an investigator can gain a broader perspective and identify connections that are not immediately apparent.

Conclusion

The integration of AI in digital forensics represents a significant advancement, offering unparalleled efficiency and the ability to handle large volumes of data quickly. However, its effectiveness is maximized only when paired with human insight and expertise. As Wasiak emphasized, AI's findings must be validated by human examiners to ensure accuracy and relevance. The nuanced judgment, critical thinking, and creativity inherent to human investigators are indispensable, especially when dealing with complex or ambiguous evidence. Therefore, AI should be viewed as a complementary tool that enhances human capabilities rather than a replacement.

Moving forward, the future of digital forensics will depend on the relationship between technology and human expertise. Continuous education and collaboration, exemplified by events like the IACIS conference, will play a crucial role in equipping forensic professionals with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate this evolving landscape. By maintaining a balance between technological tools and traditional investigative methods, and by fostering a mindset of continuous learning and critical thinking, the field of digital forensics can continue to grow and adapt.

Justin Tolman has been working in digital forensics for 12 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Technology from BYU-Idaho and a master’s degree in Cyber Forensics from Purdue University. After graduating he worked as a Computer Forensic Specialist with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and currently works as the Forensic Subject Matter Expert and Evangelist at Exterro. Justin has written training manuals on computer and mobile device forensics, as well as (his personal favorite) SQLite database analysis. He frequently presents at conferences, on webinars, produces YouTube content, and hosts the FTK Over the Air podcast. 

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