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Digital Forensics

The Crucial Role of Active Listening, Documentation, and Technology in Modern Investigations

By Justin Tolman | June 6, 2024

In today's rapidly evolving digital landscape, investigators face new challenges and opportunities that demand a blend of traditional skills and modern technological proficiency. Drawing insights from a recent podcast with Rob Fried, Senior Vice President of Forensics at Sandline Global, we can distill several key elements that are indispensable for effective investigations: active listening, thorough documentation and chain of custody, the role of emotion in investigations, and continued learning throughout an investigator's career.

Active Listening: The Foundation of Effective Investigation

Active listening is more than just hearing words; it's about understanding the context, emotions, and underlying concerns of all parties involved. Rob Fried emphasizes that investigators must cultivate this skill to build rapport and trust. In forensic investigations, emotions often run high, and individuals involved might be dealing with significant stress or anxiety. By actively listening, investigators can navigate these emotional landscapes, ensuring they gather accurate information and address the concerns of their clients and other stakeholders.

Fried recounts how active listening has been crucial in his role, especially when working as a special master or consulting on sensitive cases. It's about more than just collecting data; it's about understanding the full picture. "You need to listen to everybody's concerns, learn about how things work, and then reflect back on what your scope of work is," he says. This approach not only helps in obtaining necessary information but also in building a cooperative environment where all parties feel heard and respected.

An easy gauge for measuring your level of active listening in the initial stages of an investigation is how much talking you are doing versus them. A structure for active listening to get people started: 

  1. Listen to the organization or person explain the full details of the case, and reason for which you are there. This should be done without interruption, but take notes of clarifying questions.
  2. Once they have completed detailing the events as they see them, ask any clarifying questions, one at a time, and listen to the responses without interruption. 
  3. Repeat this process till both parties are confident that the proper information has been transferred and understood. 

The investigators goal at this stage should be to understand the information from the perspective of the organization or person describing the details of the case to you. Often this form of active listening may require a great deal of humility on the part of the investigator, but the payoff is huge!

The Role of Emotion in Investigations

Emotion plays a significant role in forensic investigations. Whether dealing with corporate investigations, criminal cases, or sensitive personal data, understanding the emotional state of those involved can greatly impact the outcome. Investigators will often encounter individuals who are stressed, fearful, or defensive. This is natural, as investigations are typically only conducted when someone thinks something has gone wrong. Addressing these emotions through empathy, clear communication, and a neutral mindset can facilitate smoother interactions and more effective evidence collection.

For instance, when dealing with personal devices, individuals might be concerned about their privacy. Investigators may need to reassure clients about the scope of data being collected and how personal information would be handled. (Targeted collections, such as those conducted with FTK Enterprise, can be performed not only to reduce time spent and data volumes stored and analyzed, but also to address privacy concerns.) By addressing these emotional concerns, investigators can gain the cooperation needed to perform their duties effectively.

Effective communication is crucial in managing the psychological aspects of an investigation. Investigators should clearly explain their processes and intentions to those involved. Transparency in communication helps alleviate fears and builds confidence in the investigative process.

Investigators must maintain a neutral mindset, especially when acting as a special master or in other roles where impartiality is crucial. It's important to "go in with a neutral mindset" and listen to both sides without bias. This approach helps in fairly addressing the concerns of all parties and ensuring that the investigation is conducted with integrity.

The Importance of Documentation and Chain of Custody

Thorough documentation and maintaining a clear chain of custody are cornerstones of any forensic investigation. Without these, the integrity of the evidence can be questioned, potentially undermining the entire investigation. Every step in the data collection and handling process must be meticulously documented. This includes noting the make, model, serial number of devices, and any specific settings or conditions at the time of collection. 

To learn more about how maintaining the chain of custody can help ensure the forensic soundness of investigations, check out this blog article.

Reporting on the various steps of analysis, what artifacts were included, why they were included, and how you went about analyzing them will help not only those reading your report but yourself as well! How often is a case worked, not to be pulled to court or deposition for months or even years later!? Detailed reporting will be all you have to go on. 

In digital forensics, this level of detail ensures that the data can be verified and trusted when presented in a courtroom. It also helps in future investigations, where the original examiner might no longer be available. "Your notes are your key to success," Fried explains. Detailed documentation allows for transparency and accountability, providing a clear trail of how evidence was handled and processed.

Continuing Education and Maintaining Connections

In the ever-changing field of digital forensics, continuous education and maintaining professional connections are essential for staying current and effective. Successful investigators will put a high priority on lifelong learning and networking as key components of their successful forensic career.

Fried shares his journey of learning from industry pioneers and participating in advanced forensic programs. He emphasizes the value of staying updated with the latest technological advancements and forensic methodologies. "Your knowledge needs to be maintained by maintaining great connections," he says. Engaging with peers, attending conferences, and participating in professional organizations are crucial for keeping abreast of new developments and best practices.

Investigators should not minimize the significance of giving back to the community through education. By sharing knowledge and mentoring newcomers, seasoned professionals can foster a collaborative and informed forensic community. This not only enhances individual expertise but also strengthens the field as a whole. Teaching is also one of the best ways to learn for yourself, as very little will stress someone to do their research when they need to lecture in front of a group!


The insights shared by Rob Fried underscore the multifaceted nature of modern forensic investigations. Active listening, meticulous documentation, emotional intelligence, and the strategic use of technology are all essential components. As the field continues to evolve, investigators must adapt these skills to meet new challenges and maintain the integrity and reliability of their work. By doing so, they can ensure that their findings are trusted, their methods are respected, and their contributions to justice are valued.

To dive deeper into examples of cases and how these concepts are applied in the real world with real people, check out Rob Fried’s book “Forensic Data Collections 2.0: A Selection of Trusted Forensics Content: Second Edition”. His book is available in physical, digital, and audio book formats. 

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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