Digital Footprints in the Courtroom
Below is a #bookexcerpt from A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms, co-authored with Colleen Collins. This excerpt is from the chapter “Lawyers and Technology” on the subject of digital forensics that starts with a basic definition and ends with the story of a real case where a computer guru was called to the stand in the middle of a trial…and right there, on the spot, he analyzed the digital footprints in an email header that solved the crime!
What Is Digital Forensics?
In general, digital forensics is data recovered from any device capable of holding electronically stored information. For a lawyer to admit this data as evidence, it should be reliably obtained and authentic. As to such data being reliably obtained, a lawyer can offer the credentials of the digital forensics expert who retrieved the data. As to whether or not digital evidence is authentic, a lawyer could of course refer to the digital forensics expert’s qualified opinion; in addition, a lawyer can be an active participant in the e-discovery, or electronic discovery, search criteria.
What Is Metadata?
In this electronic age, it helps a lawyer to learn a few tricks of the digital trade, such as understanding the different kinds of metadata, which is the data that describes other data, that can be found within digital media, such as:
- Digital documents and images
- Electronic spreadsheets
- Web pages.
For example, metadata can pinpoint when a document was altered or the date a digital photo was taken.
Case Example: The Computer Guru Who Took the Stand
Back when I co-owned a legal investigations agency, my partner and I once worked a case where a woman claimed she was being stalked by a man, our client, who was sending her harassing and intimidating emails. We found a computer engineer who specialized in the design of email programs. He was brought to court as an expert witness, and right there in the courtroom this computer engineer analyzed the metadata in the email headers of the harassing emails and interpreted them as being altered from their original content, as well as the exact date when they were altered.
But that wasn’t all.
The computer engineer next began analyzing the IP addresses, which indicated the general region where the altered email versions had originated…that’s when the woman burst into tears. She confessed that she had doctored her former boyfriend’s emails so it appeared that he was harassing her — seems he’d broken up with her, and she wanted to get back at him, bad. So bad, she made up evidence. Problem was, she wasn’t very techno-savvy and had left incriminating digital footprints that the computer engineer easily found.
Articles on Metadata
Below are a few articles on metadata basics and how digital footprints are being used in legal cases:
METADATA 101: A Non-Techie Does Her Best to Explain Metadata (and Why it Matters) In Plain English (Anne R. Allen’s Blog…with Ruth Harris)
Divorce Cases Being Driven by Digital Footprints (MacRoberts)
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