The critical role of digital forensics in a digital world

If you ever watched an episode of CSI, you’ll know that everyone leaves trace evidence at a crime scene. It’s impossible not to leave something behind. Digital forensics is the same, although the skillset required to find these digital footprints, markings and traces is different. Digital forensics experts inspect, identify, analyse, and preserve digital evidence, and use it to help them investigate crimes related to technology. They look for virtual traces of activity logs, file fragments, metadata and timestamps. Depending on how sophisticated the cyberattack is – and how cutting edge their techniques – these can be extremely difficult to trace.

Businesses cannot operate without access to their data or technology, which has made cyberattacks that hold data to ransom or lock companies out of their devices extremely lucrative. Exfiltrating valuable client data that can be sold on the black market is equally profitable. The rise in legislation requiring businesses to protect customer data adds an additional element – data breaches can come with hefty fines, not to mention reputational damage.

Closing network vulnerabilities

There is a great deal that digital forensics experts can do when an attack occurs, including:

  • Identifying how, where and when a cyberattack infiltrated a network
  • Potentially identifying why an attack occurred (i.e. was it a disgruntled employee or a criminal whose only motives were financial?)
  • Safeguarding digital evidence to ensure it is not erased or becomes obsolete
  • Retracing a hacker’s path into the network to close any vulnerabilities and identify which tools were used
  • Identifying which data was accessed
  • Determining how long unauthorised persons were in a network
  • Geolocating and mapping logins

Without this information, it is very difficult to deal with the attack itself, but more importantly with the consequences and aftermath of an attack.

For example, without digital forensics, it is almost impossible to understand why and how an attack occurred, which data or systems were compromised, where the network was vulnerable – and indeed, if it is still vulnerable – and if there are additional breaches that need to be closed.

Unless a cyberattack is understood in full context, the business, its data, customer data and the entire network remains vulnerable considering the following:

  • Cybercriminals may have continued access to a network: Attackers can remain hidden in a system for weeks or months without detection, slowly filtering and exfiltrating sensitive customer data, including names, phone numbers, credit card details and ID numbers.

 

  • Legal consequences: If the data that has been exfiltrated is personal information and a business has not done everything reasonable to protect the data and track down the cybercriminals responsible for stealing that data, the business is liable. This not only comes with large fines, but the reputational damage associated with a breach when people today have to trust companies and service providers to keep their data safe, can be enormous.

 

  • Loss of competitive advantage: We mention reputational damage above, but there’s a critical competitive element as well. If data has been stolen, corrupted or lost, a business loses a key competitive advantage. In today’s digital age, almost every decision is made based on data. The quality of data collected, how it is stored and how it is analysed often determines how successful a business is in its customer engagements and delivering a top-quality product or service based on customer needs. Lose or corrupt this data, however, and that advantage is gone.

How can digital forensics help?

Digital forensics experts have an extensive toolkit and expertise. They do not deal with occasional breaches, like internal IT teams. At Cyanre, our experts are called in to identify both attempted and successful breaches on an almost daily basis. Cybercriminals are not using the same software and code. Their playbook changes daily and the methods they use are increasingly sophisticated, making this an ongoing struggle that experts must stay on top of.

If a breach occurs, digital forensics teams will:

  • Identify what was stolen
  • Help trace whether the data was distributed outside an organisation
  • Determine if valuable data was maliciously destroyed or accidently damaged
  • If data has been encrypted for ransomware
  • If the hackers have left a backdoor open
  • Threat intelligence data from previous cases can also be used to determine the likelihood a business’s data has been leaked.

Speed is of the essence

Like all things in a digitally-empowered world, cyberattacks happen quickly. Digital artifacts and evidence therefore need to be preserved immediately for an effective investigation to take place.

Digital forensics are not designed to prevent attacks. Managed service providers and software that are experts in cyber security deliver proactive solutions in this regard.

Digital forensic investigations take place once an attack has already occurred. The information gathered is defensible if the matter is taken to court, but more importantly, it can help identify vulnerabilities based on new infiltration techniques. Digital forensics can also determine if there is still suspicious activity taking place on a network and alert all parties involved if steps must be taken to mitigate the threat.