To those who don’t work in the industry, computer forensics has an aura of mystery. Portrayals on film depict a secretive world inhabited by maverick hackers and all powerful government organisations, both of whom have the capability to quickly and easily access and obtain data from any computer in the world.
Of course, whilst computer forensics is a very exciting field, we thought we’d give insight into what it’s really like to be a computer forensics consultant by getting one our experts to write about.
Aaron Watson, one of our computer forensics consultants, kindly agreed. Read his account of life in the world of computer forensics below:
Can you tell us about your job in a nutshell?
As a CF consultant my role involves the collection and investigation of electronic data. Both have their challenges and can be as complex and rewarding as each other. Having been at Kroll Ontrack for 4 years I have travelled to many countries, worked on hundreds of projects and collected many thousands of gigabytes of data. The role often involves responding to complex time critical situations, coming up with effective solutions to get the required results, be it collecting data in a very small time frame with a number of technical complexities or investigating unauthorised access to electronic data.
So what does a typical day as a Computer Forensic consultant look like?
I don’t think there is one to be honest! No day is ever the same and every day includes a challenge or three. At any one point in time I can be involved in a number of investigations across a number of countries working with various clients. Investigations can develop and change at a rapid pace, each having their own challenges and complexities, who knows where in the world I could be tomorrow! Mondays for the most part have some regularity in that we aim to have a team meeting to discuss on-going projects, availability and any issues. This gives us a chance to go over current projects and their requirements, but this thankfully is where the regulatory ends and the fun begins.
What does a computer forensic investigation involve?
Within the computer forensic team we often have clients coming to us with a situation which requires our investigation capabilities; some simple, some complex and on occasion, some very bizarre! The first port of call for a client is our sales team who then come to us with the general background information and requirement. An example of one of the more bizarre requests was received by my colleague, Joanna Ward. A dog owner whose third dog had died wanted to prove that the dog was ill before he purchased the dog and requested that we help to prove that the post mortem report had been electronically tampered with as it did not read in his favour. Unfortunately for him, we did not take the case due to the fact that he only had a copy of a copy of the document.
Most CF investigations conducted by Kroll Ontrack relate to employee investigations; be it intellectual property theft, access to inappropriate material or outright fraud. In most cases the investigation will lead to employee dismissal or prosecution but on the rare occasion we may act in the defence of the employee.
Forensic data collections and dawn raids
This is an area of the role I particularly enjoy and fortunately for me is the role which takes up most of my time. Clients often have a disclosure order whereby they have to disclose any and all electronic data relating to a matter. This data is often across a number of systems and depending on what country you are collecting the data from can come with local privacy regulations which can cause a number of difficulties. A data collection can start out in one of two ways, in an organised manner with time for scoping and planning or we find find ourselves in a last minute “we needed you in Romania yesterday” type of project. Let’s go with the first, a client calls our sales team requiring a data collection with a disclosure deadline three months away.
The first step for us is to have a scoping call with the client which often includes a CF consultant, a lawyer from the law firm which approached us, possibly the end client and if we are really lucky someone from the end client’s IT department. The call allows us to get an understanding of the requirement, including the number of custodians (people who have access to the data), the type of devices they have and systems they have access to. We also look to discuss logistics including the site location/s, dates/times and availability of custodians. All of this information will make for a much more efficient data collection which means less time required onsite and as a result less cost to the client.
Ultimately we do have a lot of last minute “client panicking” type of data collections. We often have to take a quick assessment of the situation and have an educated guess as to what kit we need to take and how much data storage media we may require. We then get onsite and scope the job on the ground working closely with IT which if know their IT systems well will make for a much more efficient collection. In some cases we have had no IT support available at all (in one case they had all walked out) which meant we had to scope the complete IT infrastructure in order to determine all data storage sources in order to fulfil the requirements of the disclosure requirment. All of this makes for great technical challenges which for me are a great part of the job.
Perks and pains of the job
Thankfully there are a far more perks than pains. The biggest perk for me is the variety of work and the lack of similar days. Closely in second place is the sheer number of interesting people we meet and places we get to visit, even if only to work in an office or a data centre for the most part. As a fan of travelling, I am generally a very willing volunteer and if it’s a particularly interesting case you’ve got me! As far as pains go I think pain would be a strong word but at times we can be dealing with quite repetitive processes which can involve playing the waiting game… This isn’t Spooks; we can’t image a hard disk drive or clone a phone in a matter of seconds!
What exactly is it that you do?
Hopefully I have covered that bit.
If I delete my files can you recover them?
Well, that would depend on how you have deleted them and how long ago. For the most part, yes we can recover all, if not fragments of deleted files. As a general rule, if the files haven’t been overwritten there is a good chance they can be recovered.
Have you had to go to court?
As yet I haven’t but some might say if your findings and report are sufficient they shouldn’t need defending in court…
When travelling for work do you have any free time to explore?
For the most part no but sometimes yes. Ultimately it depends on a number of factors including the volume of work, the client and surprisingly the location. For example, the Spanish love to finish earlier in the day than us Brits. When I have some free time it’s usually in the evenings. I like to make the most of this free time and explore the local city/area with my camera in hand. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to have a free weekend when in the Ukraine. I think I made the most of this as I visited Chernobyl which I would recommend to anyone!
How did you get into the field of computer forensics?
From a young age I have had a passionate interest in computing and have always been inquisitive, some might say nosey. After finishing my A Levels I wasn’t particularly keen on University but found a Digital Forensics course which sounded like something I wanted to get into. This led me to Teesside University where I studied Digital Forensics which luckily for me got me internship with Revenue and Customs for 12 months as a Computer Forensic Technician. This was an absolutely fantastic kick-start to my career and from there I went on to work for Kroll Ontrack and here I am!
Do you like your job? Would you recommend it as a career?
I absolutely love the job but you have to have a certain mind-set and put in the hours when required to be successful. The challenges and interesting cases certainly outweigh the sometimes long hours and rare frustrations.
Aaron Watson joined Kroll Ontrack in April 2011 and currently serves as a Computer Forensic Consultant in the London office. Aaron is involved as part of a team or as a lead consultant in forensic data collections both large and small in the UK and abroad in relation to discovery exercises and corporate and private investigations.
Aaron has worked are large scale disclosure exercises and corporate investigations often for high profile clients or large corporations. These have ranged from investigations into Intellectual Property Theft, Computer Misuse, Fraud, Deception and corruption.