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Chain of custody applies to computer crimes too

In the movies and on TV, crime scene technicians gather evidence by putting it into baggies, labeling it and sealing it. Doing so establishes a "chain of custody," which is designed to maintain the integrity of the alleged evidence. It tracks who has access to the material and when they access it along with how, where and when police collected it.

This may work for physical evidence, but when it comes to computer crimes, things get a bit more complicated. Even so, establishing chain of custody remains a priority. Without it, it would be nearly impossible to ensure that no one tampered with or otherwise compromised the material that prosecutors ultimately attempt to say is evidence that you committed a crime.

How should investigators establish chain of custody?

Handling alleged evidence of computer crimes requires somewhat different handling than other physical evidence. For instance, forensic analysts must maintain the integrity of the original material, which means that they should not analyze it directly. Instead, they must create a clone or copy that they can alter in their analysis. In addition, a Florida court would require evidence of chain of custody, which may be established as follows:

  • Photographs of the physical evidence such as computers and other electronic devices
  • Screenshots of digital materials
  • Authentication of the working clone through a hash test
  • Documentation of the receipt of the materials by date, time and any other relevant information
  • Immediate notification to the proper individuals if additional information is found that exceeds the scope of the search warrant
  • Maintenance of the cleanliness of the forensic storage device so as not to corrupt the data

If investigators and computer forensic analysts fail to follow proper procedures, they may compromise any so-called evidence against you. Officials need to use caution in this area since unlike other evidence, digital evidence could easily be manipulated, corrupted or tainted. For example, you can electronically manipulate information on the internet with the right knowledge, but you can't change a shell casing from a shooting.

For this reason alone, if you find yourself under investigation for computer crimes or police arrive at your door with a search warrant, you may want to contact an attorney with experience in internet crimes. It may be beneficial to have someone on your side who understands computer forensics in order to better protect your rights and interests.

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