Computer Forensics-A Trail of Evidence

By Sterner, Tom | Business Credit, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Computer Forensics-A Trail of Evidence


Sterner, Tom, Business Credit


A disgruntled employee at a major financial institution just deleted from his computer a threat letter he crafted to the CEO of his company After printing a hard copy, he deleted the text so it could not be traced back to him. But where did the information really go? It may appear to be "gone," but the fact is that is it is virtually impossible to erase something permanently from your computer. Tom Sterner, Associate Director of Investigations for Control Risks New York, takes a look at this phenomena, which is catching many individuals and companies off-guard.

Shortly after McKesson Inc., the largest drug distribution company in the United States, acquired a medical software company, HBO & Co., company auditors began to uncover accounting irregularities during a routine review of HBO's books: HBO employees were booking revenue prematurely, leading artificially to inflated revenues. As examples of the practice increased, McKesson executives ordered a more in-depth audit to determine the scope of the problem. The results, as described in the Wall Street Journal in July 1999, were "explosive."

A key tool used in the in-depth audit was what has become known in the forensic auditing and investigative industry as "forensic computer science," essentially digging into hidden areas of a computer hard drive to recover deleted files, lost portions of e-mail messages, or other data normally presumed to be "gone." The auditors at McKesson used forensic computer techniques to recover a series of deleted documents which irrefutably showed an organized effort to falsify revenue at HBO.

The growth in the use of forensic computer science by investigators is evidenced by the surging attendance at one of the few schools in the United States that teaches digital sleuth techniques and sells software tools to support them. In June of this past year, I attended the four-day course in Portland, Oregon, along with other private investigators, forensic auditors and law enforcement personnel.

Although the course delved into the intricacies of the hard drive--how data is stored, cataloged and thus recovered--the essential message of the course was clear: computers leave an evidence trail that cannot be ignored as a standard part of modern business and financial investigations.

The McKesson story highlights how broadly this technique can be applied. While one may normally associate data recovery with cases in which computers are seized in a hostile situation, the McKesson tale shows that hard drives should be viewed simply as another information repository, like online databases, public records and the memories of interview subjects.

The challenges of accessing hard drives will obviously vary with each investigation. In due diligence cases, for example, access would seem all but impossible. In fraud investigations, however, creativity and careful planning with the client may provide opportunities. …

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