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Validation of Forensic Tools and Software: A Quick Guide for the Digital Forensic Examiner



Real world laboratory use, controlled internal tests utilizing scientific principles, and peer review should all be leveraged in a validation test plan. Sharing unique results with the digital forensics community at-large helps investigators, examiners, and even software and tool vendors ensure that current best practices are followed. As the field of digital forensics continues to grow and evolve as a science the importance of proper scientific validation will be more important than ever.
Tools and software for digital forensic analysis
should be validated quarterly.
Tools and software for digital forensic analysis should be
validated quarterly.
The Importance of
Mobile Forensics for
Law Enforcement
Validation of Forensic Tools and
Software: A Quick Guide for the
Digital Forensic Examiner
With the field of digital forensics
growing at an almost warp-like
speed, there are many issues out
there that can disrupt and discredit
even the most experienced forensic
examiner. One of the issues that
continues to be of utmost
importance is the validation of the
technology and software associated
with performing a digital forensic
examination. The science of digital
forensics is founded on the
principles of repeatable processes and quality evidence.
Knowing how to design and properly maintain a good
validation process is a key requirement for any digital forensic
examiner. This article will attempt to outline the issues faced
when drafting tool and software validations, the legal
standards that should be followed when drafting validations,
and a quick overview of what should be included in every
Setting the Standard: Standards and Legal Baselines for
Software/Tool Validation
According to the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST), test results must be repeatable and
reproducible to be considered admissible as electronic
evidence. Digital forensics test results are repeatable when the
same results are obtained using the same methods in the
same testing environment. Digital forensics test results are
reproducible when the same test results are obtained using the
same method in a different testing environment (different
mobile phone, hard drive, and so on). NIST specifically defines
these terms as follows:
Repeatability refers to obtaining the same results when using
the same method on identical test items in the same
laboratory by the same operator using the same equipment
within short intervals of time.
Reproducibility refers to obtaining the same results being
obtained when using the same method on identical test items
in different laboratories with different operators utilizing
different equipment.
In the legal community, the Daubert Standard can be used for
guidance when drafting software/tool validations. The Daubert
Standard allows novel tests to be admitted in court, as long as
certain criteria are met. According to the ruling in Daubert v.
Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. the following criteria were
identified to determine the reliability of a particular scientific
1. Has the method in question undergone empirical
2. Has the method been subjected to peer review?
3. Does the method have any known or potential error
4. Do standards exist for the control of the technique's
5. Has the method received general acceptance in the
relevant scientific community?
The Daubert Standard requires an independent judicial
assessment of the reliability of the scientific test or method.
This reliability assessment, however, does not require, nor
does it permit, explicit identification of a relevant scientific
community and an express determination of a particular
degree of acceptance within that community. Additionally, the
Daubert Standard was quick to point out that the fact that a
theory or technique has not been subjected to peer review or
has not been published does not automatically render the
tool/software inadmissible. The ruling recognizes that scientific
principles must be flexible and must be the product of reliable
principles and methods. Although the Daubert Standard was in
no way directed toward digital forensics validations, the
scientific baselines and methods it suggests are a good starting
point for drafting validation reports that will hold up in a court
of law and the digital forensics community.
The Scientific Method and Software/Tool Validations: A
Perfect Fit
In the Daubert ruling, The Court defined scientific methodology
as “the process of formulating hypotheses and then conducting
experiments to prove or falsify the hypothesis.” The Scientific
Method refers to a body of techniques for investigating
phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and
integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, the
method must be based on gathering, observing, or
investigating, and showing measurable and repeatable results.
Most of the time, the scientific process starts with a simple
question that leads to a hypothesis, which then leads to
experimentation, and an ultimate conclusion. To exemplify, if
you are validating a particular hardware write blocking device
you may want to start with the simple question “Does this tool
successfully allow normal write-block operation to occur to
source media?” Since it is assumed that the write-blocking
device supports various types of media (SATA, IDE, and so on)
you may be required to list the various requirements of the
tool. Because if this, it is good practice for an examiner to use
the scientific method as a baseline for formulating digital
forensic validations. It is recommended that forensic
examiners follow these four basic steps as a starting point for
an internal validation program:
1) Develop the Plan
Developing the scope of the plan may involve background and
defining what the software or tool should do in a detailed
fashion. Developing the scope of the plan also involves
creating a protocol for testing by outlining the steps, tools, and
requirements of such tools to be used during the test. This
may include evaluation of multiple test scenarios for the same
software or tool. To illustrate, if validating a particular forensic
software imaging tool, that tool could be tested to determine
whether or not it successfully creates, hashes, and verifies a
particular baseline image that has been previously setup.
There are several publically available resources and guides
that can be useful in establishing what a tool should do such as
those available from NIST’s Computer Forensic Tool Testing
Project (CFTT) available from The
CFTT also publishes detailed validation reports on various
types of forensic hardware and software ranging from mobile
phones to disk imaging tools. In addition to CFTT, Marshall
University has published various software and tool validation
reports that are publically available for download from
These detailed reports can be used to get a feel for how your
own internal protocol should be drafted. The scope of the plan
may also include items such as: tool version, testing
manufacturer, and how often the tests will be done. These
factors should be established based on your organization
standards. Typically, technology within a lab setting is re-
validated quarterly or biannually at the very least.
2) Develop a Controlled Data Set
This area may be the longest and most difficult part of the
validation process as it is the most involved. This is because it
involves setting-up specific devices and baseline images and
then adding data to the specific areas of the media or device.
Acquisitions would then need to be performed and documented
after each addition to validate the primary baseline. This
baseline may include a dummy mobile phone, USB thumb
drive, or hard drive depending on the software or hardware
tool you are testing. In addition to building your own baseline
images, Brian Carrier has posted several publically available
disk images designed to test specific tool capabilities, such as
the ability to recover deleted files, find keywords, and process
images. These data sets are documented and are available at Once baseline images are created,
tested, and validated it is a good idea to document what is
contained within these images. This will not only assist in
future validations, but may also be handy for internal
competency and proficiency examinations for digital
3) Conduct the Tests in a Controlled Environment
Outside all the recommendations and standards set forth by
NIST and the legal community, it only makes sense that a
digital forensics examiner would perform an internal validation
of the software and tools being used in the laboratory. In some
cases these validations are arbitrary and can occur either in a
controlled or uncontrolled environment. Since examiners are
continuously bearing enormous caseloads and work
responsibilities, consistent and proper validations sometimes
fall through the cracks and are validated in a somewhat
uncontrolled “on-the-fly” manner. It’s also a common practice
in digital forensics for examiners to “borrow” validations from
other laboratories and fail to validate their own software and
tools. Be very careful with letting this happen. Keep in mind
that in order for digital forensics to be practicing true scientific
principles, the processes used must be proven to be repeatable
and reproducible. In order for this to occur, the validation
should occur within a controlled environment within your
laboratory with the tools that you will be using. If the examiner
uses a process, software, or even a tool that is haphazard or
too varied from one examination to the next, the science then
becomes more of an arbitrary art. Simply put, validations not
only protect the integrity of the evidence, they may also
protect your credibility. As stated previously, using a
repeatable, consistent, scientific method in drafting these
validations is always recommended.
4) Validate the Test Results against Known and Expected
At this point, testing is conducted against the requirements set
forth for the software or tool in the previous steps. Keep in
mind that results generated through the experimentation and
validation stage must be repeatable. Validation should go
beyond a simple surface scan when it comes to the use of
those technologies in a scientific process. With that said, it is
recommended that each requirement be tested at least three
times. If there are any variables that may affect the outcome
of the validation (e.g. failure to write-block, software bugs)
they should be determined after three test runs. There may be
cases, however, where more or fewer test runs may be
required to generate valid results.
It’s also important to realize that you are probably not the first
to use and validate a particular software or tool, so chances
are that if you are experiencing inconsistent results, the
community may be experiencing the same results as well.
Utilizing peer review may be a valuable asset when performing
these validations. Organizations such as the High Technology
Crime Investigation Association (HTCIA) and the International
Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS)
maintain active member e-mail lists for members that can be
leveraged for peer review. There are also various lists and
message boards pertaining to mobile phone forensics that can
be quite helpful when validating a new mobile technology. In
addition, most forensic software vendors maintain message
boards for software, which can be used to research bugs or
inconsistencies arising during validation testing.
Real world laboratory use, controlled internal tests utilizing
scientific principles, and peer review should all be leveraged in
a validation test plan. Sharing unique results with the digital
forensics community at-large helps investigators, examiners,
and even software and tool vendors ensure that current best
practices are followed. As the field of digital forensics continues
to grow and evolve as a science the importance of proper
scientific validation will be more important than ever.
1. Brown, C. "Computer Evidence: Collection &
Preservation." Hingham: Thomson/Delmar. 2006.
2. Carrier, B. “Digital Forensics Tool Testing Images.”
Accessed 06 Feb 2011.
3. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579
4. High Technology Crime Investigation Association,
Accessed 06 Feb 2011.
5. International Association of Computer Investigative
Specialists, Accessed 06 Feb 2011.
6. Maras, MH. Computer Forensics: Cybercriminals, Laws,
and Evidence. Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett. 2011.
7. 7. Marshall University Forensic Science Center-Digital
Publications, Accessed 06 Feb 2011.
8. NIST Computer Forensic Tool Testing Project. Accessed
06 Feb 2011.
9. Shroader, A. "How to Validate Your Forensic Tools."
Orem: Paraben Corp. 2010.
Josh Brunty currently manages the digital forensics graduate
program and the digital forensics research and casework
laboratories at the Marshall University Forensic Science Center
in Huntington, WV. Josh holds numerous certifications within
the digital forensics discipline including: AccessData Certified
Examiner (ACE), Computer Hacking Forensic Examiner (CHFI),
Seized Computer Evidence Recovery Specialist (SCERS), and is
certified in Information Assessment Methodology (NSA-IAM).
He has developed a variety of digital forensics training
curriculum; including past recertification scenarios/exams for
the International Association of Computer Investigative
Specialists (IACIS). Josh is an active member of the Mid-
Atlantic Association of the High Technology Crime Investigation
Association (HTCIA) and the Digital-Multimedia Sciences
section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS).
He can be reached at
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Computer Evidence: Collection & Preservation
  • C Brown
Brown, C. "Computer Evidence: Collection & Preservation." Hingham: Thomson/Delmar. 2006.
Digital Forensics Tool Testing Images
  • B Carrier
Carrier, B. "Digital Forensics Tool Testing Images." Accessed 06 Feb 2011.
How to Validate Your Forensic Tools
  • A Shroader
Shroader, A. "How to Validate Your Forensic Tools." Orem: Paraben Corp. 2010.