The admissibility vs. weight of digital evidence

There is always a lot of conversation about when digital evidence is and is not admissible. Questions like “are proxy logs admissible?” and “what tools generate admissible evidence?” are focused on the concept of evidence admissibility. Some of the responses to these questions are correct, and some not really correct. I think the underlying issues (at least from what I’ve observed) with the incorrect answers stems from a confusion of two similar yet distinct legal concepts: evidence admissibility and the weight of evidence.

Caveats and Disclaimers

Before we begin this discussion, I want you to be aware of the following items:

  • I am not a lawyer
  • This is not legal advice
  • Always consult with your legal counsel for legal advice
  • The legal concepts discussed in this blog post are specific to the United States. Other jurisdictions are likely to have similar concepts.
  • Every court case (civil, criminal and otherwise) is decided on a case-by-case basis. This means what is true for one case may not be true for another.

Essentially, evidence admissibility refers to the requirements for evidence to be entered into a court case. The weight of evidence however refers to how likely the evidence is to persuade a person (e.g. judge or jury) towards (or against) a given theory.

In the legal system, before evidence can be presented for persuasive use, it must be admitted by the court. If one side or the other raises an objection to the evidence being admitted, a judge will typically listen to arguments from both sides, and come to a decision about whether or not to admit the evidence. The judge will likely consider things like admissibility requirements (listed below), prejudicial effects, etc.

When it comes to court (and I’m going to focus on criminal court) the rules for what is and what is not admissible vary. There are however three common elements:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Relevancy
  3. Reliability

Briefly, authenticity refers to whether or not the evidence is authentic, or “is what it is purported to be.” For example, is the hard drive being entered into evidence as the “suspect drive” actually the drive that was seized from the suspect system? Relevancy refers to whether or not the evidence relates to some issue at hand. Finally, reliability refers to whether or not the evidence meets some “minimum standard of trustworthiness”. Reliability is where concepts such as Daubert/Frye, repeatable and consistent methodology, etc. are used. The oft quoted “beyond a reasonable doubt” is used as a bar for determining guilt or innocence, not evidence admissibility.

These requirements apply equally well to all types of evidence, including digital evidence. In fact, there are no extra “hoops” that digital evidence has to cross through for admissibility purposes. You’ll also notice things like chain of custody, MD5 hashes, etc. aren’t on the list. For a simple reason, they aren’t strict legal requirements for evidence admissibility purposes. Devices such as a chain of custody, MD5 hashes, etc. are common examples of how to help meet various admissibility requirements, or how to help strengthen the weight of the evidence, but in and of themselves are not strictly required by legal statute.

There are “myths” surrounding evidence admissibility that are common to digital forensics. I’ll focus on the two most common (that I’ve seen):

  1. Digital evidence is easy to modify and can’t be used in court
  2. Only certain types of tools generate admissible evidence

The first myth focuses around the idea that digital evidence is often easy to modify (either accidentally or intentionally.) This really focuses on the reliability requirement of evidence admissibility. The short answer is that digital evidence is admissible. In fact, unless there is specific support to a claim of alteration (e.g. discrepancies in a log file) the opposing side can not even raise this possibility (at least for admissibility purposes.) Even if there are discrepancies, the evidence is likely to still be admitted, with the discrepancies going towards the weight of the evidence rather than admissibility. The exception to this might be if the discrepancies/alterations were so egregious as to undermine a “minimum standard of trustworthiness.”

The second myth is commonly found in the form of the question “What tools are accepted by the courts?” I think a fair number of people really mean “What tools generate results that are admissible in court?” Realize that in this case, “results” would be considered evidence. This scenario is somewhat analogous to a criminalist photographing a physical crime scene and asking the question “What cameras are accepted by the courts?” As long as the camera records an accurate representation of the subject of the photograph, the results should be admissible. This would be some “minimum standard of trustworthiness”. To contrast this to weight, realize that different cameras record photographs differently. A 3 megapixel camera will have different results than a 1 megapixel camera. An attorney could argue about issues surrounding resolution, different algorithms, etc. but this would all go to the weight (persuasive factor) of the evidence, not the admissibility.

Hopefully this clarifies some of the confusion surrounding evidence admissibility. I’d love to hear other people’s comments and thoughts about this, including any additional questions.

Comments

  1. Kamal Dave says:

    The author has correctly emphasised on the points of the admissibility. As long as the Digital Evidence is the accurate representation of crime without any tampering during the process of collection, analysis & production before court as recorded from the scene of crime, it would be admissible.

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