Illustration by Jørgen Stamp CC BY 2.5 Denmark



Digital forensics is associated in many people’s minds primarily with the investigation of wrongdoing. However, it has also emerged in recent years as a promising source of tools and approaches for facilitating digital preservation and curation, specifically for protecting and investigating evidence from the past.

Institutional repositories and professionals with responsibilities for personal archives and other digital collections can benefit from forensics in addressing digital authenticity, accountability and accessibility. Digital personal information must be handled with due sensitivity and security while demonstrably protecting its evidential value.

Forensic technology makes it possible to: identify privacy issues; establish a chain of custody for provenance; employ write protection for capture and transfer; and detect forgery or manipulation. It can extract and mine relevant metadata and content; enable efficient indexing and searching by curators; and facilitate audit control and granular access privileges. Advancing capabilities promise increasingly effective automation in the handling of ever higher volumes of personal digital information. With the right policies in place, the judicious use of forensic technologies will continue to offer theoretical models, practical solutions and analytical insights.


Forensics in practice


There are three basic and essential principles in digital forensics: that the evidence is acquired without altering it; that this is demonstrably so; and that analysis is conducted in an accountable and repeatable way. Digital forensic processes, hardware and software have been designed to ensure compliance with these requirements.

Information assurance is critical. Writeblockers ensure that information is captured without altering it, while chains of custody in terms of evidence handling, process control, information audit, digital signatures and watermarking protect the historical evidence from future alteration and uncertain provenance.

Selective redaction, anonymization and encryption, malware sandbox containment and other mechanisms for security and fine-tuned control are required to assure that privacy is fully protected and inadvertent information leakage is prevented. Family computers, portable devices and shareable cloud services all harbour considerable personal information and consequently raise issues of privacy. Digital archivists and forensic practitioners share the need to handle the ensuing personal information responsibly.

The current emphasis on automation in digital forensic research is of particular significance to the curation of cultural heritage, where this capability is increasingly essential in a digital universe that continues to expand exponentially. Current research is directed at handling large volumes efficiently and effectively using a variety of analytical techniques. Parallel processing, for example, through purpose-designed Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), and high performance computing can assist processor-intensive activities such as full search and indexing, filtering and hashing, secure deletion, mining, fusion and visualization.

Especially noteworthy for digital preservation and curation is the way that digital forensics directs attention towards the digital media item as a whole – typically the forensic disk image, the file that represents everything on the original disk.


Forensic technologies


Forensic technologies vary greatly in their capability, cost and complexity. Some equipment is expensive, but some is free. Some techniques are very straightforward to use, others have to be applied with great care and sophistication. The BitCurator Consortium has been an important development bringing together a community of archival users of open source digital forensic tools (Lee et al, 2014). There is an increasingly rich set of open source forensic tools that are free to obtain and use – most significantly for archivists, BitCurator. These are a wonderful introduction to the ins-and-outs of digital forensics, and can be used to compare and cross-check the outputs of commercial or other open source tools.

Digital archivists and forensic specialists share a common need to monitor and understand how technology is used to create, store, and manage digital information. Additionally, there is a mutual need to manage that information responsibly in conformance with relevant standards and best practice. New forensic techniques are furthering the handling of digital information from mobile devices, networks, live data on remote computers, flash media, virtual machines, cloud services, and encrypted sources. The use of encryption is beginning to present significant challenges for digital preservation. It is not only a matter of decryption but of identifying encryption in the first place. Digital forensics offers some solutions.

Forensic and archival methodology must retain the ability both to retrospectively interpret events represented on digital devices, and to react quickly to the changing digital landscape by the rapid institution of certifiable and responsible policies, procedures and facilities. The pace of change also has implications for ongoing training of curators and archivists, and there are digital forensics courses endorsed by archival, scholarly and preservation institutions.




In conclusion, there are some deep challenges ahead for cultural heritage and archives, but the forensic perspective is undoubtedly among the most promising sources of insights and solutions. Equally, digital forensics can benefit from the advances being made in the curation and preservation of digital information.

This brief overview has been based on short excerpts from The Digital Preservation Technology Watch Report on Digital Forensics and Preservation (John, 2012) with additional material kindly provided by Jeremy Leighton John, the author of the report. See Resources and case studies for further detailed guidance and exemplars.



Digital forensics and preservation DPC technology watch report

This 2012 DPC report provides a broad overview of digital forensics, with some pointers to resources and tools that may benefit cultural heritage and specifically the curation of personal digital archives (60 pages).

Digital forensics and born-digital content in cultural heritage collections

This CLIR report introduces the field of digital forensics in the cultural heritage sector and explores some points of convergence between the interests of those charged with collecting and maintaining born-digital cultural heritage materials and those charged with collecting and maintaining legal evidence (93 pages).


Archivematica is an open source digital preservation system and has addressed the ingest of forensic disk images as part of its workflows and toolset.


The website provides access to information on the BitCurator Consortium (BCC), projects, and tools. BitCurator has developed, packaged and documented open-source digital forensics tools to allow libraries, archives and museums to extract digital materials from removable media in ways that reflect the metadata and ensure the integrity of the materials, allowing users to make sense of materials and understand their context, and preventing inadvertent disclosure of sensitive data. The consortium is an independent, community-led membership association that serves as the host and center of administrative, user and community support for the BitCurator environment.

Forensics wiki

The Forensics Wiki is a Creative Commons-licensed wiki devoted to information about digital forensics. It lists over 700 pages focused on the tools and techniques used by investigators, important papers and reports, people, and organizations involved.

The Invisible Photograph Part 2: Trapped: Andy Warhol's Amiga Experiments

A team of computer scientists, archivists, artists, and curators teamed up to unearth Andy Warhol's lost digital works on a 30 year old Amiga Commodore computer (18 mins 52 secs)

The Invisible Photograph Part 3: Extraterrestrial: The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

How the "techno archaeologists" of the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project digitally recovered the first photographs of the moon taken by a set of unmanned space probes in the 1960s. (22 mins 07 secs)

Case studies

Carcanet email project

A Jisc-funded project that tackled the challenge of capturing and preserving the email archive of Carcanet Press, one of the UK's premier poetry publishing houses. It was winner of the 2014 DPC Preservation Wward for Safeguarding the Digital Legacy. The project explored and adopted several ediscovery and forensic tools, specifically AccessData's Forensic Toolkit (FTK), Paraben's Email Examiner and Fookes Software's Aid4Mail eDiscovery. 




John, J. L., 2012. Digital Forensics and Preservation. DPC Technology Watch Report 12-03 November 2012. Available:

Lee, C. A., Olsen, P., Chassanoff, A., Woods, K., Kirschenbaum, M. & Misra, S., 2014. From Code to Community: Building and Sustaining BitCurator through Community Engagement. BitCurator White Paper 30 September 2014. Available:


#1 ERIN Technology LLC 2023-07-16 04:55
We are grateful for the transformative role digital forensics plays in investigating wrongdoing, protecting digital assets, and ensuring data integrity. It's essential to recognize the expanding horizons of this field, as it contributes to a safer and more secure digital landscape. Thank you for shedding light on its broader applications!
#2 Ailsa Hermann-Wu 2024-03-14 11:41
Looks like is defunct, but the Carnegie Museum of Art has a link to the Invisible Photograph series at

Thank you so much for this handbook, it is a great resource!