By Robert Evatt
Copyright © 2012, World Publishing Company; All Rights Reserved
Gavin Manes is president and CEO of Avansic Inc., a Tulsa-based digital forensics company that provides services to businesses and legal professionals. Manes, who holds a doctorate in computer science, is widely published and has given hundreds of presentations to law firms, professional groups and various conferences across the country. He has also briefed the White House, the Interior Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon on computer security and forensics issues.
1: How has the use of digital forensics changed over the last few years? Are there certain industries and professions that are using it a lot more, or even some that are using it less?
The rise of mobile computing – tablets and increased storage on smartphones – has translated into huge amounts of user-generated data. The need to perform e-discovery – to process large data sets – is now almost always a consideration for attorneys and companies in litigation.
Turning those large data sets into something useful and reviewable is the core of our business. We do this for law firms across the nation and see cases ranging from a single computer to multiple terabytes.
2: Have corporations and individuals become more savvy in protecting their data, or is it still relatively easy to find everything on any given computer?
Corporations are getting better at protecting their data from outsiders, but the most prying eyes are inside the organization. It’s very common for us to work on a case where an employee takes information from their previous employer to the current one.
There’s always a challenge when handling a computer that has been used by someone technically savvy, and we have to dig a little deeper. But our investigators are really amazing, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to avoid leaving a trail of zeros and ones.
3: Has the rise of cloud computing added any wrinkles to digital forensics, or is it mostly the same type of work?
According to Southwest Airlines magazine, 51 percent of people think that weather affects cloud computing, which gave me quite a chuckle en route to New Orleans last week. Cloud computing is basically a snazzy new name for storing data on the Internet, which has clearly been around for quite a while.
The biggest difficulties with the cloud are collection of data, increased volume and dreadfully slow bulk retrieval speed. Specifically, collection can be difficult because data is spread across a number of unknown servers and locations. But at the end of the day, processing data for e-discovery from the cloud is the same as data from a file server on site at a company.
4: What are some of the more offbeat ways computer users have tried to hide their data? Are techniques like the email “dead drops” used in the Gen. David Petraeus affair common?
Most hiding methods rely on obfuscation of data or the creation of a covert channel. Steganography – hiding data in images – is one of the oldest digital methods to conceal data.
Dead drops and their electronic counterparts are a classic spy vs. spy concept that’s very common today. In an electronic dead drop, two users share an online account and use methods such as saving a draft email to communicate; in theory, there is no digital trail since an email was never actually sent. Some believe that if you save data only on a USB hard drive it does not leave anything on the computer when in fact it leaves a distinct digital trail.
5: In general, are Tulsa companies keeping up with the rest of the region in data protection and effective use of digital forensics?
Effective planning for an e-discovery or digital forensics project is the most pivotal part of the process. If we are asked to be in the room from the earliest stages, we can actually help drastically reduce the cost of handling electronic information during litigation.
There is a misconception that litigation costs tens of thousands of dollars per GB when in fact it only costs a few hundred dollars to make digital data useful – but it has to be done right. We’ve dealt with several cases in Tulsa where that has occurred and some that haven’t. But we find that we can make clients – both attorneys and the corporations they serve – so much happier if we’re integrated into the process at the outset.