Monday, September 14, 2009

Babel Fish

I read an article this morning on Forensic Focus from the UK based company CY4OR detailing the emerging trend of technical data in the courtroom. The author of the article posed the questions of should there be a higher level of technical expertise required on juries in cases involving computers? After reading the article twice, and thinking about it, my answer is no (at least where the US court system in concerned), and here is why.

In the US juries are supposed to be comprised of "your peers". Now, while most folks in the US are technically aware, to think that they are "savvy" is a bit of a stretch. So finding a "peer" where most IT folks are concerned is going to be tough. Most people while some are very intelligent, are your stereo typical "end users". A good example is my pastor, Alex Himaya from the Church at Battle Creek. Alex has a MS and a Phd - a very educated and intelligent man. Well spoken, well traveled, and well respected both inside the Christian community and out. However, you put a computer in front of the man, and...well...he becomes an "end user". He can get around in Windows XP, he can do his work, but that's about it. Now that is not a slam in any way on Alex, however it shows that even people that have Phds are not any better with computers than your typical high school student (an in many cases the HS students are far better).

That puts folks like us, not just IT professionals, but computer forensic investigators, in the top 1% - 3% of computer users. We should be the upper tier of computer professionals, we should know both how the systems work and why they work that way. The technology should never be the limiting factor in our investigations. And if we run across something new or unfamiliar, we should be able to research it and figure it out in a very (like minutes to hours) short period of time.

Being a corporate investigator, over the years my customers have ranged from CEOs of fortune five companies to single location restaurant owners. I have delivered forensic reports to customers that have degrees in IT and have a pretty good understanding of what I am saying as well as people who know as much about computer science as Dunder Mifflin's Michael Scott! So what's the key to delivering a comprehensive yet understandable report? Your mom!

You think I'm joking...I'm not...your mom is the key! When you write your reports, do it in a manner that your mother could understand (if your mom is not available, any non-technical person you trust will suffice - unless of course your mom is a computer expert of some sort...then my example is blown and you will have to pick somebody else to help you with your report writing). Explain something that is technically difficult plainly and without being condescending.

For example, I have recently written a white paper on the top 10 reasons level 4 merchants are compromised. My target audience is small business owners whose primary concern is not computer security or PCI compliance, rather providing dry cleaning services, burrito plates, discount clothing, etc. In my white paper I break down technical concepts like egress filtering, secure data wiping, and port identification in a manner that my mother (no lie...I used her to help me write my paper) could easily understand. I used common terms and word pictures to illustrate technically advanced concepts clearly without making the reader feel st00p1t.

My forensic reports, like most, are broken down into sections - as I'm sure yours are (if they aren't, they should be). Doing this will enable you to address several different audiences in the same report. Your executives are likely just interested in the high level information - what happened, how, and how they can fix it. Technical or security staff members may be interesed in the specifics of what happened...ports, malware, theft, exfiltration, etc. Make sure you address each different audience ina clear and concise manner. I know I have said this before, but it won't hurt to say it again...DON'T be verbose for the sake of being verbose. Clear, concise, to the point and move on. does this all tie together in a courtroom? Well, you are the SME. You have the technical knowledge and the jury does not. The key is not to throw technical terms and abbreviations at them to the point where they just tune you out and start wondering what's for lunch. Use common terms and analogies that they can easily understand. Jesus was a master at this! You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate how Jesus used the everyday to explain the things of Heaven to his disciples. In much the same way, you are doing the same thing. If you have to get froggy and break it down with some techie love, then fine, but make that your fall back, not your first option. Remember, your job on the stand is to get the jury to understand why the evidence you are presenting is relevant to the case, and how it proves whether something either happened to didn't happen, not to show them how smart you are.

Be the Babel Fish!

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