Assisting digital forensic analysis via exploratory information visualisation

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Background: Digital forensics is a rapidly expanding field, due to the continuing advances in computer technology and increases in data stage capabilities of devices. However, the tools supporting digital forensics investigations have not kept pace with this evolution, often leaving the investigator to analyse large volumes of textual data and rely heavily on their own intuition and experience.

Aim: This research proposes that given the ability of information visualisation to provide an end user with an intuitive way to rapidly analyse large volumes of complex data, such approached could be applied to digital forensics datasets. Such methods will be investigated; supported by a review of literature regarding the use of such techniques in other fields. The hypothesis of this research body is that by utilising exploratory information visualisation techniques in the form of a tool to support digital forensic investigations, gains in investigative effectiveness can be realised.

Method: To test the hypothesis, this research examines three different case studies which look at different forms of information visualisation and their implementation with a digital forensic dataset. Two of these case studies take the form of prototype tools developed by the researcher, and one case study utilises a tool created by a third party research group. A pilot study by the researcher is conducted on these cases, with the strengths and weaknesses of each being drawn into the next case study.
The culmination of these case studies is a prototype tool which was developed to resemble a timeline visualisation of the user behaviour on a device. This tool was subjected to an experiment involving a class of university digital forensics students who were given a number of questions about a synthetic digital forensic dataset. Approximately half were given the prototype tool, named Insight, to use, and the others given a common open-source tool. The assessed metrics included: how long the participants took to complete all tasks, how accurate their answers to the tasks were, and how easy the participants found the tasks to complete. They were also asked for their feedback at multiple points throughout the task.

Results: The results showed that there was a statistically significant increase in accuracy for one of the six tasks for the participants using the Insight prototype tool. Participants also found completing two of the six tasks significantly easier when using the prototype tool.
There were no statistically significant different difference between the completion times of both participant groups. There were no statistically significant differences in the accuracy of participant answers for five of the six tasks.

Conclusions: The results from this body of research show that there is evidence to suggest that there is the potential for gains in investigative effectiveness when information visualisation techniques are applied to a digital forensic dataset. Specifically, in some scenarios, the investigator can draw conclusions which are more accurate than those drawn when using primarily textual tools. There is also evidence so suggest that the investigators found these conclusions to be reached significantly more easily when using a tool with a visual format. None of the scenarios led to the investigators being at a significant disadvantage in terms of accuracy or usability when using the prototype visual tool over the textual tool.
It is noted that this research did not show that the use of information visualisation techniques leads to any statistically significant difference in the time taken to complete a digital forensics investigation.
Date of AwardFeb 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SponsorsThe Scottish Informatics & Computer Science Alliance
SupervisorIan Ferguson (Supervisor) & Jacqueline Archibald (Supervisor)


  • Digital forensics
  • Visualisation
  • Computer security

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