Email Forensics Investigation Guide: Techniques to Unmask Evidence
In this digital age, a huge amount of sensitive information flows through emails, thus maintaining data security and authenticity becomes crucial. Along with that, the increase in the frequency of cyberattacks has resulted in the emergence of an email forensics investigation. This arena of digital forensics deals with the forensic analysis of emails and proves to be helpful in legal disputes, fraud cases, cybersecurity incidents, and much more.
In this extensive guide, we’ll discuss some proven investigation techniques and methods. Along with that, we will also share a tried and tested solution that you can use to make the email forensics process a breeze.
What is Email Forensics Investigation?
The email forensics process involves an in-depth analysis of email content, its metadata including headers, and various other artifacts like email attachments, etc. to uncover the hidden evidence. This forensics process is usually preferred in cases like intellectual property theft, data breaches, tracking down criminals, etc.
Importance of Email Forensics
There are numerous scenarios where we can say that email forensics is important and has helped many forensic experts uncover hidden evidence. Some of the key points are described below:
There are numerous scenarios where we can say that email forensics is important and has helped many forensic experts in their investigation & uncover hidden evidence. Some of the key points are described below:
- Intellectual Property Theft – Intellectual property is one of the most important assets of an organization. Email forensics investigations can be useful in exposing such attempts to steal confidential information and trade secrets
- Legal Proceedings – Emails have proved to be an important piece of evidence in many forensic cases. This is because emails can be used to verify communication, intent, and connection between parties. Moreover, many important documents or information are shared over emails that can make or break a case.
- Cybersecurity Incidents – Whenever a cyberattack takes place, finding out the source and extent is critically important. Thus, email forensic investigation techniques can be helpful in recognizing phishing attempts, unauthorized access attempts, or malware distribution.
- Insider Threats – In scenarios where an insider employee acts negligently or maliciously, email forensics can help organizations uncover insider threats. This method of investigation can help protect an organization’s critical data and reputation.
Step by Step Approach of Email Forensics Investigation
There are systematic methods that forensic experts follow for investigating email(s). Here are the 8 steps.
- Identification and Preservation – The very first step in this process is to identify the email data that you must acquire. The next step that comes after that is preserving that data so that it doesn’t alter and retains its original integrity.
- Collection – Once you identify the sources of email data, now comes the collection of the data by using an appropriate set of tools and procedures. In this step of email data forensics, you need to make sure that you not only acquire email content but other attributes as well like Recipient, Sender, Email Header, etc.
- Email Reconstruction – After collecting crucial emails, then comes the third stage of email forensics investigation i.e. Email Reconstruction. Here, the team might organize emails chronologically and identify any missing or deleted emails from the evidence. This process helps the team establish a proper communication trail between users.
- Metadata Analysis – As we know metadata can be valuable in revealing crucial information like email forwarding path, message authentication, geolocation, and IP addresses. Having a look at the metadata can help identify the source of the email and its path.
- Email Content Examination – The content of emails is thoroughly investigated by forensic experts to extract any piece of valuable information. This can be done via keyword searches, context evaluation methods, and language analysis.
- Attachments and Links – The attachments attached to your emails and embedded links are the most common ways of implementing malware and phishing attempts. These are the important elements while performing email forensics investigations by experts.
- Deleted Emails – Another major source of crucial evidence is the deleted emails from the source data. So, recovering those deleted messages via professional tools can help find valuable pieces of information.
- Email Header Analysis – Email headers contain crucial information and can be analyzed to identify spoofed emails, trace email paths, and detect anomalies.
Challenges Faced in Email Forensics Investigation
After going through the systematic method for the email investigation, you might think that it is not that complex and can be performed without any issues. However, there are some common challenges that email forensic experts that we have mentioned below:
- Legal Proceedings – To investigate particular emails, experts sometimes have to seek legal approval and they should have proper warrants. As a result, it hinders the investigation process.
- Email header manipulation – Hackers, oftentimes, manipulate the header information to hide its authenticity. Thus, it becomes a challenge in the email forensic investigation process.
- Complexity in Email tracing – To trace the email source, investigators have to go through multiple servers, proxies, etc. which makes it a complex process.
- Email Volume – To find relevant evidence, forensic professionals have to check a large number of emails. In return, it consumes a lot of time.
Email Forensics Best Practices
Although there are multiple ways in which you can carry out the email investigation process, you can follow these best practices to have a seamless experience:
- Advanced Tools – Take the help of advanced forensic solutions and keep them up-to-date to make the overall process considerably quick and efficient.
- Chain of Custody – Make sure that you maintain a secure chain of custody so that no one alters or manipulates the evidence.
- Collaboration – Collaborate with IT professionals, legal experts, and stakeholders to gather as much information as you can.
- Documentation – It is essential to document every part of the email forensics investigation process as the court might ask for this documentation.
- Comply with Certain Laws and Regulations – Make sure that you are aware of local and international laws and follow them strictly while handling email evidence.
- Continuous Learning – The trends in investigations of emails keep changing and you need to keep yourself updated for continuous success.
A Professional Utility for Email Forensics Investigation
When talking about email forensics, one of the most important things that makes the email investigation a success is to use the right tool. When you are working as a data forensics professional, you can get emails in any format be it a Microsoft Outlook PST file, Apple Mail MBOX file, cloud-based Gmail data, or Office 365 mailbox data, you should be prepared for all email platforms.
Thus, it’s crucial to choose a proficient solution. Many forensics professionals lay their trust in using the Email Examiner Software. This is a highly-rated utility that permits forensic experts to load data from as many as 25+ desktop-based email file formats. Along with that, you can also ingest data from multiple cloud email platforms like Gmail, Office 365, Google Workspace, and all other IMAP-supported email platforms.
This application comes with various other advanced features as well like search options to perform searches using a set of keywords. Furthermore, you can also apply numerous conditions to filter out only desired data from the bunch of emails and export them into a court-admissible file format. While trying different email forensics techniques for investigation, you can also perform a thorough analysis of data be it link analysis or timeline analysis of emails.
This is one of the best email forensics tools that you can get and can be used on Windows OS. You can schedule a free demo of this application and get a detailed overview of the features that you get in it.
Email forensics is one of the essential components of the digital forensics field due to the increased usage of email communication to share information and other important data. This forensics process plays a crucial role in breaking many cases by following a systematic approach, following best practices, and using technical expertise. Additionally, using the aforementioned utility ensures that you have an edge while performing an investigation and unmasking evidence in a quick and efficient way.
Q- What is the role of email in digital investigations?
Email plays a very important role in email investigation. As its header reveals a lot of information that can be used to find relevant evidence.
Q- What kind of information email header can provide for forensic investigation?
The email header consists of information such as sender details, receiver details, date & time of email received, message ID, subject, and more. It proves to be helpful in forensic investigation finding the origin of the message. Also, it helps in determining whether it has been tampered with or not.
Q- What are the steps involved in email investigation?
Several steps are involved in the investigation. First, forensics examiners acquire and preserve the email data. Second, they analyze the header information and then examine the metadata. At last, they maintain documents containing methods used, what evidence was uncovered, etc.