Monday, March 22, 2010

What is this field called anyway?

by Chris Hargreaves

Chris Hargreaves
About the Author

Dr Chris Hargreaves is a lecturer at the Centre for Forensic Computing at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, UK.

In this series of articles I hope to explore some of the issues in forensic computing from an academic perspective, which will hopefully complement the perspectives from other columnists in the corporate, legal and software development fields.

In this first article it seemed sensible to start at the beginning and discuss something that may seem trivial but does have several implications, both practical and philosophical, and is not just an argument about semantics. This issue is what is this field that we work in actually called?

The field of acquiring, analysing and presenting digital evidence goes by several names: in the case of our MSc the term 'Forensic Computing' is used, but this is one of many. Browsing through a list of available courses in this area (recently compiled by Forensic Focus) reveals a number of other names including 'Computer Forensics', 'Digital Forensics', and 'Cybercrime Forensics'.

Are there any differences between what the courses offer? Almost certainly yes, but are the courses named differently in order to reflect different content? I suspect not. This is just one example of a common issue - uncertainty about what the field is called, if it is indeed one field. The remainder of this article describes some of the various names that are used for the field, followed by a discussion of some of the issues that occur as a result of a lack of unity as far as naming is concerned, largely from an academic perspective. Finally, it will be argued that this is actually a small symptom of a broader issue.

So what are the different terms that are in use and is there anything wrong with any of them? The term 'Computer Forensics' is widely used but as Eoghan Casey points out in Digital Evidence and Computer Crime, this is "a syntactical mess that uses the noun computer as an adjective and the adjective forensic as a noun". So, 'Computer Forensics' is poor use of the English language, and while many people may not have an issue with this, it should probably not be used...

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