OSINT Blog / Post

June 19, 2024

Metadata and Hashing: Creating Court-Admissible Evidence from OSINT

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) can play an influential role in legal proceedings and solving crimes, impacting both the prosecution and the defense. On the one hand, OSINT can help strengthen a case against a criminal enterprise, but it can also introduce doubt or surface exculpatory information. Critically, however, OSINT-as-evidence must meet strict criteria for data accuracy and integrity.

In the legal arena, methods for collecting OSINT are closely examined in order to establish a high threshold for truth and maintain public trust. Opposing legal teams might (and often do) question the credibility of certain submissions by pointing out flaws in a given collection process. Therefore, adhering to a rigorous set of procedures, including capturing metadata and employing content hashing, is crucial to properly transform OSINT from information into admissible evidence.

Understanding Metadata

Metadata offers a detailed view of a file's attributes beyond its immediate content, including creation and modification dates, authorship, size, and location. Within OSINT investigations, metadata is essential for verifying evidence authenticity and integrity. For example, the underlying HTML and CSS code of a web page can offer clues about its origin.

Web pages undergo frequent changes, and internet content can swiftly morph or disappear, sometimes within seconds. To preserve information as evidence for potential presentation in court, investigators must capture both a screenshot of the pertinent page and its metadata, ensuring the data remains intact from the moment of collection. Metadata, especially from online sources like social media, blogs, and websites, grants critical insights:

  • Timestamps indicate when content was created or modified, aiding in mapping out an investigation's timeline.
  • Authorship data identifies the creators of content, associating them with the evidence.
  • Location data reveals specific geolocations from posts or images, possibly connecting a person to an event or location.

When capturing evidence, it's advisable to use PDF for visuals, HTML for source code, and PNG for pictures. Though browser extensions can facilitate capturing content, some lack precision. A case in point is R. vs. Hamdan, a Canadian terrorism case, where inadequate use of a browser extension resulted in the case's dismissal due to overlooked metadata.

For robust evidence, consider forensic-grade archiving tools tailored for legally compliant OSINT, like Hunchly. These tools prioritize data integrity, providing extensive archives and a traceable audit trail.

Beyond website content, metadata is pivotal for image and video analysis. Digital photos inherently carry metadata, such as device details and GPS coordinates. Despite some platforms stripping this data, original images typically retain it. Tools like Jeffrey's Image Metadata Viewer aid in metadata assessment.

Understanding Hashing

Hashing is also essential in confirming the integrity of digital evidence. It turns data, whether image or document, into a unique sequence called a hash value. Any minor alteration—be it resizing, color adjustment, or reformatting—will produce a radically different hash value.

In court, it's crucial to show that digital evidence hasn't been tampered with since its acquisition, so the hash value is key. By comparing a current hash to the original, investigators can confirm a file's consistency. Matching hashes confirm a file is untouched, offering assurance against tampering.

For thorough intelligence reporting, investigators should include hash values for all digital evidence. This practice reinforces the evidence's authenticity and chain of custody during legal scrutiny.

Ensuring Admissibility in Court

Metadata and hashing stand at the forefront of OSINT investigations, acting as vital digital markers. Here's how their combined strengths backstop actual evidence:

  • Authenticity: While metadata offers a backdrop—illustrating the evidence's origins and underscoring its genuineness—hashing reinforces the evidence's unaltered status.
  • Acceptance: Courts across the globe have adopted metadata and hash data as an accepted standard of proof.
  • History: Metadata traces the evidence's digital journey, tracking its inception and subsequent modifications, and pinpointing potential breaches in integrity.
  • Forensic Precision: Metadata provides a contextual timeline underscoring the relevance of evidence, while hashing ensures that evidence remains free from intentional alterations.

Automating Evidence Collection for OSINT

To withstand courtroom scrutiny, the OSINT collection process must adhere to the gold standard of evidence gathering. Regardless of whether OSINT is gathered manually or via automation, metadata and hashing are a must-have. When pivoting to automated methods, investigators have a responsibility to employ tools that champion robust data capture to safeguard the credibility, authenticity, and integrity of their conclusions.

At Skopenow, we understand the importance of staying up-to-date on the latest developments, trends, and techniques in OSINT. Our solutions automatically capture open-source information effectively and efficiently, and in a forensically sound way to generate court-ready reports. The collection process Skopenow conducts follows a well-defined and repeatable methodology that replicates the process followed by intelligence analysts and forensic experts, providing metadata and hash data that ensures it will stand up in court. Start unlocking the power of open-source intelligence with a free trial today: www.skopenow.com/try.