Published on 13 July, 2015 on sarai
This is the second research note from Pallavi Paul, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
In truth the subtle web of thought
Is like the weaver’s fabric wrought:
One treadle moves a thousand lines,
Swift darts the shuttle to and fro,
Unseen the threads together flow,
A thousand knots one stroke combines.
– Goethe, Faust
Emplotted within crucial challenges posed by the digital, the entry of electronically coded words, images, text and events in courts of law has been one of the most significant events of this century. The Information Technology Act (2000) defines electronic records as “data, recorded or generated , image or sound stored, received or sent in an electronic form or micro film or computer generated micro fiche” . Further, Digital Forensics is the process by which these sources are investigated and reinterpreted as ‘evidence’. This project, by which a series of mathematical algorithms is given a decisive charge in the processes of law and justice, rests on a curious philosophical conundrum. The sources of electronic data can be wide ranging to include computers, cameras, network servers, music devices, DVDs, VCDs, computer hardware, routers, cell phones, websites, social media accounts, hard drives etcetera. What contributes to this ever burgeoning list is the agility of the digital form. Unlike the incompatibility of say, celluloid strips with gramophones, contemporary units of bit and bytes can inhabit a computer screen, an Ipod and a DVD with equal ease. In other words, technologically, the digital signal thrives on resemblance or a specific form of analogousness. The field of forensics on the other hand, is structured by the notion of ‘‘individualization’’. In his discussion on New Media and the Forensic Imagination, Mathew Kirschenbaum notes, “…the forensic principle of individualization insists upon the uniqueness of all physical objects. The core tenets of individualization construct a form of hard materiality.” He goes on to note that in accordance with this no two things can ever occur, be constructed or even break in the exact same way . To understand the implications of this material logic for digitally encoded images we must turn to Kenneth Thibodeau’s tripartite model for defining digital objects . Thibodeau notes that digital objects are constituted of the ‘physical’ dimension i.e. the device and form in which it exists for instance a magnetic tape or a camcorder. They also exist as ‘logical’ objects i.e. via the systems of code they deploy e g. software or the manner in which data files are organised and finally digital objects exist as conceptual objects i.e. in its encounter with the lived world and its implications on everyday life e g. As a photograph or a piece of music. By making the conceptual dimension an integral part of the digital object, Thibodeau is able to extricate the ‘information object’ from the appearance of digital homogeneity. Further, if we are to preserve a digital object it is important to retrieve all its physical, logical and conceptual dimensions . The question of not only the hardware, software but also the conditions under which the data was produced and circulated becomes the very basis on which the digitality of an object can be established and verified. The role of digital forensics then becomes one of negotiating the ever compounding realms of the physical, logical and conceptual. The recovery of the digital interface of an event, can be thought of as recovering the uniqueness of its trace on hardware and software alike…
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Pallavi Paul for the SARAI PROGRAMME