Charlatans In Digital Forensics

by James Zjalic

There’s a topic that is rarely publicized in the world of digital forensics, but is well known to those within the field and stories are often traded between experts when they meet at conferences and conventions. That topic is charlatans.

In my eyes, there are 3 types of charlatan:
– The Innocent Charlatan: Those who do not have the required knowledge and/or skill, but have good intentions
– The Dark-Side Charlatan: Those that do have the required knowledge and/or skill, but are happy to place the value of money over the value of science
– The Nefarious Charlatan: A combination of the above, those who do not have the knowledge and/or skill and are only working within the field as a means to make as much money as possible.Lying businessman holding fingers crossed behind his back

The first type isn’t that difficult to find if you work within the field, but as digital forensics is an area that people are only exposed to through TV shows, it is difficult for the layman to determine who is and isn’t qualified to perform an investigation. For example, “15 years’ experience within the film industry, degree in Media Studies” may draw conclusions that this individual is more than qualified to perform forensic video authentication (detecting edits). In reality, there is nothing within their experience that would provide them with the expertise for this work. More suited would be somebody with knowledge of digital signal processing, as it is the understanding of how digital videos are captured, stored and manipulated that will aid somebody in performing an authentication examination.

Digital forensics can be a tough business, and the second type may have set out with the greatest of intent but been worn down by years of struggling to make money by providing legitimate scientific examinations through poor business skills. What started with overstating findings for an extra $200 has turned into regular practice. Science should be the number one priority for all forensic practitioners, as the famous saying goes “So much depends on reputation, guard it with your life”. Once word gets around of their switch to the dark-side, they will be outcast from the scientific community and fall further and further behind the cutting edge. Their investigations may hold up for a while, until they come up against an opposing expert who acts with the highest regard for science and ethics, at which point they will get destroyed.

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The worst kind in my eyes, are those that know fully well they do not have the skill, and are only working within the field in an attempt to get rich. This may be one of the highest paid fields that an individual can enter without having to prove that they are qualified. Imagine if doctors, lawyers and airplane pilots didn’t have some form of governing body. The world would be a dangerous place, and part of the problem for us is that digital forensic does not have a governing body. Although there are organizations that can be joined to increase your standing with the forensic community, and standards which can be awarded to laboratories [1-3], none of these are required. There is nothing to stop somebody with zero experience from creating a company, marketing themselves and taking on digital forensic work for the legal and private sectors.


But should we be concerned? It’s the clients that have to deal with them, not us, and in fact on many occasions they can make people operating ethically and within the realm of science look great. But they also have a negative effect, namely:

  • Undercutting ethical forensic examiners on price as they don’t have overheads of the latest software, attending conferences, gaining certifications and education.
  • Creating unrealistic expectations for everybody else. If a charlatan is offering facial mapping which can provide a 100% match, it’s very hard for somebody to compete who only offers results of “Person A has features consistent with person B”
  • Giving digital forensics a bad name. There are many individuals that would happily take money before analyzing the data at hand to determine its potential, and/or happily perform a substandard examination.

What is the solution?

In an alternate reality I would propose a blacklist onto which a governing body of respected experts adds names of individuals who are known charlatans, and bars them from working within the field. But there is long way to go before that happens. For one, we’d actually need a governing body to begin with.

In my opinion the best solution to the problem is to continue doing what we are doing, and perform work of the highest scientific integrity with an emphasis on ethics. The type of clients that would use a charlatan are usually the type that are looking to pay a fee to get the answer they want, not the answer the science is giving. Personally, these are not clients I would like to work with and when the occasion does arise, I explain bluntly that I cannot cheat science. I couldn’t live comfortably, and knowing that at any moment I could be called to testify based on my overstated analysis and get annihilated by the opposing expert. An analogy I like is to think of charlatans as the restaurant that operates for a few years before shutting down in a tourist centred city such as London, where they can serve poor food at outrageous prices and get away with it because there is always somebody else coming through the door, and they will never see the same diners twice. The ethical, science based experts are the restaurants in the rural countryside, who serve high quality food at the price it should be, and have a constant stream of repeat customers as there are no tourists to fleece. It’s those rural restaurants that will last the distance through thick and thin.

So, if you are reading this article and think you might be that “here today, gone tomorrow” London restaurant, it’s not too late to step into the light and get the education, training and ethics you require.


[1] International Standards Organisation, “ISO/IEC 17025.” 2005.
[2] International Standards Organisation, “ISO 9001.” 2008.
[3] International Standards Organisation, “ISO/IEC 27037.” 2012.

About The Author

James Zjalic is a Media Forensics Analyst and partner at Verden Forensics in the UK. Education includes a 1st Class Bachelors Degree in Audio Engineering and an expected Masters Degree in Media Forensics from the National Centre for Media Forensics in Denver, Colorado. Research includes work on image authentication for The Pentagon’s Defense & Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and peer-reviewed publications on subjects including forensic acoustics and audio authentication.

2 thoughts on “Charlatans In Digital Forensics”

  1. Digital Forensics isn’t a field that anybody – ethical or otherwise – gets into to get really rich. The charlatan is a greater issue in cyber security where the rewards are so much more substantial and demand is higher for anybody who even appears to have the requisite skills.

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