Saturday, July 08, 2017

What's happening with Contemporaneous Notes

Contemporaneous note (CN) taking is an essential process and procedure. The title is often used as a widely applied statement to include other associated processes and procedures, such as Simultaneous Notes (SN), etc.; as some of you know CN, SN, IN and VN are covered in my training courses for e-Discovery, (forensic) examination and evidence E3.  

I have taken the opportunity to bring on board Robert Merriott, Founder of Forensic Notes, to provide an overview of some of the methods and tools out there for preparing and producing Contemporaneous Notes. From Robert's well informed discussion (below) this clearly is a subject where strong opinions are held and a subject which we will return in future discussions.

Robert Merriott
Digital Forensic Examination Notes

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide a singular and definitive answer to the question of what ‘examination notes’ should look like.   In fact, every country or region will have its own accepted practices developed to satisfy the laws of the land.   Instead, this article is presented to discuss the many facets of this important subject and to help you find a solution that will best meet your needs.
A recent discussion regarding Contemporaneous Notes on Forensic Focus showed that there are differing views on how strict guidelines should be in relation to examination notes.  This difference of opinion reveals how much the process of conducting digital forensic examinations can vary from one office to the next.

Importance of Documentation

The importance of documenting your examinations can not be understated.  Although you may never need to defend your case in court, you should complete every case as if you would be testifying as an expert in Supreme Court.
Recently, experts and influential leaders in Digital Forensics provided quotes on the Importance of Documentation.
As Greg stated…
“Contemporaneous Notes are unavoidable, thus inescapable, when it comes to examining evidence and are akin to the standard of Ethics.
They hold the examiner to their own account of conduct when no one else is around to witness what is happening.”

Examination Notes – Current Solutions

Investigators dealing with digital evidence will document their examinations in one of several ways:
-          Traditional paper notebook and pen
-          Word processors such as MS Word or OneNote
-          Purpose built electronic note-taking system
-          Scrap pieces of paper
-          Do not document!

Paper Notebook and Pen

The classic way of writing contemporaneous notes. 
This form of documentation has been relied upon in law enforcement and scientific labs for decades and has continued to standup to the scrutiny of the courts when properly completed.

Although widely accepted in courts, writing your notes in a paper notebook can be slow and result in notes that are illegible and incomplete.  For many young examiners that can quickly type out long messages on a virtual mobile keyboard, the idea of handwriting notes seems like a step back in productivity.
Attempts to correct spelling and grammatic mistakes only further complicate the process of writing and disclosing notes.

MS Word or OneNote

Electronic documentation is becoming more common even in traditional settings like law enforcement were only paper notebooks and pens were previously trusted.
Electronic documentation offers many advantages including the ability to edit and modify the content of the notes as required.
Being able to edit the content of an electronic note allows the examiner to correct any spelling, grammatical errors or omissions. As a result, some examiners feel electronic documentation provides a more professional form of their notes as they are able to correct these issues prior to providing them to colleagues or the courts.
But if notes can be changed at a later date with no previous history of the contents originally entered, can they really be considered contemporaneous?
And does this open up Pandora’s Box for defense lawyer questioning? 
If you admit you modified some of your notes for “grammar” and “typos”, will defense begin to argue you changed other aspects of your notes as well?  And what if you did change something else for reason beyond simple grammar or typos, how will you explain that change in court?
Criminal courts would never allow a law enforcement officer to wite-out® portions of his notes in a paper notebook and then overwrite that information with new information. So why should the courts trust electronic notes to be a true representation of your thoughts at the time stated if they can be edited without including the previous entries?
Although many Digital Forensic Examiners are using MS Word and OneNote successfully in courts throughout North America and Europe, we as examiners know that the majority of courts have failed to keep up with the complexities of digital data and how easily files can be manipulated.
Of course, there are ways to make electronic notes immutable with the use of Digital Signatures and digital timestamps, but few organizations are properly setup to implement this solution.
Will you be able to defend the authenticity of your MS Word or OneNote examination notes in court if questioned?

Electronic Note-Taking Application

Electronic Note-Taking applications offer the best of both worlds if designed and used properly.  But remember, not all applications are created equal.
When deciding on what electronic note-taking application you want to use, you will have to consider your specific needs and requirements not only now, but in the future when your cases finally go to trial.
-          Can you easily print notes in sequential order for court?
-          Can you edit existing notes while retaining the original note for Full Disclosure?
-          Can you arrange your notes in a logical manner during the investigation to keep your information organized?
-          Can you search through your notes to find answers quickly?
-          Is your information securely saved and encrypted?
-          Do Audit Logs exist allowing you to clearly see who else accessed a particular note or notebook?
-          Is the application able to timestamp individual notes from a trusted and independent Timestamping Authority (TSA)?
-          Will the courts be able to authenticate your notes if required without calling in another expert?
-          Can you access your notes on multiple devices, including mobile, so that you can take notes outside of your office such as during live analysis at the scene or meetings with other investigators?
-          If you include screen captures and images in your notes, will you be able to print the image in a high-quality format at a later date if it becomes a key piece of evidence?
-          Are the owners of the application trusted members of the digital forensic community?
When choosing an Electronic Note-Taking Application, you should select an application that works the way you work instead of being forced to work within the constraints of the application they provide.

Scrap Pieces of Paper

Although it’s common to use scrap pieces of paper to quickly jot down information, they should not be used as a place to write notes during an examination unless other options discussed above are not available.
If scrap pieces of paper are used to document important information, this should be transcribed into your proper notes as soon as possible. Often, if done in a reasonable time frame, these transcribed notes will be considered contemporaneously written.

Do Not Document Examination

Some examiners do not see a need to document their examinations. This is often as result of poor training, inexperience or laziness. If your examination involves criminal or civil litigation, then it’s imperative that you conduct your examinations in a professional manner.   Poorly documented investigations can lead to bad caselaw that affects us all.

Should Standards Exist for Examination Notes?

Preston Coleman provides a valid and well thought out response to the idea of standards for examination notes.
As Preston points out, if standards were to be created for examination notes, then they should be general in nature to allow for the flexibility needed within most examinations.  At a minimum, the following “universal elements should be observed”
-          Contemporaneous Notes
Document actions and results sequentially as they occur
-          Timestamp Notes
Include Date & Time with every note made
-          Immutability
Notes should be fixed and non-editable upon completion of the examination
-          Available
Provide to others, including the courts, if required
Depending on your particular circumstances and the types of files that you are investigating, you may decide on more stringent requirements for your own note taking.

Odds n’ Ends

Now let’s discuss a few more questions regarding examination notes…

Simultaneous Notes

As discussed within the “Forensic Chip Off – Notes in Progress” post, Greg asked the question “how would you keep contemporaneous notes (CN) simultaneously whilst removing a chip?”
If Simultaneous Notes (SN) were required during a technical hands-on examination, then a video of the examination (as shown in the blog post) could be used to allow the examiner to concentrate on the task at hand while still properly documenting the actions being taken. Upon completion, the video file could be hashed with the resulting hash being noted within your Contemporaneous Notes.
A purpose-built forensic Electronic Note-Taking application would allow you to attach the original video to the note and automatically Hash and Timestamp the video in only a couple steps.

Destroy Notes After an Examination Is Complete?

In some American states, it is apparently common practice to destroy both paper and electronic notes once a final examination report has been written.
If the destruction of examination notes is currently allowed where you work, you should ask yourself:
-          What happens if the accuracy or credibility of the report is questioned?
-          What reasoning will you provide if questioned on why you felt it was necessary to destroy your notes?
o   The opposing party may ask “What were you trying to hide in those notes that it was so important that you destroy them prior to court?”

Restrictive Warrants

In many regions, warrants authorizing forensic examinations are becoming restrictive with respect to the type of data that can be analyzed and included in forensic reports.  In practice, you may observe other evidence in plain view (eg: Child abuse material) that does not fit within the restrictions of the warrant.
In this case, it is suggested that you immediately stop your current examination and re-apply for a warrant that includes the evidence you observed in plain view.
If you fail to take proper contemporaneous notes or destroy your notes upon completion of a report, would you be able to properly articulate how you came to observe the images or data that you weren’t authorized to have searched which resulted in a more comprehensive warrant being sought?
If not, you risk having all your evidence excluded from the trial.
Many investigators fail to recognize that obtaining a new warrant is easy in comparison to defending the merits of the new warrant at trial. Are you willing to lose all that hard work due to a lack of proper documentation?


The digital forensic community needs a “Best Practice” guideline in creating contemporaneous notes during an examination. Without a clear guideline, Digital Forensic Examiners are left to rely on potentially false or misleading information from fellow members who do not fully recognize the need or value in creating proper notes during an examination.
At a minimum, all professional Digital Forensic Examiners should use the following list as the current “Best Practice” guideline:
-          Contemporaneous Notes
-          Timestamp Notes (Date & Time)
-          Immutability
-          Available
By continuing to discuss this important subject, we as a community can further improve “Best Practice” guidelines that will help ensure existing and new examiners take the necessary steps during digital forensic examinations.
After evaluating the “Best Practice” guidelines, you can make an informed decision on what is the best solution for recording Examination Notes given your particular circumstances and needs.
Will you stick with the classic pen and paper, utilize a word processing application such as MS Word or OneNote or go with a more forensic solution such as a purpose-built electronic note-taking system like Forensic Notes?
About Author:
Robert Merriott founded TwiceSafe Software Solutions Inc. (Forensic Notes) after realizing the need for a digital note-taking application that would meet the high standards of digital forensic evidence in the courts. Robert has a Degree in Computer Information Systems and obtained both Microsoft MVP and ASPInsider status during the infancy of ASP.Net. He now works as a Digital Forensic Examiner.
DISCLAIMER: This article is not meant to provide legal advice or information. Legal statements made are only provided as guidance for the reader to seek professional legal advice within their jurisdiction. No information contained within this article should be acted upon without discussing the merits of such information with a legal professional. The author of this article is NOT A LAWYER and takes no legal responsibility for the information presented. In addition, the information provided is based on personal beliefs and ideas and does not represent his employer.


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