PRECEPT: A Framework for Ethical Digital Forensics Investigations.




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Cyber-enabled crimes are on the increase, and law enforcement has had to expand many of their detecting activities into the digital domain. As such, the field of digital forensics has become far more sophisticated over the years and is now able to uncover even more evidence that can be used to support prosecution of cyber criminals in a court of law. Governments, too, have embraced the ability to track suspicious individuals in the online world. Forensics investigators are driven to gather data exhaustively, being under pressure to provide law enforcement with sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Yet, there are concerns about the ethics and justice of untrammeled investigations on a number of levels. On an organizational level, unconstrained investigations could interfere with, and damage, the organization’s right to control the disclosure of their intellectual capital. On an individual level, those being investigated could easily have their legal privacy rights violated by forensics investigations. On a societal level, there might be a sense of injustice at the perceived inequality of current practice in this domain.

This paper argues the need for a practical, ethically-grounded approach to digital forensic investigations, one that acknowledges and respects the privacy rights of individuals and the intellectual capital disclosure rights of organisations, as well as acknowledging the needs of law enforcement. We derive a set of ethical guidelines, then map these onto a forensics investigation framework. We subjected the framework to expert review in two stages, refining the framework after each stage. We conclude by proposing the refined ethically-grounded digital forensics investigation framework. Our treatise is primarily UK based, but the concepts presented here have international relevance and applicability. In this paper, the lens of justice theory is used to explore the tension that exists between the needs of digital forensic investigations into cybercrimes on the one hand, and, on the other, individuals’ rights to privacy and organizations’ rights to control intellectual capital disclosure. The investigation revealed a potential inequality between the practices of digital forensics investigators and the rights of other stakeholders. That being so, the need for a more ethically-informed approach to digital forensics investigations, as a remedy, is highlighted, and a framework proposed to provide this.

Our proposed ethically-informed framework for guiding digital forensics investigations suggest a way of re-establishing the equality of the stakeholders in this arena, and ensuring that the potential for a sense of injustice is reduced. Justice theory is used to highlight the difficulties in squaring the circle between the rights and expectations of all stakeholders in the digital forensics arena. The outcome is the forensics investigation guideline, PRECEpt: Privacy-Respecting EthiCal framEwork, which provides the basis for a re-aligning of the balance between the requirements and expectations of digital forensic investigators on the one hand, and individual and organizational expectations and rights, on the other.


The file attached to this record is the author's final peer reviewed version. The Publisher's final version can be found by following the DOI link.


Forensics Investigations, Ethics, Privacy, Intellectual Capital.


Ferguson, I., Renaud, K., Wilford, S., Irons, A., (2019) PRECEPT: A Framework for Ethical Digital Forensics. Investigations. Journal of Intellectual Capital, 20(7),


Research Institute

Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility (CCSR)