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Chain of Custody: Importance, Steps, Purpose and Examples

11th Jun, 2024
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    Chain of Custody: Importance, Steps, Purpose and Examples

    In a digital era brimmed with interconnected devices, cybercrimes and security breach incidents have become ever so common, threatening the privacy and security of the users. The recent introduction of amenities such as ubiquitous internet access, the internet of things (IoT), and cloud computing to the general masses has inspired a new cybercrime wave, which has led security experts to make considerable advancements in digital forensics in order to keep up with evolving cyber-crimes. 

    With that said, storing digital assets has become a crucial step for cyber forensics. Contrary to physical evidence, which requires a straightforward set of rules and principles for maintaining its authenticity, storing digital evidence introduces greater complexities. This is where the Chain of Custody comes in. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the chain of custody process, how it relates to digital forensics and cybersecurity, its purpose, and some specific examples.  

    What is the Chain of Custody Process? 

    In a legal context, the chain of custody process refers to acquiring, storing, safeguarding and transferring of an asset, whether digital or physical; More specifically, tracking and documenting each transfer of the asset as it moves from one place to another. While being a long and tedious process, chain of custody is vital as it ensures the authenticity of the acquired asset, increases transparency, and allows the personnel involved to be held accountable for the actions taken on the asset. With respect to cybersecurity, these assets can either be equipment, infrastructure, evidence, systems, and data. 

    A break in the chain or custody is unacceptable, as it refers to a period during which the control of the asset is unknown, and the actions taken on the said asset cannot be confirmed and accounted for.  

    What is Chain of Custody in Cyber Security? 

    The Chain of Custody in cyber security isn’t much different from the one in legal matters. It’s a documentation of the ownership of a digital asset, such as data, as it transfers from one person or organization to another, the exact date and time of the transfer, and the purpose of the transfer. 

    The Chain of custody standards is usually set by following the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) guidelines in an organization to address risk and improve the security of the infrastructure. To learn more about setting cybersecurity standards in your organization, you can also get the best Ethical Hacking course onlinewhich covers a wide range of such standards which are vital for maintaining a secure infrastructure. 

    Chain of Custody in Cyber Security

    Why is a Chain of Custody Important in Cyber Security? 

    The chain of custody process in cybersecurity is crucial as it confirms the integrity of the asset. Without a proper chain of custody, the digital infrastructure of the organization can be accessed unknowingly from any point by malicious people, questioning the integrity of the systems. The management of the organization should have complete documentation of the operators that handled the asset, so they can be held accountable for their actions.  

    Regarding legal matters, the chain of custody for digital evidence is vital as it preserves the evidence in an unaltered state. Collection of digital evidence after a cyber incident should be well documented as it moves till the final legal proceedings of the court, or else that key evidence might become inadmissible due to lack of sufficient chain of custody to back its authenticity.  

    What is the Order of Chaiof Custody in Cyber Security? 

    A proper chain of custody in cybersecurity should follow the steps in order. This means that data collection of the found evidence should be promptly followed by an examination, its analysis all the way till it’s admissible and presented in court. This specific order is crucial to maintain the chain of custody and to avoid any breaks that might compromise the integrity of the evidence.  

    What is the Purpose of the Chain of Custody in Cyber Security?

    For evidence to be trusted by the court, it is necessary to provide ample documentation regarding that evidence, whether it is physical or digital. In the case of cybersecurity, a malicious incident carried out on an organization’s digital infrastructure usually leaves behind digital evidence that can be used in court, provided it has strong documentation, such as a chain of custody to back its authenticity, just like any physical evidence.  

    If an organization isn’t keeping track of its assets by recording a chain of custody, it will be difficult to trace vulnerabilities and malicious attacks. There is no way of knowing if an asset or evidence is damaged or compromised in any way, which may jeopardize the proceeding case.  

    What are the Steps in the Chain of Custody in Cyber Security? 

    Preserving the asset or evidence of an organization requires the chain of custody to start from the collection of that evidence, its analysis, reporting, and till it’s presented in court. Evidence is usually altered (such as the timestamps or metadata associated) as it is transferred to different people or different organizations, so documenting its state right from the point of the collection becomes necessary. Let’s discuss each step in the chain of custody in a bit more detail:  

    Step 1. Data Collection

    After an incident, the chain of custody starts from the collection of evidence and its state. Each acquired piece of evidence is to be labeled with its source, the time of its collection, where it is stored, and who has access to it. All of this is documented to preserve the integrity of the evidence. 

    Step 2. Examination

    The examination of the captured evidence carried out by the digital forensics team is then documented precisely. This includes taking notes of the complete process, who examined it, and the evidence uncovered. 

    Step 3. Analysis

    The collected evidence is then transferred for analysis, and again, each step of the analysis is recorded. Analysts use digital forensics tools to reconstruct the background of the evidence and draw unbiased conclusions, which are documented.  

    Step 4. Reporting

    The final stage is to report the findings to the court in a professional digital forensics report, following standards set by organizations such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The report covers key aspects of the chain of custody, which include: the tools used to collect and process the evidence, the chain of custody statement, a list of the data sources, identified issues and vulnerabilities, and the next possible steps to take. All of this adds to the authenticity and viability of the evidence and makes it presentable to the court.

    Chain of Custody

    Source - GeekforGeeks

    These four brief steps are usually followed to maintain a chain of custody in cybersecurity. You can learn Cyber Security online with a pinch of the chain of custody and cybersecurity in general.

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    Chain of Custody Form in Cyber Security

    The chain of custody form is very important in digital forensics. It gives a complete record of how evidence was handled to ensure it's trustworthy when used in court. A great chain of custody digital forensics example is protecting a data breach. It tells us about the people in the study, their jobs, and any tools or ways they used to gather evidence. This paperwork is important to show that the proof has not been changed or messed up during an investigation.

    Here are the basic things to be present in the chain of custody form: 

    • Case Name/Date: Identify the case and creation time.
    • Evidence Details: Describe the digital evidence (type, serial number if applicable).
    • Custody History Table: Track each person handling the evidence with:
      • Name/Title/Organization (if applicable)
      • Date/Time of Receipt/Transfer
      • Signature
    • Sealing/Security (Optional): Note any tamper-evident seals or security measures taken.

    Chain of custody form
    Andrea Fortuna

    Examples of the Chain of Custody and Cyber Security 

    In a recent malicious attack on a company’s infrastructure, an entire team of experienced digital forensics experts and fraud examiners were employed to extract vital evidence from an infected machine and hard drive. The forensics team followed the rules and best practices of the chain of custody and were able to recover deleted files and build a comprehensive timeline of the hack. These findings allowed the lawyers to assess the case and trace the culprits.  

    This is just one of the many digital forensics cases that arise each day, and companies must employ experienced individuals to employ best practices such as recording a chain of custody of each asset of the organization.  


    Maintaining a proper chain of custody is crucial for presenting evidence in court. A minor hiccup or breakage in the chain of custody can invalidate the evidence and would most likely steer the case in the other direction. While preserving a chain of custody for a physical asset is straightforward, for a digital asset, it is much more complex and opens many more points of mistakes that can take place throughout its processing and analysis. 

    Following a cyber security breach, the organization must collect sufficient evidence to maintain a defensible trail of collected data for litigation or investigation while maintaining a strong chain of custody. If you find this article informative, be sure to check out industry-leading KnowledgeHut's Ethical Hacking course available online.  

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1What are the steps in the chain of custody in cyber security?

    The steps of chain of custody in cyber security include Data Collection, Examination, Analysis, and Reporting.  

    2What is the chain of custody in cyber security, and why is it important?

    As described by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA),  

    Chain of custody is a process used to track the movement and control of an asset through its lifecycle by documenting each person and organization who handles an asset, the date/time it was collected or transferred, and the purpose of the transfer. 

    The chain of custody is important to maintain the authenticity of the collected evidence or asset and make it admissible to court for legal proceedings. 

    3What is a chain of custody in cyber security example?

    After a cybersecurity incident, an organization requires ample evidence to present to the court for legal proceedings of the case. Such evidence is collected at the time of the incident and preserved in the exact state as it was found so it is admissible to court. This entire process of collecting and preserving the evidence as it moves from one place to another is an example of maintaining the chain of custody.  


    Sulaiman Asif


    Sulaiman Asif is an information security professional with 4+ years of experience in Ethical Hacking and a degree of Master in Information Security, he is an EC- Council CEH Certified and has also been engaged with University of Karachi and Institute of Business Management as a cyber security faculty.

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