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PRECEPT: a framework for ethical digital forensics investigations

R.I. Ferguson (Division of Cyber Security, Abertay University, Dundee, UK)
Karen Renaud (Division of Cyber Security, Abertay University, Dundee, UK) (Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa) (University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)
Sara Wilford (Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University, Leicester, England)
Alastair Irons (University of Sunderland, Sunderland, UK)

Journal of Intellectual Capital

ISSN: 1469-1930

Article publication date: 13 March 2020

Issue publication date: 28 May 2020



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 organizations, as well as acknowledging the needs of law enforcement. The paper derives a set of ethical guidelines, and then maps these onto a forensics investigation framework. The framework to expert review in two stages is subjected, refining the framework after each stage. The paper concludes by proposing the refined ethically grounded digital forensics investigation framework. The 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.

Research limitations/implications

The proposed ethically informed framework for guiding digital forensics investigations suggests 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 authors acknowledge the contribution of the digital forensics investigators who evaluated their framework and provided helpful comments.


Ferguson, R.I., Renaud, K., Wilford, S. and Irons, A. (2020), "PRECEPT: a framework for ethical digital forensics investigations", Journal of Intellectual Capital, Vol. 21 No. 2, pp. 257-290.



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