Compelling Production of Hard Drives

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In today’s heyday of electronic discovery, production of computer-generated documents has become more commonplace than it was just a few short years ago. Most major law firms understand that letters, agreements, reports, statistical and financial data may exist electronically, and they are willing to include “documents” created with everyday software programs in their discovery requests and responses. Email has also taken over as the predominant method of business communication and has proven to be a virtual treasure-trove of discoverable information. Typically these documents end up either printed out to paper or converted into an image format compatible with litigation databases such as Summation or Concordance.

Yet there is a wealth of information stored on computers that may not be as readily apparent as your standard Word or Excel file. Computers generate or store data the average user is usually not even aware of, including:

  • tracking of printing, CD burning, and Internet activity
  • connection of removable media devices to a PC, such as USB flash drives
  • records of frequently used programs/files
  • fragments of documents that no longer exist on the computer
  • patterns that indicate files may have been intentionally deleted or otherwise destroyed

The difficulty with this kind of information lies with how to retrieve and present it in the course of litigation. To guarantee both authenticity and admissibility, a qualified computer forensic expert must be retained to collect the evidence. What’s more, the forensic expert must have access to the original computer or hard drive to make a bitstream copy prior to conducting the analysis and recovery of the data.

The difficulty in securing access to another party’s computer or hard drive lies in the numerous objections their attorneys will assert to prevent access to it. Due to the popular myth that producing “actual” or “existing” documents is sufficient to comply with discovery requirements, counsel will typically maintain that imaging the hard drive is unnecessary, unlikely to lead to the discovery of relevant evidence, unduly burdensome, will provide access to privileged or otherwise protected information, and will unfairly disrupt the business activities of their client. In turn, the seeking party is forced to file a motion to compel, and as most judges still have little experience in dealing with e-Discovery, they will need some solid reasoning as to why the other side should be forced to comply with the request.

Establish Need

The first step in getting access to the opposing party’s hard drive is to set forth why you need it and why you cannot get that information elsewhere. As mentioned above, computer evidence encompasses more than user files or documents, and only a forensic examination can reveal that additional information. Common instances that warrant a thorough forensic analysis include when a departing employee is suspected of misappropriating trade secrets or when there are significant gaps in an evidence production that indicate evidence may have been intentionally deleted.

In the case of deletion, if you can pinpoint a specific document or email you know exists (from your own production) but hasn’t been produced by opposing, you give the judge more reason to suspect foul play. Furthermore, if opposing has shown a pattern of deletion (even in other litigation) or withholding evidence, you will often have an easier time getting to the drive. Counsel should also realize that in such cases, preservation in itself can be a compelling justification to allow for a forensic image to be taken of a hard drive.

Tailor the Request

In order to overcome objections of being overly broad, the request must be sufficiently tailored to lead to the production of the evidence in question. The simplest way to do this is to not ask for every hard drive in the opposing party’s possession. The request should pinpoint specific custodians of the data that likely have the information you seek, and should further target specific machines or devices used by those individuals. A manager of a company that left for a competitor may have a home computer with important evidence, but it may be possible to get a significant amount of what you need from his or her primary working computer. By only asking for that one computer first (but reserving the right to further discovery) you are more likely to be accommodated.

Furthermore, it often takes an examination of only one machine to discover enough information that gives cause to investigate others. With a fruitful initial search, one computer can point to other related devices that may have been attached to it, and you can more easily demonstrate the value of further analysis and illustrate how examining other media will further substantiate your claims.

Other ways to limit your request include setting date restrictions for the files or user activity in question. However, keep in mind that some data cannot be filtered by date. You can also suggest keywords to be used during searches for evidence, or even describe the specific tasks to be performed on the evidence, such as examining internet history, recycle bin records, or registry entries. These details should be explicit in your protocol.

Have a Protocol

By far the most important step in getting access to your opponent’s hard drive is to spell out the protocol for acquiring and conducting the investigation of the evidence. At a minimum this should include a way to assuage concerns that privileged information may be revealed. Usually this is done by having the forensic expert provide any substantive documents to opposing first for review, then allowing them to designate which files are privileged and should be excluded from the final production. Also, many times a protective order is used to address concerns of privacy.

The protocol should also detail how chain of custody will be maintained, and how the original drive will be preserved through proper forensic imaging techniques. Your forensic expert can help you draft a protocol that both fits your needs and protects the confidentiality and privilege status of the evidence.

Presenting the Evidence

The last major hurdle in dealing with production of forensic evidence lies in how to present the information found. Many times the investigation leads not so much to specific files or documents that can be produced, but rather to evidence of computer usage during certain time frames. For example, system logs, registry entries, and other tools that show patterns of activity can reveal what a user was doing at a given time or what devices and programs were being utilized, which is not always easily printed out or viewed. The solution is to have your forensic expert prepare a written report of findings, with clear documentation of how the evidence was located and interpretation of what the activity patterns indicate.

Computer forensic data and accompanying analysis can be admitted similarly to other scientific evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, provided it can be attested to by a qualified expert and meets the other criteria set forth in Daubert (see case law, right). For this reason, examining the expert’s credentials and methodology used, along with verifying his or her ability to present oral and written testimony, is a crucial step in the process.

Costs

While it may be tempting to include an award of costs as part of your motion or in your proposed order, nothing else will cause more contention over your request. Asking for costs invites your opponent to balk even more at your motion and gives the judge more ammunition for denying your request. By being focused solely on getting access to the drive, you can avoid this confrontation and are more likely to get to the evidence. Once you have located specific substantive information from the examination, you can always follow up with a motion for costs at a later time.

Conclusion

Very rarely will both parties agree on the types and method of production, particularly when it involves electronic data. In cases were you can come to an agreement, you will certainly have an easier time with discovery, so every effort should be made to compromise whenever possible. When collaborative efforts fail, though, these suggestions should prove to be the basis of successfully gaining access to the opposing party’s media.

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