By Page Vault Staff and Alex Schwiebert
There are a variety of screen capture tools available to the general public. From the “print screen” button on many computer keyboards to plugins available for installation in your local browser, like Google Chrome or Microsoft Internet Explorer, it isn’t hard to find a tool that will allow you to capture what you see online.
However, the majority of basic local browsers have one fundamental flaw – they are not designed for the legal industry. “Local” describes where the screen capture tool is installed and runs on the user’s computer. Because the tool is local, allegations of tampering or manipulation hold more weight and challenges from opposing counsel could cause serious problems for admitting the web evidence.
To better understand the problem, it’s necessary to understand the basics of how the web works.
When you type a web address into your local browser (e.g. Chrome, Internet Explorer), the browser sends out a request to the website’s server to retrieve the content, but the local browser doesn’t know what content should come back from the website. And, modifying the content that appears on your local browser has never been easier. One can simply tweak the webpage’s HTML to alter what is displayed in the browser before making the screen capture. This “hack” doesn’t actually change what is on the server (what other visitors to the website see), but it does modify what appears on the user’s local browser, and it would modify what a local plugin captures or what your computer’s local/built-in print screen tool captures.
Think tweaking the HTML sounds too technical? Or, that secure (HTTPS) sites are immune (HTTPS means that all communications between the browser and the website are encrypted)? Think again. Even secure webpages served over HTTPS are susceptible to modification. This is easily done with picture editing software like Adobe Photoshop or built-in browser debuggers like Chrome’s Developer Tools.
There is also user-friendly software available that allows people to edit the appearance of webpages without modifying the browser at all. For example, Fiddler is a web traffic analysis tool that logs web traffic between a user’s computer and the internet. Intended for security testing, Fiddler states that it can be used to “decrypt HTTPS traffic and display and modify requests using a man-in-the-middle decryption technique.” Because this software exists between the web server and the browser, it has the ability to alter content before reaching the browser.
Consequently, if you are using a basic local browser and want to be malicious, you can. It’s very easy to modify what a screen capture looks like and there’s no way to verify whether or not it was altered.
Local Solutions are Not a Trusted Third-Party for Web Evidence Collection
While most legal professionals are ethical and would never doctor their evidence, the utility of basic local web capture tools is diminished by their inherent insecurity when it comes to their capacity to support admissibility in court.
Increasing admissibility requirements means that authenticating web content generally requires witness testimony or an affidavit attesting to the validity and methodology of the web capture. It is not recommended that a legal professional capture web content using a basic local browser for their own case and then provide an affidavit. It is better to use a trusted third-party, such as a web content collection expert, that specializes in solutions for the legal industry. While local screen capture tools are not completely without utility, their utility should be limited to non-legal use.
Because local screen capture tools are inherently insecure, a different methodology is recommended to support web captures in court. One solution to the local screen capture tool is specialized remote browser technology. A remote browser runs on a computer that is unaffiliated with the user and captures the content on a virtual machine so the user’s computer is safely removed – thereby rendering it a secure and defensible option for legal professionals.