Amateur digital archival forensics

Two interesting projects in archival digital forensics — that is, rescuing digital content on legacy media and in legacy formats — recently came to my attention. Both involved significant contributions from amateurs and/or volunteers, which is interesting.

Firstly, according to a press release from Carnegie Mellon, some digital art by Andy Warhol circa 1985 has been rescued from Amiga floppy disks in the Warhol archives.

While the press release leads with “A multi-institutional team of new-media artists, computer experts, and museum professionals”, it actually sounds like most of the digital recovery work was done by a student group at CMU, the “CMU Computer Club.” 

I haven’t read the detailed report they link to, but I’d imagine there were challenges both in accessing the physical media and in converting the files to something usable by modern software. 

Some of the art looks pretty cool, go check it out at the link.

Secondly, from a Wired Magazine article: The Hackers Who Recovered NASA’s Lost Lunar Photos

So, some photos from early lunar orbiters were originally stored on digital tape; they were printed out for use at the time, and the digital tapes put on a shelf somewhere.

After the low-fi printing, the tapes were shoved into boxes and forgotten.

They changed hands several times over the years, almost getting tossed out before landing in storage in Moorpark, California. Several abortive attempts were made to recover data from the tapes, which were well kept, but it wasn’t until 2005 that NASA engineer Keith Cowing and space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo were able to bring the materials and the technical know how together.

When they learned through a Usenet group that former NASA employee Nancy Evans might have both the tapes and the super-rare Ampex FR-900 drives needed to read them, they jumped into action. They drove to Los Angeles, where the refrigerator-sized drives were being stored in a backyard shed surrounded by chickens. At the same time, they retrieved the tapes from a storage unit in nearby Moorpark, and things gradually began to take shape. Funding the project out of pocket at first, they were consumed with figuring out how to release the images trapped in the tapes.

With the original digital files and modern technology, they can actually get information and resolution out of them that were never originally obtained in the printouts. Pretty neat.

Sounds like eventually this turned into an actual official funded NASA project, but it began as some interested people doing it in their own time.

  •  Certainly archivists have been talking about digital preservation and forensics for some time.  I think it’s going to start increasingly becoming an issue in popular awareness, as time proceeds, the quantity of interesting cultural history trapped on legacy media/formats grows. 
  • It may just be anecdotal, but it seems like a lot of succesful digital archival forensics are being done by amateurs/volunteers.  Does the actual library/archives/museum sector lack capacity for what’s needed? If so, I would not assume this lack of capacity is professionals ‘not keeping up’, rather it points to a lack of funding or priorities from cultural sector institutions. Will we see this change?
  • On the other hand, the fact that amateurs voluntarily get involved in recovering legacy digital cultural history means that people really do care about this stuff. Which maybe is encouraging for cultural institutions getting funding for it? I realize it’s not as simple as that, but it’s something.
  • The techniques and tools that digital archivists use to recover legacy digital content have an awful lot of overlap with those law enforcement uses for digital forensics to recover digital evidence.  This is actually part of my interest in it, in that I think it’s crucial for civil society to understand law enforcement capabilities and practices there, so we as a society can make democratic decisions about what is appropriate, and so individuals can protect their private personal affects (whether from criminals or unjust law enforcement). If law enforcement are the only ones who understand this stuff, we all just need to take their word for it on whatever they tell us, rather than engaging in multi-stakeholder informed dialog.  Library/archive/museum workers who specialize in recovering legacy digital media are one source of civil society expertise in digital forensics.
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