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Lee Harvey Oswald’s Laptop: Forensics and Conspiracy

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What if the Kennedy assassination had happened during the era of smartphones and laptops? And, assuming the perpetrator left a digital trail, would that evidence uncover any associated conspiracy?

Found while driving on the way to Costco in Hackensack, NJ, by Ken L., on Flickr
Found while driving on the way to Costco in Hackensack, NJ, by Ken L., on Flickr

As we approach the 50th anniversary of that awful day in Dallas, recent public opinion polls indicate that over 60 percent of Americans believe more than one person was involved with the assassination. These beliefs float on a steady stream of books and other media that scrutinize the various pieces of evidence available: recorded gunshots, photographs, bullets (both magic and regular) and the most famous home movie ever, the Zapruder film.

All manner of experts and enthusiasts have reviewed the evidence but agreement about what it means remains elusive: while 95 percent of all books on the subject depict a conspiracy, the purported conspirators are wildly varied and include Nazis, extraterrestrials and Corsican hitmen, among others. As The Atlantic noted a while back, much of this output is “popularized by a national appetite for mystery and entertainment.” Other studies have looked at the same evidence and concluded with certainty that Oswald acted alone.

If Oswald had lived in the digital age, he seems to me the sort of person who would have actively participated in chat rooms, commented on blogs and broadcasted his opinions via all kinds of social media. He probably would have left behind a device, such as a laptop, that documented his web browsing habits and his email contacts. Forensic investigators would have had a trove of information about who he knew and when he knew them. That evidence would have been critical both for the initial needs of law enforcement and for later researchers.

Ah, endlessly fascinating. Would there be emails from disgruntled government operators? Texts from organized crime figures? Photographs of other gunmen? Perhaps a series of tweets with darkly cryptic warnings? From a rational perspective, one would think that such details would go a long way to prove or disprove a conspiracy.

One thing is for sure: there would be lots of digital information to capture, examine and preserve. The question, however, remains open as to the research impact of this kind of evidence. Data from an Oswald laptop could disprove theories or throw open the door to a flood of conspiratorial prospects. Or offer some jumbled mix of both–in spite of William S. Burrough’s proclamation that “the purpose of technology is not to confuse the brain, but to serve the body, to make life easier.”

Ultimately, as with any subject, it would come down to what researchers make of the preserved body of evidence.

At this point, most of the experience with digital forensics is with the law enforcement world, although there is growing interest on the part of memory organizations to obtain this capability; see, for example, Digital Forensics and Preservation (PDF) and the BitCurator project. This is a good thing. Even though there is no Oswald laptop, there can be no doubt that digital forensic evidence will grow increasingly important for historical research.

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