Can Your Investigation Interpret Emoji?


Emojis’ technical basics, how they’re used, and the way the law addresses them are covered, along with what digital forensic examiners can do when they encounter emoji during an investigation.


Emoji are everywhere — including in your evidence. Used across private-messaging apps and email, social media, and even in passwords and account names, emoji are pictographic representations of objects, moods, and words. They’re a convenient shortcut for users who want to convey tone and emotion in digital communication without using a lot of words.

Preston Farley, a Special Investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), believes “emoji will emerge as a prominent form of communication sooner rather than later,” and that there are potential ramifications for digital forensics examiners and investigators when it comes to analyzing and testifying about emoji.

Presenting at the Techno Security and Digital Investigations conference in Myrtle Beach in June 2019, Farley explained that emoji present two distinct challenges.

First, like all language, emoji can complicate communication. The recipient of a text with an emoji may not interpret it the way the sender intended. If that can happen between two people, then it can happen between the investigators, attorneys, judges, and jurors responsible for determining guilt or innocence in a trial.

Second, emoji in digital evidence can present additional, more technical complications for forensic examiners. Forensic tools don’t always render the emoji in question, or depending on the acquisition device, may not render them in the way the sender viewed them when choosing them.

At that point, Farley said, interpretation can end up being a matter of one witness’ word against another’s. Currently no legal documentation exists to help judges and juries interpret emoji. Some judges may strike emoji evidence entirely, refusing to allow it to be considered alongside other communication. And no scientific standards exist for the collection or analysis of emoji relative to other forms of digital communication.


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