CSI smartphone

So much information leaks off the handset and onto third-party hardware that it’s almost impossible to lock down potentially incriminating data.

CSI smartphone

“If we’re talking smartphones, most would be synced to a central server,” said Robert Winter, chief engineer at Kroll Ontrack. “If you have deleted data on your mobile device, there should be a copy of a file or message on your sync server, whether that’s from your IT department if you’re a BlackBerry user, or you’re syncing an iPhone through iTunes, which should hold a backup of the actual data.”

Messages are routinely used as evidence that a suspect has organised
a drugs drop or been involved in a conspiracy. Ripley’s company has also been involved in cases where either authorities or employers wanted to know when someone had been making VoIP calls.

We were contacted by police who couldn’t get a video to work on a handset – it turned out to be a bloke beheading someone in his garage

“We see VoIP apps as well, such as Skype,” he said. “Because it’s going over your data connection it isn’t shown on phone bills as a voicecall – it’s a bunch of data – so the only place that it’s ever going to be recorded is on the device itself.”

There are even data booby-traps hidden in the most innocuous functions of a handset, making it even harder to delete them because they aren’t stored in obvious folders.

“With an iPhone, when you rotate it, it flips the image around, and what the device is doing is effectively taking a screenshot of what’s on the screen at the moment you rotate the device,” said Ridley. “Even if you’re careful and you think you have deleted things, if you rotate that device there’s a picture on that phone somewhere. If you’re looking at your email messages and you rotate the phone, there’s a snapshot of that message.”

Caught on camera

While the police may rummage through messages to find evidence of a crime, the cameras on smartphones have led to people incriminating themselves. Location data and time-stamps are included in the Exif data accompanying a digital photo, providing evidence that a picture on a handset was taken at an exact time and location. It could be enough to prove a suspect was at the scene of a crime, or destroy an alibi.

“People take snaps on a phone and it could be the inside of a house, or a picture of a car, but because there’s all this data behind it, it can be used to say ‘you have been here’,” said Simon Steggles, director of forensics at Disklabs. “You have a lot of people who incriminate themselves by taking photographs of where they’ve buried drugs. The geotagging in the photo files taken on phones can give you a very specific geographical location, and if you go there and have an image it’s easier to find where you’ve stashed the drugs.”

You have a lot of people who incriminate themselves by taking photographs of where they’ve buried drugs

Smartphones have revealed horrific scenes with criminals, too, including sex offenders choosing to video themselves during an assault. “It isn’t just happy slapping, people video all sorts,” said Steggles. “We were contacted by police who couldn’t get a video to work on a handset – it turned out to be a bloke beheading someone in his garage.”

And it isn’t only the authorities that might have access to your phone’s dirty secrets. Forensics companies have to check that you’re the rightful owner of any handset that you want investigated, but they can then perform almost any search, whether it’s on an employee or a partner.

“We also get a lot of couples – and often it’s him or her thinking the other one is sleeping around – and they want to see the person’s deleted texts,” said Steggles. “The law says we can’t look unless they own the phone – we’ve been offered lots of money, but we don’t. A lot of PI companies out there might – look at the News of the World scandal.

“There was a guy who brought his wife’s phone down, and because he’d paid for the contract and handset and had proof, we were allowed to look. When he came back we had to tell him that his wife had been videoing herself being shagged by lots of different blokes and she’d stored it all on her phone.”

In short, if you want to keep a secret, switch off your smartphone.

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