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Police Increasingly Looking To Smartphones For Evidence 225

Posted by Soulskill
from the big-brother-fits-in-your-pocket dept.
Barence writes "Your smartphone could place you at the scene of a crime, destroy an alibi or maybe even provide one – which is why one of the first things police now do at the scene of a crime is take away a suspect's cellphone. This look into smartphone forensics reveals how even wiping incriminating data from iPhones isn't enough to get criminals off the hook. 'If you're looking at your email messages and you rotate the phone, there's a snapshot of that message,' said Phil Ridley, a mobile phone analyst with CCL-Forensics. And what people leave on their phones is horrific. '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,' claimed another forensics expert."
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Police Increasingly Looking To Smartphones For Evidence

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  • by nurb432 (527695) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @11:39AM (#36786200) Homepage Journal

    it shows your phone was at the scene, it doesn't prove YOU were.

    • in communist belgium, guilty is what you are until proven otherwise ...
      • by Trepidity (597)

        I don't think that's a Belgium-specific thing, unfortunately; in the U.S. as well, if cell phone records place your cell-phone at the scene of the crime, then you face an uphill battle trying to argue that you weren't there.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          You can ask about 15 teenagers arrested for criminal trespass at a local park about this where I live. A couple months ago, the city DA got location records from the cell providers, found location logs of people's cells who were at a park after dusk, then did a mass arrest sweep.

          Just the fact their phones were in the park after dusk was good enough for a jury to convict and give them 3-6 months in jail each.

          • by pete6677 (681676)

            Well it is in fact very unlikely the phones walked themselves into the park after hours and then walked out of the park all on their own. Unless the phones had all been reported stolen or something, I think its a pretty reasonable explanation that the phone records prove that trespassing took place.

          • by Gordonjcp (186804)

            Wait, what? You can be jailed for six months for going to the park in the US?

            Makes me even more glad I live in the UK.

            • Wait, what? You can be jailed for six months for going to the park in the US?
              Makes me even more glad I live in the UK.


              As always, there is probably far more to the backstory than what appears here, or in any news story. Maybe Mr AC will grace us with the details.
          • by Entropius (188861) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @02:52PM (#36787696)

            The problem here isn't that the police used electronic forensics in a criminal investigation; the problem is that the "crime" in question shouldn't have been illegal in the first place.

            I, and probably you, have no problems with the police using such techniques to investigate real crimes, like robbery, theft, arson, etc. There's nothing wrong with this investigation technique -- the problem is that we are persecuting people for being in a public space after dark, which is absolutely ridiculous.

    • Ah but if the phone is taken from the suspect, it would seem likely. Smartphones are fairly expensive in terms of both money and investment in a phone contract, so people tend to not leave them laying around I would think.
      • by Dan667 (564390)
        you can just use the Alberto Gonzales defense. "It is my phone, but I don't know why it was there". and for any other questions "I don't remember"
        • congratulations America, television has finally turned your collective brains into 300 million bowls of porridge.

          • congratulations America, television has finally turned your collective brains into 300 million bowls of porridge.

            You're a little late ...

      • by Opportunist (166417) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @12:25PM (#36786568)

        No, but I'd gladly attach it to my dog when I plan to commit a crime.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by etymxris (121288)

      Just like having an unsecured wifi network doesn't prove that YOU sent that threat to the president. Except juries don't find that very convincing. And even where it is true that someone is committing crimes through your wifi network, such as in a recent case, you still get to have all your computers seized and combed through. If you actually had been doing something illegal, even if it wasn't what the search warrant was for, you'd still be prosecuted. Because the police had reasonable cause to search your

      • by cdrguru (88047)

        Just like having an unsecured wifi network doesn't prove that YOU sent that threat to the president. Except juries don't find that very convincing. And even where it is true that someone is committing crimes through your wifi network, such as in a recent case, you still get to have all your computers seized and combed through. If you actually had been doing something illegal, even if it wasn't what the search warrant was for, you'd still be prosecuted. Because the police had reasonable cause to search your possessions.

        Uh, that isn't exactly true. It depends on what they were looking for, what they found and where they found it.

        Let's say your computer gets examined because the little boy next door says you showed him some nasty videos of other little boys. So they dig around in your computer and find not videos of little boys but videos of little girls. Not in an Internet Explorer cache folder but in a folder named Suzy. Yup, I think you are going down for it.

        However, in the course of a full examination of the computer they find a file with 10,000 credit card numbers and the folder is buried seven levels down through hidden folders and such that nobody without a forensic tool would ever find it is probably meaningless. Not only would this be evidence of a completely different crime but it wasn't something that was in "plain sight" and was certainly clearly outside of the search warrant. Now if the file with 10,000 credit card numbers was on the desktop with a name like StolenCreditCards.txt that would be a different story entirely.

        This comes up all the time and for the most part it is addressed through on-site previewing of the computers today. If they don't find anything obvious they aren't even going to collect the computers because of the backlog in the computer forensic lab. The lab folks are just going to make a report to the prosecutor anyway and the prosecutor is the one that got the warrant in the first place. They know the limits of what they can do based on the original search warrant. That doesn't mean you are going to get away with it because whatever is found can then be used to justify further investigation, but not as evidence at trial.

      • isn't that 'fruit of the poisoned tree' when you go looking for one thing, don't find it but stumble on another? if your warrant is for X, you are allowed to look for X. if Y shows up, its an illegal search.

        ?

        • by Fnord666 (889225)

          isn't that 'fruit of the poisoned tree' when you go looking for one thing, don't find it but stumble on another? if your warrant is for X, you are allowed to look for X. if Y shows up, its an illegal search.

          It would only be ruled as poisoned if the original search warrant for 'X' were found illegal or improper. As long as the original warrant was legal and justified, then anything else they find is fair game also. There are limits of course. Although not related to the "poisoned fruits" discussion, if the police have a warrant to search your garage looking for a stolen riding lawn mower, they have no right to open a closed cigar box that was in a cabinet and subsequently find your stash. A cigar box could

      • The problem with juries is that people with jobs that don't offer paid jury leave (almost all of them) want you to lose money and participate in a charade, playing along with the corrupt, arbitrary, capricious and above all political game being used by an elected prosecutor to gain points so as to further his/her ambitions! The outcome is that most jurors are not workers, but rather are retired or otherwise unemployed. All this leads to a very disgruntled jury pool, unhappy people who consciously or subco

    • by Luckyo (1726890)

      Just because someone saw someone who looked a lot like you, doesn't mean it's you.

      But it does show that you were likely there, which is often enough to convict when coupled with other evidence, none of which would have enough enough on its own.

      • by nurb432 (527695)

        Of cousre it could be a piece of evidence to be included with others, I'm just saying that your phone being somewhere alone it doesn't prove a thing. it might imply, but its not *proof*.

        • by Luckyo (1726890)

          If I got a euro for every time someone who really thought that got convicted by a jury OF THEIR PEERS, I'd be a very rich man.

          Remember, it doesn't have to be absolute proof. It doesn't even have to be proof that will satisfy legal professionals. You're judged by a jury OF YOUR PEERS. People who can be very stupid, and very easily led by both prosecution and defense attorneys.

          • This is why in Belgium some people are trying to get rid of jury trials. There was a judgement by the EU court of human rights that a particular case was unlawful because the jury did not provide motivation for the verdict. So now we have a compromise where jury trials still exist but the jury also has to provide a detailed reasoning as to why they pronounced the verdict given. In theory that should at least force the jury to be able to give a reasonable account of why according to the law they find the acc

            • That's a very bad thing. It's a long standing principle in British and American jurisprudence, all the way back to the 1600s, that juries do not have to justify their verdicts and cannot be held accountable for them. This was to prevent tyrannical rulers from retaliating against juries for not convicting people the rulers didn't like for political reasons (specifically it comes from the trial of William Penn, and the persecution of the jury for refusing to convict him, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William [wikipedia.org]

              • by fhage (596871)

                That's a very bad thing. It's a long standing principle in British and American jurisprudence, all the way back to the 1600s, that juries do not have to justify their verdicts and cannot be held accountable for them.

                Too bad this isn't true any more in the US. You can be charged with a crime if you vote to acquit a person and other jurors or the prosecutor doesn't like your politics. This happened to juror Laura Kriho in Colorado in 1997. She was the lone holdout to acquit on a drug possession charge.

                "Unable to persuade the other jurors of her view of the evidence, she also used nullification and sentencing consequences arguments. The judge signed contempt of court charges against her two months later." http://www.nds [ndsn.org]

                • by NiteShaed (315799)

                  Laura Kriho was convicted and fined $1200 for attempting jury nullification.

                  You left out that she was ultimately aquitted. The judge and prosecutor who initially came after her were clearly very wrong, but in the end, the system corrected their actions, and reaffirmed the jurors right to be free from prosecution for decisions made during deliberations.

    • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortex&project-retrograde,com> on Saturday July 16, 2011 @01:02PM (#36786864) Homepage
      Neither does DNA. DNA proves that your DNA was at the scene, not you, but try convincing an ignorant judge and jury of this...
      Think about this next time you toss a disposable coffee cup into the trash, or scratch your head in public... Is there someone in that room with you that matches your basic physical description?

      Might I not be collecting your DNA, and/or your wireless signatures (via my laptop -- Hint: GSM & CDMA are cracked) so that I can place you at the scene of my next crime?

      Sure: "What are the chances -- Tinfoil hat!"
      That's EXACTLY how I want you to think, and how much of the public does think -- Surely no-one would exploit this fact...

      Let's just hope all criminals are just dumb, and won't think to commit a crime when they know you won't have an alibi, and that when the cops "like you" as a prime suspect due to DNA and digital evidence that they take several other suspects to court as well-- Wait, what's that you say? They only try ONE person via trial? Oh, that's right, because if they prosecuted several at once, and the courts found TWO suspects guilty of the same crime... It would totally undermine the public's faith in the justice system!

      Bwa-Ha-HAHAHA... Hahahaha... Oh, oh--damn, Haha-ha--- ha, heh, heh, HAHAHA!

    • It is circumstantial evidence to be sure, but a sufficient amount of circumstantial evidence can build a case or can provide a level of verification to stronger evidence. Generally the cops don't pick up one piece of incriminating evidence, say "Whew, glad that's over" and go home. Let's imagine a completely contrived scenario where a man is caught on tape robbing a bank. He claims it was his brother, who does look a lot like him. If his phone were at the bank at the time of the robbery, his brother's fi

    • by westlake (615356)

      it shows your phone was at the scene, it doesn't prove YOU were.

      It is one piece of the puzzle.

      If you were on the phone at 10:00 and 11:00 and the crime was commited between 10:15 and 10:45, you have a problem.

      Even if you cannot be fenced in quite that tightly your location can probably be fixed closely enough to interest a jury. Remeber that a jury only has to be persuaded of your guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

      Based on the weight of the evidence when seen and considered as a whole.

    • Don't know about you but my location and my cell phone's location are closely correlated. So unless you can offer an explanation that creates a reasonable doubt that that wasn't the case (e.g. I reported it stolen) it's a pretty good assumption.

    • by Styros (144779)

      It doesn't have to prove you were at the scene. It only has to persuade the JURY beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn't even have to eliminate all doubt. Just eliminate the reasonable ones.

      Basically, if you claim you were home alone, but your phone was at the crime scene, you're in a world of hurt. Why was your phone at the crime scene? Did you lend it to someone? Did you lose your phone? When/where did you lose your phone? If you have no alibi, you're sunk.

  • by h4rr4r (612664) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @11:40AM (#36786216)

    If you are planning on committing a crime remove the battery from your phone. This goes for non-smartphones as well. Use a prepay for crime planning and ditch it as frequently as possible.

    • by Yetihehe (971185) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @11:44AM (#36786238)
      Or just leave it at home. Record saying that your phone was turned off before crime and turned on after, is worse than a record saying that your phone was all evening near your tv....
      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        The battery in your phone has never died?
        No need to shut it down, just yank the battery.

        Leaving at home seems good too. Maybe even get someone to use it.

        • by DarthBart (640519)

          I have an iPhone, you insensitive clod! I can't just "remove the battery"!.

        • Maybe even get someone to use it.

          Thereby involving someone else in the chain of events. Someone who could be a possible failure when questioned.
    • by jhoegl (638955)
      Yeah, most career criminals do this I believe. At least the smarter ones do.
    • by u38cg (607297)
      Or just watch The Wire.
    • No. Better. Make sure your phone keeps running around somewhere far, far away from the scene of crime. "Forget" it in a friend's car for the time being, attach it to your dog or if there's no better option, leave it at home, turned on and running.

      Evidence works both ways.

      • by anagama (611277) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Saturday July 16, 2011 @12:50PM (#36786780) Homepage
        In addition to leaving it at home, write an app that will make a text or two to your most frequently texted contacts and also perform a few innocuous internet searches. Automated outgoing phone calls might be more difficult because of the need for natural conversation. This way, not only is the phone on, you are actively using it, or so it seems. Problem is keeping the app hidden well enough that it won't be found on the phone.
        • "Problem is keeping the app hidden well enough that it won't be found on the phone."

          Where is the problem? Just have the app delete itself at a specified time.

        • What need for conversation? Just make sure that the other side won't be there. Call a shop or two that you know is closed, have the phone listen to their recording for a few seconds and hang up.

      • attach it to your dog

        Defendant...are you in the habit of attaching your phone to your dog and letting it run around the neighborhood? Why?
    • I'd give my phone to a friend I planned on claiming an alibi with.

    • by westlake (615356)

      If you are planning on committing a crime remove the battery from your phone. This goes for non-smartphones as well. Use a prepay for crime planning and ditch it as frequently as possible.

      This assumes you --- and those you call --- are not under suspicion or surveillance for any other reason.

      It can be very difficult to keep things plausible.

      Small mistakes stand out:

      Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time." Holmes: "That was the curious incident." ...

  • The subject couldn't watch it either.

  • by mysidia (191772) * on Saturday July 16, 2011 @12:01PM (#36786378)

    Your smartphone is your data.

    So it is extremely odious that police take away a person's cell phone, if the person is not being arrested or at least charged with a crime.

    This is a far more significant breach than mere 4th amendment stuff. Police are looking for information you have recorded, instead of evidence of a crime.

    The routine taking away of life-critical devices from 'suspects' is a menace to society. This does more harm to innocent people than criminals.

    For people who rely on their smart phones for all communications, this would be similar to police impounding the right arm or left foot of suspects, to attempt to 'analyze' if they held a weapon, and demanding DNA from random people at a scene who are 'suspects' (whether there is actual cause to suspect them or not beyond mere presence/appearance).

    This should be solved legally and technologically dealt with. Cell-phones should regularly purge latent/hidden data when charging AND resist attempts to gather data from them.

    If someone is a suspect, the police should have to get a special warrant to access cell phone data, and it should be served not by confiscating the physical device, but by the court granting the police 10 minutes to hold the suspect's phone, during which all "data capture" must be completed.

    If the physical phone is confiscated under a warrant for confiscation of the phone, then only physical aspects of the phone should be subject to analysis, not private data the user had stored, unless previously discovered

    • by Bios_Hakr (68586)

      I don't necessarily agree with your "life critical" reasoning.

      However, I would like to think that the data on my phone would be encrypted. With Android, it shouldn't be too hard.

      Things like date/time of calls and SMS don't need to be protected. Neither would location data. All these things can already be determined from 3rd party sources.

      But the contents of my SD card (photos, text of SMS, calendar entries, etc) should be protected inside a TrueCrypt partition and secured with a long password.

    • by fermion (181285) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @12:56PM (#36786818) Homepage Journal
      In the drug hysteria that hit the conservative and thoroughly corrupt administrations of Nixon(war on drugs 1971) and Reagan(1986 act to put minorities in jail for minor offenses and help cause the deficit to ballon) created a climate in which accused, not convicted, person would lose right to property and defense. Like the war on terror, an series of events were overblown to remove individual liberty.

      The expansion of the states rights to take from citizens without due process really escalated when Nixon caved into the hysterical parents who decided not to raise their own children and Reagan realized he had a cool way to transferring tax money to his buddies. The idea that one could take property that was not evidence was novel at the time, but now accepted.

      How does this relate? An office can search your car with no more probable cause than you are speeding. Now, in fact, the SCOTUS says that if you do not have access to the car a warrant must be gotten, but really why should a warrent every be provided because someone is speeding? It is the drug hysteria. Just like the terrorism hysteria.

      Even with this the phone is never going to be a private apparatus. Police can search notebooks. The phone is often just an interface and the data sits on facebook which will roll over to the mildest pressure, or text which can be tapped. It astounds me that people are still being caught by their lovers because they are texting their other lovers. Do people check into foursquare at establishments they plan to rob? Do they text how they are going out a date with someone they plan to attack? Some of this is corrupt government, but some of it is simply incompetence. A certain amount of criminal activity I can tolerate, but incompentant criminals I never can. It is like bringing drugs to school or leaving notes about your plan to blow up a building in your house. Some people just want to get caught.

    • by ISoldat53 (977164)
      Welcome to the Roberts' court.
  • by fotbr (855184) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @12:45PM (#36786740) Journal

    Once a phone's location is generally accepted as showing where you were at a given time, it's an instant alibi.

    Leave the damned thing turned on somewhere else, then go commit your crime.
    Or turn off the ringer and vibration, box it up and take it to a somewhat nearby kinko's, and then fedex it back to yourself. Now it's on, and will travel around the city, while you do whatever it is you want to do.

    If you get nicked, use that phone location and piles of court cases where phone records were admitted as proof of location.

    • That the phone records also show you taking it to the courier's office. Explain that one to the police.
      Better to tape it to your neighbour's car just before he/she/it goes out - providing they aren't similarly criminally minded!
      • by WiiVault (1039946)
        Or as I think the GP was suggesting, just leave it at home or a friends house. No officer, I never left home that night.
      • by fotbr (855184)

        Fine. It shows it went to kinko's. I had to make some copies.

    • One button access to a phones Erase All facility. Perhaps tied to the passcode to access the phone. That way you can hand it over and the passcode that wipes it. Or simply keep the icon for this process on the main screen so you can quickly reset it. Of course its always better to reset it after you hand it over which requires being able to signal it over the air.

      Some Apple devices use a hardware encryption which means once you tell it to erase all there is no easy way to access it, if its even possible. ht [apple.com]

      • by mlts (1038732) *

        Giving someone a self destruct key will give a destruction of evidence charge which can put someone away for a long time.

    • by folderol (1965326)
      No. The best possible alibi is no alibi - can't be disproved see. Go to location with no reception - switch off phone (and put in metal box) - do nastiness - go to new location with no reception - take phone out of box and switch on - go home. Prosecutor: Can you explain how your phone disappeared at X and reappeared at Y? You: Err, no. Sorry, I've no idea.
    • Or turn off the ringer and vibration, box it up and take it to a somewhat nearby kinko's, and then fedex it back to yourself. Now it's on, and will travel around the city, while you do whatever it is you want to do.
      If you get nicked, use that phone location and piles of court cases where phone records were admitted as proof of location.

      Congratulations.

      The FedEx truck will now take your phone on a Cook's Tour of the local gas works, sewage treatment plant and the city morgue. Places you no intelligible reason to visit.

  • by Zero__Kelvin (151819) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @01:12PM (#36786948) Homepage
    The problem stems from the perception that it is a phone, when in fact it is a hand-held computer that happens to be able to place and receive phone calls. This is fundamentally no different than them seizing a laptop and rifling through it. It should obviously require a warrant unless the device was used in the commission of the crime and they can already prove that.
  • "Your smartphone could place you at the scene of a crime, destroy an alibi or maybe even provide one – which is why one of the first things police now do at the scene of a crime is take away a suspect's cellphone.

    Well. It will be used to prove you guilty to whatever extent is possible. It will NOT be used to disprove your guilt.

    Humans respond to incentives, and police are humans. In our era the police are incented by the fact they are judged by their 'numbers' or 'stats'. So they do what is necessary to maximize those numbers. Other concerns are secondary.

    In a future era we will look back on this "management by the numbers" as an expensive way to reduce management headcount. You can easily have 20 direct reports if you are permitted to use an Excel spreadsheet to judge their quality.

  • by syncrotic (828809) on Saturday July 16, 2011 @02:23PM (#36787506)

    Obviously there's no legal protection for the data on your phone - not that there shouldn't be, but your privacy rights only go one way in modern society, so don't hold your breath - but where are the technical measures? We've seen that police use forensics devices that attach the data port [arstechnica.com] on the phone to give them immediate and complete access to the entire file system.

    There's always a tradeoff between convenience and security, and it's time cell phones at least gave you the option to choose a bit more of the latter. How about not allowing read access via the USB port when the phone is locked? That's just basic common sense, but phone manufacturers and OS vendors don't take physical security seriously yet. How about cutting power to the phone when the back cover is removed? How about having a power-on password in addition to a lock-screen password, so the phone can't simply be put into recovery mode?

    On a PC I can set a BIOS password, a hard drive password, and use full disk encryption of a sort that nobody will ever be able to break. If the machine is running but locked, suspended, or hibernating, even windows will ensure that there's no way to get at my data without actually having the proper credentials. There's no way to recover my passwords or encryption keys from memory, except for the rather technical, obscure, and time-sensitive technique of physically freezing the RAM and trying to read back its contents after a reboot. Compare this to joke that passes for file system encryption on the iphone.

    In a lot of ways, smartphones store more valuable data than PCs do, and yet the options for protecting that data are virtually nonexistent.

  • Let's say, for sake of argument, that for some reason you want to shield your phone for a period of time. Make it completely opaque. Just put it inside a mid-range to good quality microwave oven. Good shielding prevents the signals from going in or out. This way the phone disappears in a certain location. It reappears at the same location some time later; while it was in the microwave oven, if the shielding is good enough, nothing will come in or out.

    Other fun tricks: are you on GSM? Remove the SIM c

  • Besides the fact that not cooperating in the US might land you in jail regardless of the constitution, if you really do bad things and make a business out of it, maybe you should use enterprise tools such as using an alphanumeric password for your iPhone or use an Android that can actually do encryption, remote wipe whenever you call your lawyer etc. etc.

    Thanks to advances in computer security, cops are simply not equipped to deal with somebody actively protecting their rights. However most criminals are ju

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