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The future of mobile forensics in global legal systems

Cellebrite : 17 September, 2014  (Technical Article)
Yuval Ben-Moshe of Cellebrite explains the necessity for accommodating mobile forensics technology as part of the legal process
The future of mobile forensics in global legal systems

The use of mobile forensics has the potential to transform traditional methods of profiling offenders and build a comprehensive picture of suspects. By extracting evidence from mobile devices, police are now using traditional investigative methods to analyse the data; data which can place people at the scene of a crime, and provide or break down an alibi.  Some argue that mobile phones have become such a personal tool they can offer more to investigators than fingerprint evidence. DNA was accepted as a formal method of evidence in the late 1980s and mobile forensics must be embraced in the same way in 2014.  The legal system must therefore embrace the evidence that can be provided by such methods of forensic detection.

Ian Huntley's conviction for the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman was the first high profile case to be based partly on crucial mobile phone evidence in 2002. Over a decade on and it’s not just calls and text messages that can link a suspect to a crime. GPS tracking, social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, emails, online transactions and even mobile banking can now offer forensic investigators critical evidence that can determine the route a criminal case takes.

Social data retrieved from mobile apps is fast becoming a major source of evidence in not only building up the profile of the suspect but also in establishing or demolishing a witness' credibility. Recent research from Cellebrite revealed that 77 per cent of its customers believe mobile applications are a crucial data source in criminal investigations. The value to both prosecuting and defence counsels in a court of law, makes the neglect of such data a potentially severe barrier to solving a case.

In today’s world, the technology to extract valuable and accurate evidence from devices has evolved and the criminal legal systems are only now starting to grasp its full extent and implications. Around 85 per cent of people in Britain own at least one mobile and because they fit into a pocket or bag, they are carried by users for the vast majority of their day. Even if the device isn’t used or no direct contact is made with it when committing or planning a crime it can still offer vital evidence.

Location data via GPS tracking can identify abnormal travel patterns of a suspect, which may provide important insights. It is now time that this information is widely used in cases. Digital data that shows a defendant or victim was in a certain place at a specific time is harder evidence than having to take a witness’ word for it. Both prosecution and defence counsels should be using it in a similar fashion to evidence obtained from CCTV footage.

It’s not just the complex nature of mobile devices that is giving the criminal courts a more pessimistic view of digital evidence. Concerns over privacy are heightened by the personal nature of mobile devices and data ownership is a regular barrier. Take data on a Facebook application for example. There are always problems over the physical ownership of potential evidence and who you need to approach to get the evidence. Most legal systems are yet to be provided with solid answers or case law to answer these important questions. Investigators are therefore having to go for a traditional approach, which is based on the physical location, and serving a court order or warrant to Facebook for the data, which can be a very long and drawn out process. Traditional systems are connecting the physical location of the data with its ownership and control while in the all-connected world server may reside anywhere in the world and serve any point on earth. This is an adjustment legal systems need to make.

If well thought out and prepared for in advance, forensic evidence from mobile devices can make all the difference to criminal court cases. The technology is there for investigators to be working with forensic examiners and prosecutors who, to save time and improve the cases they build, should be working together to determine standard operating procedures and best practices around obtaining the evidence. It’s quite alarming that when there are 6.8 million mobile phones worldwide, only in the last few years have some legal systems started to adapt to accept digital evidence.

Hopefully, as courts across the world become more aware of the latest mobile phone technology and privacy issues, they will be better equipped to make decisions about the legal ramifications of search and seizure, acquisition and analysis. Legal systems need to not only accept mobile forensics but embrace and alter their approach to accommodate the technology that will ultimately pose a major benefit to criminal cases.

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