The Right to Remain Silent

Smart phones are really not all that smart, at least not when investigators search their brains for evidence of crimes such as murder or sexual assault.

Smart phones pose a huge challenge for online homicide investigations because they bear the footprints of so many different types of activities, an expert on digital investigation told participants in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference held recently in Atlanta.

The potential yield from a smart phone dwarfs what investigators typically find on laptop or desktop computers, “because of the myriad functions that can take place on it, including talking and texting, accessing e-mail accounts, accessing social network accounts and taking and receiving pictures and/or videos,” said Adanna Smith, a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners and a graduate student at Wayne State University. Detailed examination of mobile phones“also requires more organizations to be involved when a crime happens, which could be very time- consuming for investigators to retrieve data.”

Although mobile forensic technology is still developing, it has been widely applied in Georgia. In the last year, more than 50 cases — including assault, rape, homicide, child pornography, child molestation and child enticement — required mobile forensic assistance, said Beth Messick, the forensic computer specialist supervisor for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Demand for this type of investigation will inevitably increase in the coming years. Approximately 93% of the U.S. population use mobile phones today, and 50% of them use smartphones or some sort of mobile device like an iPad. There are 3.5 billion mobile devices in use, compared with 1 billion active personal computers, Smith said in her conference presentation.

Because mobile devices dominate the digital market, social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter invented apps that make it easier for consumers to network using their phones. When Facebook filed last month for its initial public offering, the company said that more than half its 845 million active users accessed its site from a mobile device.

Among these social network users are people with bad intentions. Online predators, who usually target teenagers and single women for pornography, financial fraud or homicide are among them, Smith said.

“Online predators feel more comfortable participating in their illegal activities by utilizing fake names and pictures to create their accounts on social networking sites (SNS), giving them a sense of anonymity,” said Smith. “We can utilize data recovery tools, password recovery tools or track IP addresses to assist with analyzing the data retrieved if predators use computers to conduct illegal activities.”

If criminals access SNS through cellphones, however, Smith said that the tracking process could be more complicated. Privacy rules, which are meant to protect honest people, can hamper crime investigations.

“If a law enforcement official has a copy of a suspect’s phone records, s/he can see that data has been downloaded but cannot view the content of e-mail or the social network account,” said Smith. “Only if the official knows the e-mail address of a suspect and/or the name used for the social network account, can he request the records from an email service provider or social networking administration.”

“But usually, they can’t find out easily because the name and email address are not the legal name of the suspect most of the times,” Smith added.

Messick, the Georgia crime expert, expects that technical advances will soon make it easier for law enforcement to carry out mobile forensic investigations.

Some simple steps can be taken now to make it harder to predatory criminals to hide behind mobile technology. For example, Smith urged e-mail service providers to require an operable telephone number when a customer signs up for an account. “Because social networks require an e-mail address when creating a new account, having a telephone number tied to the e-mail account used will decrease a predator’s feeling of anonymity,” she said.

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Dian Cai

Dian Cai

Dian Cai earned a bachelor's degree in international journalism at United International College in China. She is now pursuing a master's in Health & Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia while pursing a certificate in global public health.