Why today’s legal practitioners need to learn more about smartphone forensics and the plethora of information that these devices contain
Author Carlos A. Baradat, Esq., The Baradat Group
Well over 90% of all person-to-person communications worldwide are being conducted in some type of digital format. Whether the parties are communicating via text messages, social media, emails, or even phone calls through a VOIP (voice over IP) service provider, odds are that there is a record of that communication somewhere to be found. But communication between parties is just the beginning when it comes to digital information that can assist a lawyer’s case. Anyone that has an internet connection via a computer, tablet, or mobile device leaves behind a “digital footprint” of their actions that can oftentimes be found.
Having a good understanding of the type of information that can be discovered and where to look for that digital information can provide attorneys with a real advantage when it comes to resolving legal conflicts as part of zealously representing their clients.
For instance, one might be surprised to know that when a person deletes a text message, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gone. Because of the ever-expanding internet-of-things (IoT), many devices are connected in some way. Therefore, even when we delete, remove, or edit something on one device, it could still be available on another. The way that a mobile device syncs with a cloud backup is a great example of how this works. Additionally, Apple device owners in particular often have more than one product from the company (i.e. iPad, iPhone, iMac, Macbook, etc.)., that is why it is so important to ensure that when an investigation or case begins, that any potential device that may have relevant information to the matter being litigated be forensically preserved.
Furthermore, there is a misconception about what happens when a file on a computer is “deleted”. During a case investigation, one might run into a situation in which the client says that they once had a copy of that file (i.e. letter, photo, will, financial statement, etc.), but they have since deleted it. In many instances, by performing digital forensics on that computer, it may be possible to recover the file or at least part of it. In short, “deleted” doesn’t necessarily mean gone forever. In reality, the file may very well remain in the device, but the name, or “file identifier” as we call it, may have been deleted (i.e. typically what happens when we throw a file into the “trash bin” in our desktops).
Cell phones as a whole may contain a wealth of information about a person. Call logs, internet searches, and text messages are just the beginning. They may also contain GPS tracking location of where that device has been. In fact, even when the device has been turned “off”, and nothing can be seen on the screen, it may still be collecting data behind the scenes that the user may not be fully aware of. Things like cell tower connections or nearby wi-fi networks are not uncommon to find on these devices. So, when trying to prove whether a person was at a particular place or not, cell phone data may be used as corroborating evidence to support an attorney’s claim about their client or opposing party’s whereabouts.
The digital information that can be gathered to assist in your case doesn’t stop with cell phones and computers. Digital information can also be found in an automobile (black boxes), refrigerators, copiers, and fax machines, digital cameras, home alarm devices, smart TVs, and even digital watches. Because of the ever-growing demand by consumers to have all of their devices connect to one another via a “SMART” connection, the digital footprint that is left behind by the owners of these devices can be incredibly revealing.
For instance, a digital photograph will oftentimes contain metadata or “exif” information that can easily tell us where that picture was taken (with amazing accuracy); the type of camera, lens, and even the direction in which the camera was facing at the time the photograph was taken. As mentioned, vehicles now have a “black box” that is very similar to what we think of with airplanes. It contains an incredible amount of information that could be helpful when needing to prove (or disprove) what happened during a car accident. It may contain the speed of the vehicle at the time of impact, whether or not the breaks were pressed when the accident occurred, blinker information, lights, and may even contain information related to the driver’s mobile device (if connected) that may be able to ascertain whether that person was texting at the time of the accident or not.
Additionally, one might not realize the amount of information that may be stored in a computer’s temporary files folder. Everything from deleted files to previously visited websites may be discovered here and in other places on a PC or Mac. With adequate tools and digital forensic techniques, even encrypted or locked devices may be accessed. Is the client’s phone being tracked? Are the text messages used against your client real or fake? These are just some of the questions that can be answered with the use of digital forensics. None of this means that an attorney needs to become an IT professional, but they should (at the very least) learn to speak the language, and seeking out the assistance of an experienced and professional digital forensics examiner can mean the difference between winning or losing a case.
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