THE MAGAZINE

Tracking Digital Footprints in the Field

By Matthew Harwood

While the solution can help in many different situations, the one crime it’s perfectly suited for is finding child pornographers, says Joe Trickey, marketing brand manager for Dell Rugged and Digital Forensics. Often child pornographers know that police will search their devices for video and photo types, so they will rename all their .jpeg files something else, such as .pdf. “So that’s where we can go back and use this tool and say, ‘I want to see every file type that has been changed from its initial state,’” says Trickey.

In a recent incident in Plant City, Florida, the mobile solution led a child pornographer to confess his guilt. Plant City police officers confiscated the suspect’s iPhone, connected it to the mobile solution, and the Spektor software revealed incriminating evidence. The solution “resulted in an immediate hands up,” says Sheldon.

In one operation, the mobile forensics solution was used at five United Kingdom airports by the Child Exploitation Online Protection (CEOP) Agency to scan passengers’ digital devices for illicit images of children. This technology is also currently in use at ports of entry around the world. It allows border agents to more quickly examine a traveler’s digital devices.

If front-line personnel find data on a device that seems pertinent to the investigation, it is sent to the laboratory for closer inspection. “It’s meant to be that front-line look,” says Trickey, “but it should never replace what you can do within a forensically sound lab.”

Sheldon compares the mobile forensics solution to a breathalyzer, “which performs sophisticated chemistry, using some sophisticated hardware, but the user just needs to know how to configure it, deploy it, and read the result.”

In the United States, this technology might address issues that civil liberty advocates have raised regarding searches of travelers’ digital devices at ports of entry, says Sheldon. For example, The Constitution Project notes in a report they issued in May that these searches can lead to traveler delays and device confiscations, leaving innocent travelers fighting to get their device back from Customs and Border Protection. With this equipment, border agents would no longer have to seize the computer to examine it, he says. “They can do a review within an hour and give the user back his data when it’s a negative result.”

Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says this technology could produce benefits for travelers crossing international borders by reducing the possibility their laptop could be seized and held by border agents. He is concerned, however, that it could lead police to overreach and search the suspects’ digital devices without a warrant after a lawful arrest. The courts are currently split, he said, on whether police need a warrant to search a suspect’s digital device obtained in the course of an arrest. Dempsey believes the Fourth Amendment is clear: a search warrant is necessary.
 

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