Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gadget Gives Cops Quick Access to Cell Phone Data

By Bob Sullivan

The "Universal Forensic Extraction Device" sounds like the perfect cell phone snooping gadget.

Its maker, Israel-based Cellbrite, says it can copy all the content in a cell phone -- including contacts, text messages, call history, and pictures -- within a few minutes. Even deleted texts and other data can be restored by UFED 2.0, the latest version of the product, it says.

And it really is a universal tool. The firm says UFED works with 3,000 cell phone models, representing 95 percent of the handset market. Coming soon, the firm says UFED works with 3,000 cell phone models, representing 95 percent of the handset market. Coming soon, the firm says on its website: "Additional major breakthroughs, including comprehensive iPhone physical solution; Android physical support – allowing bypassing of user lock code, (Windows Phone) support, and much more." For good measure, UFEC can extract information from GPS units in most cars.

The gadget isn't a stalker's dream; it's an evidence-gathering tool for law enforcement. Cellbrite claims it’s already in use in 60 countries.

That apparently includes the U.S. The American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan says it has learned that state police there have purchased some of the gadgets. What is it doing with them? So far, Michigan authorities aren't telling. A public records request for information by the ACLU was met with a prohibitive $500,000 bill to cover the supposed cost of making the documents available.

"They did produce documents which confirmed that they have them," said Mark Fancher, a staff attorney at the ACLU office. "We have no idea what they are doing with them."

Technology and the Fourth Amendment have had a rocky relationship. When The Founding Fathers created protections against unlimited search and seizure, they never imagined the kind of tools that would be available to 21st century police officers.

Cell phone data is an indispensible tool in both investigations and prosecutions. A drug dealer's contact list is an obvious treasure trove. Location information stored in the phone can prove (or disprove) an alibi. Texts are at least as valuable as emails. Increasingly, smartphone s are used as mini-laptops, placing even more ready-made evidence in one small package -- as long as law enforcement can get to it before it's destroyed.

Because handsets are nearly always with suspects, it's easy for a would-be criminal to delete information during a traffic stop. Remote wiping programs exist that mean critical evidence could be destroyed even after a police officer takes possession of a suspect's phone. That means law enforcement official s have great interest in slurping up all the secrets that a handset might contain as quickly as possible. Enter Cellbrite.

But how fast is too fast? Fancher and the ACLU argue that most cell phone searches are an invasion of privacy that requires law enforcement officials to get a court order before rummaging through a suspect's handset data. While UFED could be used after an order is obtained, its obvious focus is on time-critical searches -- those that would occur, for example, right after a "routine traffic stop."

Full article can be found here.

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