London Police Test Smartphone Data Dump Kits

British police train their own forensic specialists to test suspects' mobile devices in the station, saving the time and expense of using specialized forensics labs.
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Frontline British cops are testing a new crime-investigation tool: mobile phone data extraction devices.

All told, 300 members of Britain's Metropolitan Police Service, which is responsible for policing the greater London area, are being trained to use the new tools, which are being tested in 16 of London's 32 boroughs. The goal of the project--for now, focusing only on street crime and burglary--is to create specialist teams that will provide police investigators with the ability, around the clock, to quickly access, save, and study the data stored on a suspect's mobile phone.

Why the push to analyze smartphones in police stations? "Mobile phones and other devices are increasingly being used in all levels of criminal activity," said Stephen Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, in a statement.

Although British police have arrested their fair share of homegrown Anonymous, LulzSec, and other hacktivism-related suspects, the push for easier access to data forensic capabilities reflects the fact that today, almost any type of crime has a potential cyber component. Indeed, owing to the prevalence of mobile phones in particular, suspects might be carrying inculpating digital evidence with them when they're arrested. But police forces, not least in the United States, are having difficulty coping with the increased demand for retrieving data from devices during the course of an investigation.

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British cops traditionally have submitted any seized mobile device to a digital forensic laboratory for analysis, which is costly and adds time to investigations. "Therefore, a solution located within the boroughs that enables trained officers to examine devices and gives immediate access to the data in that handset is welcomed," said Kavanagh.

The data-capture devices being used by the London cops are made by British company Radio Tactics, which develops forensic tools for extracting data from mobile phones, SIM cards, GPS devices, and media cards. It said the police force will be testing a kiosk version of its product, which is built on Windows 7 and features a touch-screen interface. According to the company, the average scan time for downloading all data from a phone--including call history, images, videos, emails, and social networking posts--is just 20 minutes.

But "testing" is the operative word for the one-year project, for which the police force will pay about $80,000, including training. Notably, the police force has to see if bringing mobile device data extraction in-house leads to savings of time and money, while standing up in court.

More than technology, proper evidence-handling procedures--including how the phones get studied and stored--will be key to the endeavor. "Digital evidence is very damning," a mobile forensic training company told The Register. "So defense lawyers will go after procedure instead."

But the program could face other hurdles too. In particular, British civil rights group Privacy International suggested that police might be overstepping their legal authority with the mobile phone forensic data program. "We are looking at a possible breach of human rights law," spokeswoman Emma Draper told the BBC. "It is illegal to indefinitely retain the DNA profiles of individuals after they are acquitted or released without charge, and the communications, photos and location data contained in most people's smartphones is at least as valuable and as personal as DNA."

She also said that while the 16 kiosks to be deployed would remain secured in police stations, any attempt to give this capability to police while they were actually in the streets could violate privacy laws. "Examining suspects' mobile phones after they are arrested is one thing, but if this technology was to be taken out onto the streets and used in stop-and-searches, that would be a significant and disturbing expansion of police powers," she said.

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