'Sextortion' & the rise of mobile forensics

In July 2013, Scottish teenager Daniel Perry committed suicide because of online blackmailing. As the Guardian reported, the teenager had believed he was talking to an American girl on Skype, “but was told by blackmailers that the conversations had been recorded and would be shared with friends and family unless he paid up”.

It is high profile cases like this ‘sextortion’ one that have brought mobile forensics into the public eye. This case resulted in a massive INTERPOL Digital Crime Centre (IDCC), initiative – codename Strikeback - which comprised of a series of raids carried out in the Philippines.

It saw the initial arrest of 58 individuals and the seizure of 250 electronic devices, while analysis of the device data led to the arrest of a further eight suspects.

As Jeffrey Starr, global Chief Marketing Officer at Cellebrite, the organisation behind the analysis tools used [PDF], explains to us: “Mobile forensics describes the specialised field of extraction, decoding, and analysis of mobile data from mobile devices in finding evidence for criminal investigation.”

“This data can often establish the critical connections needed to determine guilt or innocence,” he adds. In essence mobile forensics is part and parcel of the gradual move of everything online. As more crimes take place in cyberspace, the tools needed to solve them also need to be digital.

“Our digital forensic laboratories use it [mobile forensics tool used in Strikeback] not only for cybercrime, but for other types of crimes where a mobile device may have been used to carry out illicit criminal activity,” clarified Levy Lozada, Chief of the Philippines Nation Police Digital Forensic Laboratory in a statement.

The advantage of mobile forensics is they can be used by a cross-section of individuals and allow for more joined up public safety and law enforcement. In reality of course, this can also result in the usual range collaboration issues. “One key variation is the different types of mobile phones and applications found in various regions,” explains Starr.  

Despite this, the field of mobile forensics is likely to keep rising at a ferocious pace. This is partly a result of the escalation in the volume and sources of evidence now found on mobile devices. This can include contacts, messages, photos, videos, tweets, locations and call data. It can also include other additional sources of data related to the mobile device such as third party apps.

“Using link analysis to bring together disparate case-related data together into a unified view is essential,” says Starr. “Social media will continue to grow in importance as a critical data source.”

In the longer term Starr believes the need to extend mobile data forensics from the centralised lab to the field, will be critical and new platforms will emerge as a result. He feels this will include the “the use of special purpose [mobile forensics] kiosks” which will start to pop up around the globe for the purpose of analysis.


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