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Mobile forensics turns up heat on suspects

Hunt for deleted data escalates

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The latest version of the top computer forensics package will be the first to include a mobile phone component. The move signals how vital mobile data has become to many prosecutions.

Police forces in the UK and worldwide already use Guidance Software's EnCase computer forensics package, most famously in the interminable cash for honours investigation. Now the firm is set to announce an expansion into mobile with a package it's calling Neutrino.

The ongoing trial of the alleged failed 21/7 bombers has seen mobile phone evidence used extensively. In 2002 linguistics experts were brought in to give evidence during the Danielle Jones murder trial, when it was shown her uncle had used her phone to dupe family into believing she was still alive.

A police source told us: "It's [a suspect's mobile phone] one of the first things we look for in serious crimes these days."

Brian Karney, Guidance's product management director, told El Reg: "Your whole life's on there. Everything about you. The SIM card, the memory, it's all in there and we can go in and get." The package allows access to call logs, stored files, SIM information, JAVA programs, and crucially, deleted data.

As documented on The Register last year, the lack of standards in mobile software can make investigation tricky. Neutrino will be subject to this barrier just like market incumbents like Swedish firm Micro Systemation's .XRY package, launching with support for around 50 Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and Siemens handset, with more to follow later.

A further stumbling block comes with the deleted content. At the moment deleted data from the SIM is simple to retrieve and there are many programs able to do it. The big stumbling block is data on the phone. Guidance says Neutrino will be able to access this precious unallocated space on selected Nokia handsets to begin with, but has a team working on adding more in future. Configurable hardware packaged with the program should enable the firm's coders to find and tweak power and other settings to unearth data.

Police have no problem trawling computer systems for deleted data given the relatively few file systems and protocols compared to mobile handsets; it can even kick the door in over the network. Alas no such luck in mobile forensics; as well as the software issue, investigators need physical access to the device and even the array of exotic connector cables can add to headaches for field investigators.

Mobile forensics expert Kevin Mansell, who works with police to train investigators and runs his own consultancy, Control-F, said: "There's been a lot of chatter about it, because it's from Guidance. New versions of EnCase are always big news in computer forensics - it's nearly a standard, but it's fair to say there's a wait and see attitude about Neutrino. They have to prove themselves."

However powerful a tool, sources within mobile forensics expect take-up of Neutrino to be slow. Most in the field are active in criminal investigations, and say they have precious little time to evaluate new software.

Guidance said it would press ahead with diversifying its product range into more and more devices, with several new platforms in the pipeline. Karney said: "Mobile phones, iPods, PDAs, you name it...chips in people's brains. We're in it." ®

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