Vehicle systems were one of the first deployments in IoT and this sector continues to make rapid advancements that have proven central to law enforcement.

Today, when we turn on the news, it becomes more and more apparent that the world is changing. Mobile technology and the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) are changing the way we live and interact. There are billions of mobile devices such as phones, tablets, GPS units and watches in use today. Whether it is farmers in Africa, or vacationers on the ski slopes, people use their devices to get from A to B. 

Just as mobile and wearable technology are central to our day-to-day movements, tasks and actions, so too is it for those who break the law and seek to do us harm. The many new types of data, and the growing volume of data, can be accessed by law enforcement when needed, while protecting the privacy of citizens. The key for society and for policy makers, is to strike the appropriate balance.

The data we move through mobile technology leaves traces, like digital footprints. These can reveal a hidden world that can be a fragmented world at times, but one that ultimately points to the truth. Advances in the technology of mobile forensics are imperative to assist law enforcement in the search for truth, in the quest to make the world a safer place—when they are legally allowed to do so.

Law enforcement today faces a number of tough challenges when it comes to evidence and data. There is a constant flow of new devices, new operating systems and new apps. Staying ahead of these challenges, while safeguarding privacy, is absolutely critical. For this reason, the technology industry works in tandem with law enforcement to solve some of the most critical challenges facing us today, such as violent crime, exploitation of children and terrorism. 

Cars and cellphones

We learned recently from former FBI Director James Comey that “the cell phone is probably the single most important piece of evidence you will find at a crime scene today.” This is profound and important to digest. Each year we see new iterations of these issues, as the IoT evolves, and cell technology, both their devices and platforms, are enhanced. These changes in technology mean that industry must be consistently ahead of the curve. 

Let’s use Apple as a test case. As often as their technology advances, mobile forensics must fully support collecting evidence from their enhanced portfolio. This currently includes Apple’s newest phones, including the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, as well as Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 10. This of course continues to change as Apple develops new products and enhances encryption. With the proper tools, investigators can collect vital information such as call logs, contacts, messages, emails, pictures, videos, GPS data and app data. 

However, throughout the digital landscape lies other places for data collection. Law enforcement must also have products useful in decoding data from today’s most popular apps, including Pokémon GO, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, as well as encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Hide My Text and Surespot. These apps and others are used frequently in predatory crimes to lure underage victims. 

.PST files from Microsoft Outlook provide us with another example.  Tools that can take data and compile and compare in a link analysis platform are vital today, given the many instances where phone data chains contain valuable and important information. Police with the proper tools can correlate common data between multiple devices via instantly plotted connection diagrams, timelines and geo-maps. 

New systems found in motor vehicles have proven to be central to law enforcement, such as what we saw from the SUV of Syed Farook during the investigation around the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. A significant number of crimes committed today involve motor vehicles and we see that problem growing globally. 

In the United States, there are now roughly 253 million cars on the road. This marks an increase of more than 3.7 million over last year alone. Vehicle systems were one of the first deployments in IoT and this sector continues to make rapid advancements, as evidenced by the advent of driverless cars. As such, they are integral for forensics because they contain vast amounts of data. This data includes emails, pictures, videos, social media feeds, recent destinations, favorite locations, call logs, contact lists, SMS messages and the navigational history of the automobile. These systems also record events that might seem mundane, but, in fact, can be highly significant. Where and when a vehicle’s lights are turned on, doors opened or closed, specific locations identified, can help investigators learn more about the history of a possible crime. This information collected alongside infotainment and telematics systems in vehicles holds significant amounts of data related to user activities, as well as geographic information.  For these reasons, investigators are calling for, and industry is providing, new advances in vehicular digital forensics. 

As the sources and types of data law enforcement must analyze continue to expand in both volume and complexity, investigators need an expanded toolkit to keep pace. Doing so can often make the difference between success or failure—with very real consequences.

Current technology can also be used with high definition cameras to capture images and video for inclusion in an investigation. With updated tools, law enforcement can constantly meet the newest trends and apps on the market. 

Industry technology

In order to keep up with these trends, we in the digital forensics industry must enable a broader spectrum of users to extract and analyze data and facilitate efficient sharing of the information that is recovered. This reality is driving a movement toward an “enterprise” or “ecosystem” approach to organizationally managing digital forensics. 

First, this means putting easy-to-use technology in the hands of users who may not have a background in computer science or digital evidence.  Historically, extracting data from cell phones is a specialist skill reserved for those experts who work in laboratories. To address these challenges, as well as a growing torrent of data from a variety of devices and apps, law enforcement needs ways to make their process faster, more efficient and easier to perform. To achieve this, we must ensure that the technology provides users with intuitive software, which guides you through the process step by step, making it more efficient. In many cases, such as investigating a criminal enterprise like human trafficking or narcotics networks, it is critical that the data be extracted rapidly. Too often that lack of speed leads to it being erased or the criminal organization changing tactics. There is often no time for laboratory analysis, days after a crime occurs. For this reason, the tools must be easy to use for non-experts at the crime scene.

The next step is ensuring that the data extracted from a variety of users, in a variety of settings, can be shared in real time throughout law enforcement.  For this reason, there has been a strong trend toward the use of solutions that feature resources such as kiosks or other hardware and software that supports the shared extraction and analysis of data from the crime scene to the court room. By seamlessly linking the information and insights gathered from the crime scene, police stations, investigators and labs, digital forensics can act as a force multiplier for all those involved in the effort. This approach not only fosters collaboration between individuals and agencies, but levels the playing field for smaller agencies that must pool their collective resources. 

Those in the mobile forensic space must be able to adapt quickly to meet new issues. New products will ideally be simple to use and therefore minimize the requirement for infrastructure and training. As the IoT, including automotive technology, continues to evolve rapidly, it is essential that investigators have tools that can keep pace with the global marketplace. As the amount of apps and data continues to explode, and the number of users expands as well, digital forensics must serve as a force multiplier. Through the responsible development and use of technology, we can support the many important missions law enforcement undertakes, and allow them to stay ahead of the game. 

Joel Bollö has been the CEO of MSAB, a leader in forensic technology for mobile device examination, since 2002. Its software is used by police, law enforcement, military, government intelligence agencies and forensic laboratories in over 100 countries worldwide to investigate crime, gather intelligence investigate fraud and fight corruption.