Phone forensics help police fight crime

January 31, 2008 8:07:18 AM PST
Hitting the delete button won't throw the police off a criminal's trail anymore. Police are now learning how to use technology to retrieve deleted cell phone and computer messages to assist in their investigations.

In San Jose, police from all over the west are learning the techniques. These are your everyday police detectives, some from the Bay Area, and others who've come from Washington and Arizona - all wanting to learn how to use technology to fight crime.

The reason is cell phones are becoming more involved in crime. This week, a course taught for the first-time in the Bay Area is helping law enforcement access evidence many may think was deleted.

The cell phone may seem like an innocent, evolving technology.

"In the beginning, cell phones were just there to make calls, but now there are devices you can send text messages, you can take pictures, you can send email, you can browse the internet," said Randy Becker, training director, BK Forensics.

And it can even become an integral part of crime.

"You have drug dealers that are using these. You have people that are involved in organized crime that are using these, the cell phones," said Officer Ken Bryant, Fremont police department.

Fremont police officer Ken Bryant is one of thirteen students studying cell phone forensics.

During this three-day course hosted at the South Bay Regional Public Safety Training Consortium in San Jose, a group of local and state law enforcement has been looking at the inner-makings of a cell phone and how to retrieve deleted text messages and photos.

"Average person probably thinks they hit the delete button and it's gone, but it's not," said Randy Becker.

Cell data can be crucial to investigation efforts. For example, after the deadly Christmas day tiger mauling at the San Francisco zoo, police and city attorneys fought to review cell phone texts and photos from the two Dhaliwal brothers who survived the attack. In this case, no evidence was found to build a criminal case. But there have been successes.

"We've had some of our terrorism cases in Europe have been solved by looking at the cell phone data," said Randy Becker.

Randy Becker of BK Forensics has been teaching cell phone forensics to law enforcement around the country. This East Coast company recently developed the first and currently the only automated software capable of interpreting binary data pulled from cell phones.

While officers do learn how cell data is written in a code of numbers and letters, they each also leave this class equipped with $1,000-dollars in hardware and software to use back at their agencies.

"The goal is so they can get the information off of those phones that can be usable in court," said Randy Becker.

But with hundreds of models of cell phones out there -- interpreting that deleted text or picture is not always going to be easy.

"Because you know cell phones again, they're not standardized, so it's really hard to know what you're going to get on the back-end," said Ken Bryant.

This training session wraps up today in San Jose. It was hosted by the Electronic Crimes Partnership Initiative and funded by the National Institute of Justice. The grant money pays for state and local officers' tuition, which is nearly $2,000 dollars for this cell forensics course.