Clues to crimes today are as likely to be found by examining the data stored in a cellphone or other mobile device as they are by dusting a crime scene for fingerprints. But the issues involved in getting that data out properly are complex, and the tools available are limited.
Detectives don't carry forensic tool kits that let them search mobile devices. Instead, they photograph the scene and then remove the phone. But this procedure is riddled with pitfalls. While there are quite a few forensic tool kits available that can suck out the binary contents of cellphones, no one package that can disgorge the data inside each and every mobile phone is on the market. Some kits were specifically developed to meet the needs of the examiner, but most are offshoots of consumer products that allow people to transfer photos, address books, ringtones, and other stored information to a new phone from an old one, or to synchronize calendars and contacts with files stored on a personal computer.
The good news is that new, on-the-scene forensic tools are slowly making their way into the hands of law enforcement officials. However, with each new phone come new services, new features, and, sometimes, new operating systems. The manufacturers struggle to keep their tools up to date. So most detectives still have to wait for lab results.
An engineer who regularly consults with law enforcement agencies talks about the problems, the current solutions, and a future in which crime solvers have fast and easy access to cellphone clues.
"Cellphone CSI," by Richard P. Mislan, will be published in IEEE Spectrum, July 2010.