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Criminal Defence Articles

A Guide to Police Use of Mobile Phone Evidence UK

In this day and age, a mobile phone can be incredibly revealing if it falls into the hands of law enforcement. Not only could police use it to find out where you have been, they can also see who you have been in contact with, which websites you have visited, and how you have spent your money.

Police now have technology that allows them to access most mobile devices, even if the owner refuses to provide their pin code. Often, the police are able to access far more information than they need to investigate the crime at hand. The information that is available enables police to build a detailed picture of the suspect’s life.

If your mobile phone has been seized by the police, you are probably feeling anxious regarding the information that the police may be able to obtain about you. Here, we give answers to the most common questions about how the police can access and use mobile phone evidence in England and Wales. Always consult a solicitor if you need specific advice.

Common questions about the police use of mobile phone evidence in the UK

What information is stored on a mobile phone?

Your mobile phone stores information such as messages, emails, contacts, call logs, and pictures. Information that has been deleted may also be stored on your phone in the phone’s metadata. Sometimes, deleted information is accessible to law enforcement.

Does data stay on an old phone?

It used to be the case that the majority of your personal information is held on your SIM card rather than the mobile handset itself. However, this has changed with smartphones. Smartphones have internal storage space where the operating system, pre-installed apps, and other system software is installed. Mobile phone handsets store cached data that can be extracted by law enforcement.

How long is phone data stored?

Mobile phone companies are obliged to keep data about the location of cell towers used by every phone for at least a year. The data stored by phone companies will include a call log that comprises a list of phone numbers called and on what date. However, data on the phone itself could go back much further than a year.

How does a mobile store data?

Your mobile stores data in a similar way to a PC. Both use NAND flash for their non-volatile (permanent) storage and some type of RAM for quickly accessing applications and programmes. Even if you perform a factory reset of your phone, some information will still remain in its memory.

Where is data stored on a phone?

On iPhones, data is stored on the phone’s internal memory. A NAND flash chip within the phone contains the information. On Android phones, data is stored between a NAND flash chip, a micro-SD card, and the phone’s SIM card.

What is mobile device extraction?

Mobile device extraction is the process by which law enforcement obtains information from a person’s mobile phone. Sometimes, the police extract data themselves. Other times, police forces contract a third party to perform the extraction on their behalf.

What information can be extracted from a SIM card?

The SIM card can contain valuable information such as contacts, messages, and call logs. Sometimes, other data such as videos can be saved to the SIM card. Even where a SIM card is password protected, some basic information can still be obtained even without entering the pin.

What is GrayKey?

GrayKey enables law enforcement to recover data from iOS and leading Android devices, including encrypted or inaccessible data. The data that GrayKey can extract includes file system data, decrypted memory chain, and process memory.

Can Cellebrite unlock all phones?

Cellebrite is a company that sells kits to unlock smartphones and extract their data. One of their major sources of customers has been police forces. These kits cannot unlock iPhones or later Android phones, but if law enforcement send the phone to Cellebrite and pay a hefty fee, the company has the capability of unlocking it.

What can Cellebrite do?

Cellebrite software extracts the data from a mobile phone and generates a report summarising it. Cellebrite’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device can recover deleted data from apps.

What are the three types of data extraction?

The three types of data extraction that can be performed on a phone are logical, file system, and physical. Logical extraction is limited to SMS and MMS, phone logs, contacts, media and application data. File system extraction includes the same items as logical extraction plus hidden information such as hidden databases, systems and logs. Physical extraction is the most extensive form of data extraction.

What is digital forensic imaging?

Imaging a phone is the process by which the contents of a phone are completely copied. An image is typically used to forensically analyse and preserve the original data. It provides a snapshot of the phone in time that cannot be subsequently modified.

How long does it take to image a phone?

Typically, the process to image a phone takes around 2 hours. Sometimes it is quicker and sometimes it takes longer, up to 4 to 6 hours.

What is forensic cloning?

Forensic cloning is similar to ‘imaging’. It is the process by which the information on a phone is copied and stored. Unlike imaging, cloning produces a working copy of the data. This can be used for digital forensic analysis.

Can data be recovered from a burnt phone?

Yes, investigators can still extract information from your phone, even if you burn it, smash it, or immerse it in water. Even if your phone has structural or thermal damage, modern forensic techniques can obtain information from it. In order to prevent data from being extracted, you need to fully destroy the chip.

What information is in your cell phone that could be helpful to an investigation?

Mobile phones contain a lot of information that could help a criminal investigation. Your mobile phone can confirm your whereabouts at a given point in time. It can also show who you were in contact with, and on what times and dates.

Can a mobile phone be used as evidence in court?

Yes, information extracted from a phone that was lawfully seized by the police in England and Wales can be used as evidence. The information will be exhibited to a witness statement written by the investigator who extracted the information.

Are texts enough evidence to convict in the UK?

In order to be convicted of a crime in England and Wales, the prosecution must satisfy the court beyond reasonable doubt that you committed the crime. This threshold can be satisfied in different ways, in different circumstances. It is possible that text messages could be capable of convincing the jury that you committed the crime.

Are text messages hearsay UK?

Without proper authentication and corroboration of the identity of the sender, text messages are hearsay. However, information recovered from text messages via mobile phone extraction is not hearsay because it will be exhibited to the witness statement of the investigator who performed the extraction.

Is a phone recording hearsay?

A recording made on a mobile phone is hearsay where it is produced in order to prove the truth of what was said. This means that it will normally be inadmissible unless it falls within one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule.

Can mobile phone footage be used as evidence in the UK?

Whether mobile phone footage can be used as evidence in the UK varies depending on whether the recording has been obtained lawfully. Mobile phone footage will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the court to decide whether it could be admitted as evidence.

Can pictures be used as evidence in court?

Photographs can be admitted as evidence where they are found to be relevant and properly authenticated. Drawings/sketches can also be admitted as evidence. In both circumstances, a witness (usually the photographer/drawer) will be required to introduce the photographs/pictures as exhibits.

Can the police take your phone without permission?

The police can lawfully seize your phone if you have been arrested. But what if you are stopped and searched on the street? Stop and search powers do not give police the right to seize or look through your phone unless you are suspected of terrorism or child sex offences and the police have obtained the necessary paperwork.

Can the police search my phone?

Where your phone has been lawfully seized, following your arrest, the police have the right to search it for evidence that is relevant to the question of whether or not you committed the crime that you have been accused of.

Can police remotely access my phone?

If you are suspected of a very serious crime, such as terrorism, police and other law enforcement agencies such as the National Crime Agency can apply for a warrant that would enable them to remotely interfere with your phone. This could include seeing what you type into your phone and intercepting your calls and messages.

How do I block my phone from being tracked?

If your phone is connected to the Internet and is using cell phone towers to obtain reception, it is difficult to prevent the police from subsequently obtaining information concerning your whereabouts. Disabling your cell reception, turning off Wi-Fi, and ensuring that your location settings are switched off on apps such as Facebook can help.

Do the police trace phone calls?

The police can obtain a warrant to request your call records from your mobile phone service provider. These records will contain who you called and on what date and time, but not the contents of the calls. In exceptional cases, law enforcement may be able to obtain a warrant to ‘tap’ your phone line.

Can the police track a SIM card?

Once your SIM card connects to a mobile network, it can be tracked. Tracking occurs using data from cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. Your SIM card has an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), which cannot be changed. If you have a phone contract, your IMSI will be linked with your address.

Can the police track your IMEI number?

Your phone’s IMEI number is the unique identifier of the handset, and both your IMSI and IMEI can be obtained by the police with an ‘IMSI catcher.’

Can police track your phone number in the UK?

With a warrant, the police can make a request to your mobile phone service provider to obtain your call records. This will be done using the mobile phone number that is linked to your SIM card.

Can you track a number if the SIM card is removed?

Your telephone number is linked to your SIM card. If your SIM card is not activated in a phone, it cannot be tracked. You cannot be tracked by your phone number if you put a new SIM in your phone. However, it may be possible to track you via the IMEI of your handset.

Why do police want your IMEI number?

Once the police have connected your IMEI number and your identity, it is easy for them to track your whereabouts.

How do police analyse mobile phones?

The police can extract the data from your mobile phone and analyse it. This can be done using different methods including imaging and cloning. Sometimes, phone extraction is possible even where you have not provided your pin code.

For how long are deleted texts recoverable?

Not all mobile phone companies keep the contents of text messages. Those that do keep them from between 3 days to 3 months. Deleted messages could also be recovered by police if they seize your phone and extract the data. Different types of phones will retain deleted data for different periods of time.

Can the police track FaceTime?

FaceTime calls are end-to-end encrypted, which means that it is not possible for them to be remotely intercepted by the police. However, if the police have directly interfered with your mobile phone handset it could be possible for them to access your FaceTime calls.

Can police trace anonymous text messages?

Yes, text messages that are sent using anonymous web portals can be tracked by the police.

Can the police hack your iPhone?

iPhones, especially the newer models, have proved more difficult for the police to hack compared with other smartphones. Cellebrite, however, states that it is able to unlock and perform a full file system extraction of iPhone devices, including the latest ‘secure’ versions.

Can police get into Android phones?

Using Cellebrite, police forces can perform full file system extraction on Android phones. This will enable them to access third party app data, chat conversations, downloaded emails and email attachments, deleted content, and other information.

Can police access deleted WhatsApp messages?

The police may be able to recover deleted WhatsApp messages from the metadata on your phone when phone extraction is performed. Alternatively, WhatsApp will retain the data where a valid preservation request is received from law enforcement before the data has been deleted by the user.

Can the police recover deleted photos from your phone?

Yes, the police can recover images and videos that have been deleted from your phone when they perform phone extraction. In order to do this, the police need to undertake ‘physical’ data extraction.

Can the police access WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, which means that the police cannot intercept WhatsApp messages. However, WhatsApp can collect information and share it with law enforcement to detect, investigate, and prevent illegal activity, and to cooperate with legal processes.

Can police read text messages without the phone in the UK?

With a warrant, the police can contact your mobile phone service provider and obtain a record of to whom you sent messages and on what date. Some service providers also keep a record of the content of messages. When investigating serious crime, law enforcement can access technology that enables them to remotely intercept mobile phones.

Can my phone be tracked if Location Services is off?

Yes, even if Location Services is off, your phone could be tracked if you use a free public Wi-Fi service. In addition, your phone can be tracked through GPS unless you turn it off. There are also other ways of tracking a phone using data including a phone’s time zone and information from its sensors. However, it is unclear whether these methods are currently being widely used by police.

Can a mobile phone be tracked when it is switched off?

After a mobile phone is switched off, it can only be tracked to the last location where it was switched on, using cell towers and location services. An exception to this is if law enforcement has secretly installed malware or an additional chip into your phone.

Can the police track your IP address?

Yes, if the police obtain a warrant and they have the IP address of the suspect, they can request the suspect’s details from their internet service providers.

Do police look at Google searches?

Even if you use ‘incognito’ mode, your internet searches are never private. If your search terms raise the suspicion that you are committing a serious crime such as viewing child pornography or preparing for terrorism, your digital footprint could be used against you. Google has been known to provide information to the police based on search terms.

How do I block my IP address from being tracked?

The best way to block your IP address from being tracked is to use a VPN server that encrypts your connection to the Internet. However, if the police have a warrant, they can get around this by going to your ISP and requesting connection or usage logs.

Can Gmail be traced by the police?

Yes, the police can request user information from Google, which could reveal your identity. Sometimes, emails sent from Gmail contain information about your IP address. In addition, information obtained from your Internet service provider could prove that it was you who sent the email.

Can an IP address be traced to a cell phone?

The IP address assigned to your phone varies. It is assigned a new IP address every time it connects to a new network. The police could find out the IP address linked to your phone at the time that a crime was committed. This alone might not be enough to identify you, but combined with other location data it could help identify you.

Can police track a Facebook account?

The police can use your Facebook account to help identify your whereabouts, for example through your IP address. They can also seek access to the account if they provide a warrant to Facebook.

How long will the police keep my phone?

If your phone is seized as part of the police’s investigation, it will be retained until they have extracted all the information that they need from it. This could take several weeks or months. Sometimes, the police will clone or image your phone (i.e. extract all the data from it). Once this has been done, your phone will be returned to you.

Why did the police ask for my phone number?

If you are a suspect in a criminal investigation and you are released on bail, the police will want to have your phone number so that they can contact you to update you on the case. However, they may also seek to use it in order to track your whereabouts at the time of the crime by using cell towers and public Wi-Fi data.

Is erasing an iPhone perverting the course of justice?

If you delete data from your phone before a criminal investigation has started, this would not amount to perverting the course of justice. However, if you are found to have deleted information order to hide the crime, this could be taken into account during sentencing. If you are found to have remotely wiped an iPhone that has been seized by the police, this could result in you being charged for perverting the course of justice.

Can the police get into a locked iPhone in the UK?

iPhones tend to be more difficult to hack than other types of smartphones. However, Cellebrite claims that their technology can hack iPhones, even the latest versions.

Where to get help?

For more information on how the police can obtain and use mobile phone evidence, contact the experts at Stuart Miller Solicitors today.

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