Our Global Digital Dilemma


In the last two weeks, I have met with representatives from over 80 different countries through several digital initiatives and partnerships I am a part of. These meetings have taken place across the globe, but the the theme of each conversation is the same: digital data from a mobile device is the major focus of every type of investigation. Subsequently, as also expressed, a mobile device may be the key evidence piece in the case. However, because a tool is unable to recover the information, training is lacking or unavailable, or simply the agency is more interested in digital data from other medium the evidence is not obtained. The overwhelming consensus from the many conversations was the fact that the magnitude of mobile device evidence on a case is clear, but for the limitations expressed previously, most are weary of venturing into the mobile device forensic realm as an expert. This indecisiveness is simply, in my opinion, due to inadequate training or more likely no training what-so-ever.

Why training? As outlined in several of my blog entries and my book, Mobile Forensic Investigations: A Guide to Evidence Collection, Analysis, and Presentation, examiners from the beginning have been trained with a tool rather than trained to understand the tool and device. The “backward approach” has long plagued mobile device examiners, or should I say mobile device collectors. I think this is not the fault of the individual collecting the data from the mobile device, but rather a forced choice. Most companies, agencies, individuals simply cannot afford the outlandish pricing model of some solutions AND training. So, the only item they walk away with is going to be the tool. Enter the albatross. With a lack of training several things can happen to include: assumptions are made, case law is created, and more failures than successes.

Assumptions are made

An assumption is just a guess based upon a person’s knowledge on a subject. So, if a user has not been trained on a tool they will make assumptions on how it works based upon what others have told them, a forum has instructed, a support member has stated, or otherwise what they have guessed. There is no room for assumptions in mobile forensics or digital forensics. Assuming that a solution will be able to connect and collect data from a locked Apple iPhone 6 running iOS 9x because you own the most expensive software for mobile device forensics is a prime example. Or, with any iOS device you can recover all app data from each app running on the device. They are just computers right? With a computer I can recover the entire disk image, so a mobile device should be no different. These are assumptions based upon conjecture and lack of training. Assuming anything as it relates to mobile device forensics has no place in digital forensic incident response (DFIR).

Case law is created

Typically, in the law enforcement realm, being the catalyst for the creation of case law is not always something you strive for, especially in digital forensics. And by case law creation, I mean bad case law. For example, your agency/company receives a grant to purchase a solution that will allow you to “dump” the data from a phone, but that grant does not cover training, and said agency goes out into the field to “pump and dump” all mobile devices simply because the solution allows them to do this. This easily creates bad case law. How? Indiscriminately grabbing the data from every traffic stop or interdiction by law enforcement is illegal without a warrant, or consent. It had never been legal, but give a tool without training about the usage and legalities, created this case law. Now, every mobile device collection from a traffic stop to a terror attack is under a microscope as to whether the data from the device was legally collected. Granted, data from the mobile device should always be collected in accordance to proper procedure and laws, but because of poor decisions based upon the situation each examination across the world could have been jeopardized, not just the United States via the SCOTUS.

More failures than successes

In order for a successful collection of a mobile device using a mobile forensic solution certain criteria must be met. Things like proper driver installation, device settings, and proper cabling are at the top of the list. A device driver is a conduit, or rather a translation layer, between the mobile device and the computer’s hardware. So, a driver translates commands from a computer, and also commands/data from the mobile device. This allows the computer to “speak the language” of the mobile device. Without a driver to translate the computer’s commands and vis versa, the mobile device simply cannot communication and a failure occurs. This failure is one of the most commonly encountered error across the world, but has the simplest solution—just install the proper driver. Many operators of solutions believe they can just plug the device in and press the magical “Get Evidence” button. It is when the solution fails to communicate with the device that the first thought arises, “this software does not work”, not “I wonder if I installed the driver correctly, or at all”. With the proper installation of a mobile device driver, communication between the mobile device and solution will be successful pending all other device settings are also met. Other device settings? The second most encountered failure has to do with ensuring settings are met. Some general settings could be making sure to select “Trust Computer” for an iOS device, RSA certificate for Android, and turning on ADB if the device is not locked. By not understanding the complexities of the mobile device collection failures will be common. Eliminate or troubleshoot these problems to achieve more successes than failures.

This is a global digital dilemma that has been fostered by the need to have a mobile forensic tool, but lack of either the funds or just the reliance on the belief that training is not needed because the solution is so easy to operate. The foundation of any mobile forensic examiner should always be training. When an examiner understands the legalities of the seizure of evidence, how a solution is obtaining the data, where the data exists, how a solution communicates with a mobile device, and how to troubleshoot the frequent issues the mobile device collector becomes a mobile device examiner/expert. A solution will only be as good as the training available, and an examiner will only be as good as the training they have received.

Lee Reiber

About Lee Reiber

Pioneering mobile device forensic examiner, consultant and trainer, software development innovator and former LE officer with the Boise Police Department
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