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Catching Criminals by Their Cell Phones

Published: Monday, October 27, 2008 9:25 AM EST     4329 Views
Author: Brian Reinhardt
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Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of the thousand “CSI” or similar crime shows on CBS knows that, often times, crimes are solved with cell phones. Many criminals forget that data left on cell phones (e.g. - text messages, voicemails, call logs) can leave a trail a mile long. And investigators follow those trails using technology like the Cellebrite Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED).

The Cellebrite UFED (pictured) is a tool that can be used to extract vital data such as contacts, pictures, videos, text messages, call logs and electronic serial numbers from over 1600 different cell-phone models - or 95 percent of the phones on the market today. The system supports everything from classic flip phones to smartphones, Blackberry and other PDAs. Cellebrite refers to its UFED system as “the ultimate standalone device which can be used in the field as well as the forensic lab”. The UFED actually works pretty simply (requiring no PC for field operation): an investigator simply connects a cell phone to the device (which is somewhat similar in appearance to a credit-card reader), identifies the handset type via the onscreen menu, inserts a USB flash drive and hits “start” to extract information. As noted by Cellebrite: “field extraction of data insures that a suspect’s phone can be examined before the individual has a chance to destroy or erase data.” The device can be used in covert operations or in the forensic lab for review and verification using the reporting/analysis tool. Cellebrite also notes that, since they work with most of the major service providers worldwide - including Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and Sprint – the majority of future cell phones models will be compatible with the device.

In addition to the UFED, which is designed primarily for use in law enforcement, Cellebrite has introduced a new device for the mobile-phone industry. It should be mentioned that this device is intended for professional use – not to turn everyday Janes and Joes into amateur spies and P.I.s. The Cellebrite Universal Memory Exchanger (UME) 36Pro is a “phone memory transfer and backup solution”, which, like the UFED, transfers all forms of content - including pictures, videos, ringtones, MP3s and phonebook contacts - between a wide range of mobile phones, smart phones and PDAs. The UME-36Pro works as an intermediary between one cell phone (the “source” phone) and another (the “target” phone) – copying data from of the source and pasting it on the target (or a “complete phone brain transplant” as Cellebrite refers to it). This durable device keeps up to date on all the latest cell-phone models via Cellebrite's constant firmware updates. Like the UFED, the UME features a display screen that individuals use to enter the phone makes and models to facilitate the transfer process. Once all the information is entered, the UME displays the number of cables which must be connected to the mobile phones. Then, with the touch of a button, the data flows from the source, through the UME, to the target. And, after the transfer of data, the UME does not keep or store and records that were transferred, assuring privacy.

While devices like the ones currently being produced by Cellebrite for phone-service professionals and law-enforcement agents offer a number of benefits in those respective fields, they also indirectly point to the lack of security on most cell phones. If data can be extracted so quickly and easily via the UFED and UME, what’s to stop anyone from snagging private information from a cell phone at any time. Personal devices have proliferated to the point where they have become yet another fingerprint a person leaves behind – making them a useful component in identity theft. The evolution of technology, while making us stronger in some ways, has also made us more vulnerable in others. Information on cell phones, much like information on computers, now needs to be safeguarded – not to avoid ace CBS crime squads but identity thieves on the lookout for any advantage they can get. These days, it’s not just big brother whose watching (or listening to) us – it could be anyone.

Since prices are not listed for either device, interested individuals can contact Cellebrite for sales information.

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