The secrets on your smartphone
November 20, 2009
Hang on to your handset ... smartphones are a goldmine of information for thieves.
Submitting her phone to the powers of a forensics lab, Louisa Hearn finds out just how dangerous it can be when our phones fall into the wrong hands.
Silly text messages sent to girlfriends, pictures of my injured toddler and private details from my address book. These are snippets of my life that I wouldn't readily share with the world. And yet someone I barely know has just sent me all three of these items in an email attachment after sifting through the contents of my mobile phone in a technology forensic lab in Sydney.
Allan Watt, head of forensics at e.law, says the type of data he found haunting my handset was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I have found hard-core pornographic videos, compromising photos and Facebook histories, CVs and personal email messages on phones I am investigating,” he says.
While many mobile-phone SIM cards might contain contacts and texts deleted from years ago, experts agree that it is the vastly improved data and storage capacity of the new generation of smartphones that presents the most potent risk to their owners.
One of the problems with carrying so much personal information is identity theft or blackmail when phones are stolen, lost or disposed of carelessly.
“I just looked at an iPhone yesterday that had over 5000 text messages on it. It's like a computer. There is so much data that people forget what they put on there”, forensic specialist Gary Coulthart says. From his experience, this might include personal bank account details, sexually explicit conversations with partners or details of money the owners might owe.
Kim Khor, director of Khor Wills & Associates, describes a smartphone as “a full suite of information for a fraudster or stalker”.
“It may not be what's recoverable from the phone that is valuable but what can be further discovered online, by ringing around and using the easily accessible information,” he says.
With geospatial mapping capabilities now becoming commonplace in smartphones, he adds that photos often also contain the GPS co-ordinates of the phone as well as date and time stamp.
“So, via forensic analysis, we could prove the location at a point in time of people in the photo. This is obviously concerning in light of the identity theft issue as a criminal could identify the address or the location of people shown in the photo,” he says.
Mobile phone forensics comprise an important part of crime detection and corporate security, but they are increasingly playing a role for private detectives investigating marital or work disputes.
Private investigation company NSIntel says most of its forensic work comes from unhappy spouses, employers and lawyers.
“With newer smartphones, the SIM cards can hold much more information, storing all SMS messages that have been sent and received as well as deleted picture messages and past call history,” a company representative says.