Cell Phone Forensics in Criminal Cases


Smart phones are filled with troves of personal data that can be a valuable source of information in criminal investigations – both for the government and the defense.

To leverage this information, attorneys and investigators will often use cell phone forensics that dig deep into multiple data sources that house a suspect’s personal information. For example:

  • Devices: Text messages, search history, photos, and location timeline
  • Cell phone provider: Call details, billing, and location
  • Cloud accounts: Historical data and data from apps like Kick and Snapchat

The use of digital forensics in criminal investigations has grown immensely over the past decade. And while the government relies on the information housed inside a cell phone or a cloud account as evidence in all types of cases, the practice of cell phone forensics is still in its infancy. Not all investigators understand the nuances of this information, and not all attorneys have sufficient understanding of the technology to use it advantageously for their clients.

Forensic Cell Phone Investigations

Forensic software has made the process of extracting data from phones and laptops quite easy.

Phones can be ported and plugged into a computer with forensic software installed to create a mirror image of the phone. That same software then collates the data into search terms, allowing digital investigators to see browsing history, contacts, photos, voicemail recordings, documents, videos, call history, and texts (including iMessage), as well as all deleted data.

  • Data stored on clouds: Complete phone backup showing account information that potentially dates back years.
  • Cell phone providers (i.e. AT&T, Verizon): Call data records (CDR) which include dates, times, elapsed time, text message history, and even cell phone location history. These companies store this data for years.
  • Social media accounts: Posts, photos, videos, comments, organizations one follows and likes, messages, events, payment history, and trash / deleted data.

Search Warrants & Subpoenas

While cell phones provide an amazing amount of information that can be used to incriminate or exonerate defendants, how the government accesses that information is still governed by a person’s Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure.

Courts have recognized that the government must obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a suspect’s cell phone. As shown by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2014 which held that a warrantless search and seizure of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional (Riley v. California):

“the fact that technology now allows an individual to hold such information in the palm of his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”

Because cell phones contain a digital record of nearly every aspect of our lives, anyone with a smart phone should take measures to protect their data. However, one should also understand that those protections have limitations, especially when one consents to a search or is required to turn in their phones or cell phone records in compliance with a warrant or subpoena. Hackers are also a risk.

  • A 4-digit password can by bypassed in less than 15 minutes
  • A 6-digit password in less than 24 hours
  • An 8-digit pin can take 3 months to crack
  • Hackers can bypass the auto-wipe feature of an iPhone (10 unsuccessful attempts)
  • Facial recognition can be bypassed with a photograph or a 3D rendering of a face.

Under Investigation? KBN Can Help.

Our defense attorneys are experienced in representing clients facing investigations and criminal charges involving sex crimes, drug crimes, and fraud offenses in which digital and cell phone forensics may be used to incriminate or exonerate. This includes computer sex crimes and even administrative Title IX proceedings involving allegations of sexual misconduct.

If you have questions about an investigation or criminal matter, call (614) 675-4845 or contact us online.