CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cell phone Cameras Are providing Investigators with new Ammunition

From Cellphones, which often contain personal information like contact lists and call histories, have long served as a valuable police tool in criminal investigations. But the spread of built-in cameras -- which in some newer phones can even record video -- is providing investigators with new ammunition, thanks to simple human behavior. Apparently even criminals like snapping cellphone photos of themselves.

The result in many police precincts is an unexpected windfall. In the small city of Nashua, N.H., one prosecutor estimates that cellphone photos provide useful evidence 40 or 50 times a year. At least a half-dozen small software companies are now peddling programs designed to help investigators download data from suspects' cellphones without compromising the evidence. Earlier this year, the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a paper outlining techniques for doing forensic work on cellphones.

Cellphone forensics do present some challenges. Unlike personal computers, cellphones feature a multitude of proprietary operating systems, requiring investigators to use different methods for extracting data from different phones. By law, police making an arrest aren't allowed to examine a phone's photos without a search warrant. And police must remember to obtain the phone's charger; retrieving information isn't easy if the battery goes dead.

By and large, however, the cellphone photo trend is welcomed by police and prosecutors. "We pray for those kinds of cases," says Debra Collins, an assistant state attorney in New Britain, Conn. Last spring, Ms. Collins obtained guilty pleas from two young men who had used a friend's camera phone to record one of them igniting a car by tossing fireworks into an open window. Rest of Article. . . [Mark Godsey]

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