U.K. crime fighters grapple with iPhone wipe threat

A shift away from PCs toward mobile devices--and the ability for criminals to potentially wipe evidence remotely--is posing headaches for digital forensics teams.


Criminals can remotely destroy incriminating evidence by exploiting security features on devices such as the Apple iPhone, a leading digital forensics expert has warned.

Wireless security

The head of the U.K.'s Serious Fraud Office digital forensics unit, Keith Foggon, cautioned that the ability to remotely wipe the iPhone and other smartphones used by enterprises could be exploited by lawbreakers.

Foggon said: "The 3G iPhone is brand new; there are not many tools for dealing with it, and it can be remotely wiped. It's a bit like the BlackBerrys, where users can carry out remote deletion."

He added that the unit takes precautions to guard against the feature being exploited. "Because we isolate the devices immediately, and never reconnect them to their network, the remote wiping capability does not present us with much of a problem," he noted.

The 21-strong unit, which sniffs out incriminating evidence from crime scenes, uses a number of high-tech tools to get the sensitive data the police needs to build a case. Advanced forensics tools such as the Logicube CellDEK allow the forensics organization to pull data from more than 1,100 of the most popular mobile phones and PDAs, while its team members carry suitcases containing handset connectors of every shape and size to help collect data from the devices.

However, Foggon warned that the shift away from PCs toward mobile devices is posing an increasing headache for the digital forensics teams.

He said: "It is a concern that society is moving more toward using mobile phones. The PC architecture is usually stable, but with mobile devices they change daily. If a mobile device comes out tomorrow we will not be able to look at it until a tool becomes available.

"We can still analyze it by photographing every screen on it but we won't be able to get hidden data on it, so photographing every screen is not a very practical way of doing it.

"That is an area where we are almost playing catch-up."

Another growing obstacle to forensics' teams ability to recover evidence is the encryption features found in modern operating systems.

"With Windows Vista you have BitLocker that will cause us some problems," Foggon noted.

"It ties in the encryption to a chip. There are ways around it, but it is something we can't crack. We need a pass to get around that."

The team cracks low-grade encryption using 100 quad-core PCs, but for high-grade encryption it relies on the threat of a prison sentence for individuals refusing to hand over passwords or decrypted files.

Foggon believes that the unit's years of experience in unearthing evidence from everything from 186s to MacBooks will mean it will have a key role to play in any central U.K. e-crime policing unit.

The government has committed itself to funding such a unit and indicated it could be part of the proposed National Fraud Reporting Centre, under the Attorney General's Office, while the Metropolitan Police Service and the Association of Police Officers has put forward proposals to the government to establish a policing central e-crime unit.

Foggon said the unit's structure could soon be transformed and it may even tackle a wider range of criminal investigations, following the publication of its reaction, due imminently, to a review of the Serious Fraud Office carried out by former senior New York City prosecutor Jessica de Grazia.

The review called for clarity about the roles, responsibilities, and qualifications of case controllers and assistant directors within the SFO.

Nick Heath of Silicon.com reported from London.

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