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How location-based analysis can reinvigorate police investigations

Digital evidence has important stories to tell – if you can extract and identify it

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Woman examines digital data

Advanced new tools to extract previously inaccessible layers of digital evidence can ferret out leads where manual methods fail or are too time-consuming to undertake.

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You’ve done everything you can – interviewed witnesses, reviewed video, checked and rechecked every lead – but you’re at a dead end. Your investigation is stalled, leaving its crime unsolved, its victim unsatisfied and its perpetrator free to victimize again. There seems to be nothing left to try.

That end may not be as dead as you think. Advanced new tools to extract previously inaccessible layers of digital evidence can ferret out leads where manual methods fail or are too time-consuming to undertake.

The Pathfinder solution from Cellebrite – a global leader in digital intelligence that partners with law enforcement and other organizations to bring bad actors to justice – has helped resolve numerous cases where traditional methods of investigations bogged down.

“It’s a horrible feeling” when you hit that wall, said Jennifer Gudaitis, a solutions engineer at Cellebrite and 14-year veteran of law enforcement who investigated homicides and other serious crimes, in a recent webinar discussing the issue. “Not only as an investigator do you want to solve the crime, but you also answer to other people – families, etc. – that have suffered a loss, and you want to give them answers.”

“We go through our investigation, and when we get to that dead end, we’re trying to find other ways. We’re trying to find accomplices or witnesses. We’re trying to get other … interview techniques, tactics, etc., to … get more information. But when that doesn’t happen, we now can leverage technology to get us that information we need. It helps us speed up the investigations. It’s faster. And people can’t escape technology these days.”

They certainly try, yet innovations like Cellebrite Pathfinder make it much harder.


The challenge in digital investigations is separating signal from noise. With the ubiquity of personal devices, computers and electronic communications, we all generate mountains of data every day – not only through phone calls but through emails, texts, photos, documents and even just traveling around. That data can tell detailed tales about our activities and associations – if you can identify and extract and match up the kernels of value. With average phones having up to 60,000 messages, 32,000 images and 30,000-plus locations, never mind thousands more contacts, call logs and audio files, decoding it all manually is a tall order.

Cellebrite Pathfinder uses machine learning to quickly sort through existing digital data of all types, correlating identifiers and connecting digital fingerprints from browsers, apps, cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots into comprehensive, organized overviews that reveal patterns and connections not visible to the naked eye.

The webinar, part of Cellebrite’s “Investigation Room” series, outlined three ways such technology can help reinvigorate flagging investigations. One important method is location-based analysis.

Most people know their smartphones can be used to track where they go. That’s true even when you turn the phone off. “There are still ways for us to try and extract the navigation – all kinds of geolocations from navigation apps, from hotspots, from Waze and stuff like that … we can see the route they take,” said Sigal Caspi, a subject matter expert with Cellebrite who spent 25 years with the Israeli police. Location information can also be scrutinized for commonalities with other suspects and subjects.

Caspi and Gudaitis provided several examples of how this approach can work. One resulted in the solving of a perplexing murder in Virginia.


In the parking lot of a shopping center, a woman was found dead in her car from a gunshot wound. Suspecting a domestic dispute, investigators looked immediately toward her intimate partner, about whom there had been prior complaints. However, they couldn’t link him to the crime: He wasn’t on scene, his vehicle didn’t appear on surveillance video, a search warrant produced nothing and there was no ballistic match. Digital evidence likewise couldn’t initially connect him.

They discovered one anomaly, though: The man’s phone had been turned off at the time of the incident. “We’re learning that that’s a telltale sign too,” said Gudaitis. “[Their] phone is on from the time they purchased the phone and only goes off during updates. But now, all of a sudden, this one day they decide, ‘I’m just going to turn it off.’” That may, in fact, be a suspicious act.

Investigators began a more detailed examination of the man’s digital footprints. Using Pathfinder, they looked not only at his call detail records (CDRs) but also at histories from Wi-Fi hotspots around the shopping center. There they found the smoking gun: Not only was he captured by multiple hotspots, but sequencing the precise times at each one revealed the exact path he took.

“Obviously … it’s hard to refute at this point,” said Gudaitis. “This is his data, his information, his address on those routers in those Wi-Fi hotspots.” With such irrefutable evidence, the man was convicted and is presently serving time.

Similarly, Caspi said, in another recent case, a person who’d left their phone behind while committing a crime had kept it with them the previous day, when they visited the same location. The Waze navigation app tracked that earlier trip, letting detectives ascertain the suspect had been to the crime scene not long before the crime. Higher-ups in criminal organizations have also been known to use GPS tracking to ensure subordinates get the job done, which will preserve a digital trail.

In another example, an informant reported a drug stash in an apartment. Police detained four people but lacked the background data to pursue a full case. Using Cellebrite Pathfinder’s mutual locations analysis, they discovered previous instances where two of the suspects had met at a public venue. Pulling CDRs identified a previously unknown third person who had joined them, opening up a new investigative lead.

“What we suggest in this case,” said Caspi, “is to go to the establishment to see if there are CCTV cameras, or you can go to the cafe or restaurant and maybe see who paid the bill, and then get the real evidence of who was there.”


Even one phone or mobile device can have thousands of potential clues, leads and crime indicators – but it’s a lot for even the most dedicated investigators to sift through. In big or complex cases, where there are multiple suspects, persons of interest and devices, the problem rapidly compounds.

Cellebrite Pathfinder combs, combines and compares all that possible evidence in ways that can be too laborious and time-consuming for traditional processes, organizing and presenting it in a digestible manner that helps police find leads they might otherwise have missed. An intuitive design and simple user interface make it easy to get started, and Cellebrite offers training and certification in its use to help law enforcement get the most out of it to accelerate justice.

For more information, visit Cellebrite Pathfinder.

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