Searching cell phones for criminal evidence

Earlier this month, I attended a class on gang activity and gang interdiction led by a Sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department Street Crimes Unit. My instructor works a gang unit in a sector of the city in which the Norteños and Sureños are the two rivals seeking primacy over the neighborhood. During the three-hour seminar, my classmates and I were shown dozens upon dozens of images of criminal activity taking place. We saw pictures with the entire roster for those gangs flashing their signs and brandishing their weapons. These were high-quality photos — not grainy screen grabs from 1980s-era surveillance cameras!

The Sergeant, whose name I’ll leave out of this for his security, laughed as he said, “I love these guys. They love to take pictures of themselves with their cell phones. The really stupid ones post them up on MySpace and Facebook or one of their own ‘netbanging’ sites, but even the ones who don’t — well, we get a good look at their phones when we make an arrest.”

Some time ago, I connected with Rick Graham, a retired Chief of Detectives for Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. Graham told me, “Effective communication when conducting business — legitimate and illegitimate — is an absolute necessity. Every self-respecting criminal is carrying and using some type of electronic communication device — Blackberry, iPhone, Android, iPad, Notebooks, what have you. These particular type devices when examined properly can prove to be of great value to an investigator who is working at building a case against a perpetrator, be it a drug trafficker, money launderer, or homicide suspect.”

The photos taken on most Smartphones have GPS data associated with them, unless the user has gone to the trouble of switching the GPS locator off for the camera on the device. Some criminals are figuring this out, but not all. Those images also usually have the time and date information stored, and this data is even harder to hide than the location information.

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