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Cellphone forensics play key role in gathering intelligence

Cellphone forensics can help agencies examine contraband cellphones to find potential evidence

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By Becky Lewis
TechBeat Magazine

The facility search team completes its first sweep with the newly trained cell phone sniffing dog, coming up with a bagful of contraband ranging from old-style flip phones to the latest in smartphone technology.

Now what?

A new online publication produced by the National Institute of Justice Corrections Technology Center of Excellence (NIJ CX CoE), “Cell Phone Forensics in a Correctional Setting Guidebook”, provides potential answers to that question. In general, the publication discusses the importance of cellphone forensics to correctional institutions and provides suggestions on how agencies can develop their own forensics programs, since many state and federal laboratories are overwhelmed by huge backlogs. The CX CoE is part of NIJ’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System.

“You’ll often hear people say ‘All we have to do is jam them,’ or ‘If we establish managed access and render them paperweights, that’s all we need.’ This lack of understanding of the technology is a real concern,” says John Shaffer, CX CoE program manager for institutional corrections. “Even when you cut off the ability to make a voice call, phones can still be used for a lot of other things such as taking still photographs, making videos, word processing and local text messaging. Some phones allow the user to select the carrier, possibly bypassing managed access systems. All of those things are still a risk and the phones should still be considered contraband. I’ve always been an advocate of recovering the hardware and conducting a forensic analysis so you don’t lose the potential evidence.”

“The problem of contraband cell phones is reaching epidemic proportions,” says CX CoE Director Joe Russo. “The mission should be not to just recover the phones, but also to maximize their intelligence value. There’s a lot of data on these phones that could uncover criminal acts and lead to arrests. The data can also assist in identifying linkages between inmates and persons in the community. Correctional administrators need to understand a confiscated device could give you a lot of information.”

“Because contraband cellphones are a relatively new phenomenon, many correctional facilities are not yet using forensics,” he adds. “They need to learn to use all the tools and resources at their disposal. It’s not just about collecting the confiscated phones, putting them in a box and giving it to charity.”

The NIJ Institutional Corrections Technology Working Group established developing a product to meet this need as a priority approximately three years ago, and the CX CoE tasked Shaffer, who retired after 31 years of service with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, with leading the effort. The project included a market survey of available hardware and software, literature reviews, Internet searches, and convening a group of subject-matter experts that included experienced corrections professionals (some of whom were also experienced in cell phone forensics), as well as skilled technologists. Participants in a series of three CX CoE webinars on dealing with various aspects of the contraband cellphone problem also provided input through their responses to online polls.

Through all these tools, one common theme emerged: many corrections professionals share a belief that stopping inmates from using phones, whether through some form of managed access or through locating contraband, is all that is needed to address the problem.

“I’ve been involved in the fight against contraband cellphones from early on,” Shaffer says. “I can’t say that I was surprised by the lack of awareness about the potential security intelligence stored on contraband cellphones and the importance of cellphone forensics. I think there’s really a need to get that message out.”

“Cell Phone Forensics in a Correctional Setting Guidebook” gets that message out through an explanation of the evidentiary benefits of a cellphone forensics program, a review of the technology available to help agencies examine contraband cellphones, an outline of the issues involved in starting an internal cellphone forensics program, and a synopsis of relevant legal issues and case law.

“It’s important for people to know that there is no one technology that will solve all their problems. It’s just like anything else in security and corrections, you need a multipronged approach where stopping phones from coming in in the first place is key,” Shaffer says.

“Ten years ago correctional agencies weren’t thinking much about cellphones and now they’ve had to develop a whole new capacity,” Russo says. “Developing the internal capacity to examine them is probably something that every agency should consider if there is any kind of a cellphone problem. On the other hand, it’s not for every agency. If you find only a few in a year , there are external resources you can use, and the guide provides information on that too.”

Download “Cell Phone Forensics in a Correctional Setting Guidebook” from For more information on the projects and programs in NIJ’s correctional portfolio, contact Jack Harne, corrections technology program manager, at or (202) 616-2911.

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