iPhone's remote deletions may help crooks cover tracks

Certain features of increasingly widespread enterprise smartphones may aid criminals in hiding incriminating evidence, says the UK's Serious Fraud Office.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor
Criminals can remotely destroy incriminating evidence by exploiting security features on the Apple iPhone, a leading digital-forensics expert has warned.

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

Foggon said: "The iPhone 3G 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 took 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 hunts out incriminating evidence from crime scenes, uses a number of hi-tech tools to get the sensitive data needed by the police 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 the 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 towards mobile devices is posing an increasing headache for the digital-forensics teams.

He said: "It is a concern that society is moving more towards 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," Foggon said. "That is an area where we are almost playing catch-up." Another growing problem, as regards forensics teams' ability to recover evidence, is the encryption features found in modern operating systems.

"With Windows Vista, you have BitLocker, which 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 UK 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 Chief Police Officers have 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 Serious Fraud Office.

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