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How mobile phones are helping forensic scientists catch murderers

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Digital forensics is a growing area, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s infallible

The ‘murder scene’ at the recent Crime Live event

Any law student would, rightly, be terrified to walk into a crime scene complete with blood spattered walls and bright yellow forensic tape in their lecture theatre. But that’s the sight that recently greeted BPP Law School students in their Waterloo campus.

Thankfully, no murder had taken place — instead the scene played backdrop to charity Inside Justice’s interactive Crime Live event, where forensic scientists and audience members work together to investigate the fictional killing of a 28-year-old primary school teacher.

Bloodied fingerprint marks and a shattered backdoor window intrigued the event’s protective clothing-clad scientists, Tracy Alexander and Jo Millington. The pair — both fully-fledged forensic experts — kept the audience entertained during the three-hour event with their comedy duo-style delivery and interesting facts (one of the best of which I’ve included at the bottom of this piece). Alexander and Millington will be starring alongside other members of the Inside Justice team in a new series of BBC Two’s Conviction.

Back to the murder scene, and Alexander and Millington were too attracted to a blood stain on the ‘9’ key of the victim’s old-school Nokia phone, placed on the table of the faux kitchen alongside a bottle of alcohol. The blood matched the victim’s, her husband claiming it was him that made the stain after cradling his wife’s body then ringing 999.

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Mobile phones — albeit less so a retro Nokia — can prove vital in the investigation of crime beyond the physical evidence they harbour. “People share everything about their lives nowadays,” says Millington, “our mobiles are just so involved in our everyday lives. In evidence, it’s quite remarkable what you can glean from them.”

This is because mobile phone users leave data trails without even realising it.

At a three-week exhibition near Leicester Square, The Glass Room, visitors learnt that when phone users cross public WiFi zones (a Starbucks, a train station) a note of this is made on their device even if they do not manually connect to the free internet. The privacy law implications of this are, of course, startling, but from a crime investigation point of view it helps the authorities paint a picture of victims’ and suspects’ movements.

Me outside of The Glass Room exhibition

Geoffrey Vos, a top judge, thinks the impact of this is felt not just in the detection of criminals but the criminal trial process, too.

In a recent speech the Chancellor of the High Court noted that “most people carry their smartphones on their person at all times with their GPS location switched on” and that this may result in “far fewer” contested criminal cases. Because “the location of all persons is continuously uploaded to the cloud”, he says, there will “be far fewer identity issues in criminal cases”.

Indeed, at the Inside Justice event, when intelligence analyst Sam Robins was asked whether some defendants had had their Google Timelines or Snap Maps used in evidence against them, she replied: “Yes — lots of people!”

What digital forensics isn’t, though, is conclusive proof of guilt. For starters, “mobile devices are not superglued to users’ hands and can be swapped among friends or stolen”, says the commercial director of one well-known forensics business.

Ruth Morgan, the Director of the UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences, echoes these concerns when she tells me that while “mobile phone technology and the data produced is a really interesting and growing field”, forensic science generally is simply “not as infallible as it is assumed to be”. Of the 996 cases heard in the Court of Appeal between 2010 and 2016 involving criminal evidence, rulings in 218 (22%) were argued to be unsafe as they contained misleading evidence.

Two photos from Crime Live. Pictured: Tracy Alexander

Specific areas in which we should remain cautious include the reliability of hair-strand evidence. Matching suspect’s hairs to those found at a crime scene is not an objective science and depends on experts’ take on whether the hairs match. Donald Gates knows this too well: he was convicted (and served 28 years in prison) in the United States for a rape and murder after an FBI analyst testified that hairs found on the victim’s body matched Gates’. He was exonerated when DNA testing revealed the hairs didn’t belong to him.

Similarly worrying is research into ‘touch DNA’, which shows epithelial cells can be transferred via handshake. Researchers from the University of Indianapolis found that the DNA profile of a person who had never touched the knife used in the experiment, but had shaken the hand of the person who had, appeared in 85% of samples.

In a recent TED Talk, Morgan hammered the importance of this forensic science frailty home when she invited audience members to think about how they’d feel if they were accused of a crime that they didn’t commit:

“Imagine you’re standing in the court, and the expert is explaining to the judge how that hair, that fibre, how your DNA, is cast iron proof of your guilt. But you know you’re innocent. But you know it’s you vs science.”

It’s doesn’t bear imagining. Unfortunately, some people don’t have to.


An interesting fact from Crime Live

Various phones allow you to unlock your phone with your fingerprint, but would the phone unlock if the finger used belongs to a dead person? The answer is no, says Alexander, who puts this down to dead bodies’ missing electricity. However, if you were to replace this electricity artificially, for example by running a car battery through the deceased person’s arm, then, yes, the phone would unlock.

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5 Comments

Bored of Law

I think it’s a massive misconception among the public that forensic scientists are infallible gods whose evidence is conclusive proof of guilt. far from it, but juries tend to believe authorative figures wearing a lab coat in court with hundreds of letters after their names

loljkm8

“However, if you were to replace this electricity artificially, for example by running a car battery through the deceased person’s arm, then, yes, the phone would unlock.”

A car battery?! *insert teary-eyed laughing emoji*

Frank Halliwell

Even if the phone GPS is switched OFF on your phone, you can still be tracked through the phone services phone towers as it logs into each once it gets within a distance and transfers to the next as you travel. Each time it happens it is recorded by the phone company which can be accessed with a warrant. With the gps turned OFF then you can be tracked via the phones WIFI which automatically logs into free WIFI as you travel.
Then theres Google maps which follow you also through their new undisclosed phantom system.
So even with GPS and WIFI OFF…then the phone still transmits an IME number which cant be stopped unless the phones turned off.
BUT….although even with the phone turned OFF, you can now still be tracked, audio recorded to even film recorded through the camera, all without you knowing.

Same applies for your vehicles GPS either built in or windscreen type, these too can be accessed by warrant to download all breadcrumb trails since first turned on meaning from the moment its switched on at new, youre position, the time you were there, how long you were there for, speed,.even altitude, and other points have also been recorded and saved every 3 seconds without you knowing. Then you have the dash camera also.
Even without a PHONE or GPS, ALL modern day vehicles have a computer which you can be tracked although cant go into that. Even without these personal devices and vehicle based devices, you are tracked through ATM logs and road CCTV,
Then there is satellite vehicle trackers and even the NRO and NSA satellites if the crime is of a National Security level of ‘extreme’ such as ‘rewind action’ which involves the reverse grid tracing of a terrorists back to his cell location (similar to movie Enemy of the state)…now makes it hard to travel without being tracked although its not impossible 😁

Frank Halliwell

Even if the phone GPS is switched OFF on your phone, you can still be tracked through the phone services phone towers as it logs into each once it gets within a distance and transfers to the next as you travel. Each time it happens it is recorded by the phone company which can be accessed with a warrant. With the gps turned OFF then you can be tracked via the phones WIFI which automatically logs into free WIFI as you travel.
Then theres Google maps which follow you also through their undisclosed phantom system.
So even with GPS and WIFI OFF…then the phone still transmits an IME number which cant be stopped unless the phones turned off.
BUT….although even with the phone turned OFF, you can now still be tracked, audio recorded to even film recorded through the camera, all without you knowing.
Same applies for your vehicles GPS either built in or windscreen type, these too can be accessed by warrant to download all breadcrumb trails since first turned on meaning from the moment its switched on at new, your position, the time you were there, how long you were there for, speed,.even altitude, and other points have also been recorded and saved every 3 seconds without you knowing. Then you have the dash camera also.
Even without a PHONE or GPS, ALL modern day vehicles have a computer which you can be used for vehicle positioning although cant go into that. Even without these personal devices and vehicle based devices, you are tracked through ATM logs and road CCTV.
Then there is satellite vehicle trackers by many manufactures and even the NRO and NSA satellites if the crime is of a National Security level of ‘extreme’ such as ‘rewind action’ which involves the reverse grid tracing of a terrorists back to his cell location (similar to movie Enemy of the state)…now makes it hard to travel without being tracked although its still not impossible 😁

Richard D Stanforth

Absolute 100% agree with the above person, sounds like a very handy expert to have on hand. Some of the ways LE go about their way in gathering this electronic information needs to be investigated since the including of additional information to aquired gps information is way to simple to do. I and my brother have personally watched a forensic Police officer add new travel routes to a gps with a simple button press and hold so he could “assure appropriate justice towards scum” This in the end sent the person to jail for six years. Fortunately six years later DNA resolved the crime when even then the relocating of a persons dna with hair from one person was found at the scene, 11 months after, in the open, even though the person has been bald for 30years and so why would he need a comb? Unbelievable!
Technology is now being relied apon as being the final point of proof in the taking of account that all critical evidence offered can and is manipulated all the time where many more independent experts need far more inclusion into cases.

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