• Dave Hulshizer

Mobile Device Apps & Their Significance in Digital Forensics

When we think about mobile data, most of us think about the data that comes with a phone subscription, but nearly every time you engage on a mobile device, data is being collected on you. It may come from sites that are browsed while online, an app or even the phone itself, through things like GPS coordinates.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to explore how the apps on a mobile device can collect valuable data - data that can be used as evidence. Mobile apps can use different technologies and development techniques, calling for radically different ways to collect, manage and deliver the data. Not only is the data managed differently, but the data collected may integrate with other data sources.

Over 90% of apps are set up to transfer information back to Google. Because most apps are now offered for free, earning revenues only from advertising, data collection and data sharing is key in how these apps operate. Data collected by third parties through smartphone apps can include anything from profile information such as age and gender to location details, including data about nearby cell phone towers or Wi-Fi routers, and information about every other app on a phone.

Mobile phones are full of sensitive information, and if your phone is on, that information is being shared to third parties. Just the types of apps you have on your phone creates a vast insight into a person’s life. You can learn information about age, sexual orientation and health and link it all back to their device.

The types of apps most valuable and most insightful when it comes to sensitive information are:

  • Social

  • Health & Lifestyle

  • Productivity & Tools

  • Educational

Data can be collected from the onboard sensors and other phone logs embedded in today’s off-the-shelf smartphone devices. This data permits granular, continuous collection of people’s social interactions (e.g., speaking rates in conversation, size of social groups, calls, and text messages), daily activities (e.g., physical activity and sleep), and mobility patterns (e.g., frequency and duration of time spent at various locations). Our phones already come equipped with the sensors needed to obtain a great deal of information about our behavioral lifestyles. They routinely record sociability (who we interact with via calls, texts, and social media apps) and mobility behaviors (where we are via accelerometer, GPS, and WiFi) as part of their daily functioning. Smart-phone sensing methods make use of these behavioral records by implementing on-the-phone software apps that passively collect data from the native mobile sensors and system logs that come already embedded in the device.

As you can imagine, in an investigation, having access to and the ability to forensically examine the device can lead to incriminating or vindicating evidence that if properly obtained can be used in a court of law. Determining one's whereabouts at a specific time, their connections, conversations and messages, lifestyle, habits, search patterns can all be obtained from a mobile device, and much of it from apps and the information they collect and share.

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