Matt Ryan
August 13, 2010

Police are using iPhones in their investigations.

When Steve Jobs first announced the iPhone in January of 2007, the tech world was abuzz about what this single device could mean to the future of mobile communication. He told the crowd at Macworld that Apple was coming out with a communications device, internet browser and a media player. What police are discovering is that the iPhone is also a great tool for tracking and prosecuting their owners. It turns out that the iPhone stores a lot more information than you may think.

The Chicago Sun-Times published an article expanding on how police are using iPhones in their investigations.

• Every time an iPhone user closes out of the built-in mapping application, the phone snaps a screenshot and stores it. Savvy law-enforcement agents armed with search warrants can use those snapshots to see if a suspect is lying about whereabouts during a crime.

• iPhone photos are embedded with GEO tags and identifying information, meaning that photos posted online might not only include GPS coordinates of where the picture was taken, but also the serial number of the phone that took it.

• Even more information is stored by the applications themselves, including the user’s browser history. That data is meant in part to direct custom-tailored advertisements to the user, but experts said some of it could be useful to police.

Clearing out user histories isn’t enough to clean the device of that data, said John B. Minor, a member of the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners.

Just as users can take and store a picture of their iPhone’s screen, the phone itself automatically shoots and stores hundreds of such images as people close out one application to use another.

“Those screen snapshots can contain images of e-mails or proof of activities that might be inculpatory or exculpatory,” Minor said.

• The keyboard cache logs everything that you type in to learn autocorrect so that it can correct a user’s typing mistakes. Apple doesn’t store that cache very securely, Zdziarski contended, so someone with know-how could recover months of typing in the order in which it was typed, even if the e-mail or text it was part of has long since been deleted.

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While these points alone aren’t included in any of the keynote speeches Steve Jobs makes in front of thousands of his closest friends, they are known and utilized by law enforcement liberally. Why does the iPhone need to take a photo of your screen every time you close out of the maps application? Why does it store this image and why don’t users get access to this information?

What will modern mobile devices store on you when AT&T and Verizon move forward with their plans to have phones replace credit cards? Your credit purchases may easily be tracked by police already, but a clever thief with the right scripts can access this information easier if it is stored on something as unsecured as a mobile phone.

Just last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about stalkers exploiting cellphone GPS. In this story, they explain how domestic-abuse victims have to take apart their phones to disable the GPS features after their attackers found them using the device.

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As these mobile devices become more and more a part of our everyday lives, it is important to consider how information stored on your phone can be used against you.

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