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Extract Forensic Information for LEAs from Encrypted SmartPhones

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Extracting the truth from a criminal’s smartphone

The truth is out there. Unfortunately, in criminal cases, it’s often locked away on a mobile phone. But thanks to new solutions mean law enforcement agencies now have the tools they need to extract digital evidence from encrypted smartphones.

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Mobile communication devices such as smartphones have revolutionised how we live, work and even play. But they’ve also become a tool of choice for committing crimes, including intellectual property theft and terrorism. Criminals are attracted by the fact that most phones are protected by encryption, meaning extracting data from them can be a real mission impossible. “This encryption is a particularly vexing challenge for law enforcement agencies as the mobile telephones confiscated from criminals often contain key evidence that could be used to solve open cases or prevent future crimes,” says Patrick Leczek, part of the coordination team of the EU-funded EXFILES project. Bringing together a number of European law enforcement agencies (LEAs), research teams and testing laboratories, the EXFILES project developed a suite of mobile forensic technologies for ethically extracting digital evidence from modern encrypted smartphones. “By uniting stakeholders from all relevant domains, the EXFILES project was able to research and develop ways of maintaining security in the EU while preserving the privacy of its citizens,” adds Leczek.

Using both software and hardware

Being able to extract information from encrypted devices requires a holistic approach, one that involves the use of both software and hardware. “Our goal was to find ways to access protected evidence using semiconductor industry knowledge coupled with the latest software exploitation techniques,” explains Leczek. It is this combination of hardware and software that allowed the project to develop future solutions for obtaining access to encryption keys and to efficiently search for passwords. For example, investigators could use one solution to edit a phone’s chip, which would then open the door to using software to access the now decrypted user information. “It doesn’t matter to me whether it concerns incriminating material or not – getting access to information helps with establishing the truth in the court of law,” remarks Erwin van Eijk, head of the digital and biometrical traces division at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, one of the project’s partners.

Extracting data in an efficient and ethical way

In addition to advancing the technical tools for extracting encrypted evidence from smartphones, the EXFILES project worked to make sure that this could be done in an efficient and affordable way. The project also worked to increase information sharing across LEAs, along with providing training and best practices for using the developed solutions. Another key aspect of the project was to ensure that its data extraction solutions comply with all legal and ethical requirements.

Solving crimes today

The EXFILES solutions are not hypothetical. In fact, many of its tools are already being used by LEAs to extract information from smartphones in hundreds of criminal cases across Europe. “The results and tools developed during this project are helping solve criminal cases and prevent crimes,” concludes Leczek. “Thanks to the close collaboration and partnerships we’ve built, these tools will only continue to advance and further improve law enforcement’s ability to effectively fight crime.”


EXFILES, encryption, law enforcement agencies, mobile telephones, criminals, crime, smartphone, software, hardware, digital evidence, forensic technologies

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