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In this article by Oleg Afonin and Vladimir Katalov, the authors of the book Mobile Forensics – Advanced Investigative Strategies, we will see that today’s smartphones are used less for calling and more for socializing, this has resulted in the smartphones holding a lot of sensitive data about their users. Mobile devices keep the user’s contacts from a variety of sources (including the phone, social networks, instant messaging, and communication applications), information about phone calls, sent and received text messages, and e-mails and attachments. There are also browser logs and cached geolocation information; pictures and videos taken with the phone’s camera; passwords to cloud services, forums, social networks, online portals, and shopping websites; stored payment data; and a lot of other information that can be vital for an investigation.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Needless to say, this information is very important for corporate and forensic investigations. In this book, we’ll discuss not only how to gain access to all this data, but also what type of data may be available in each particular case.

Tablets are no longer used solely as entertainment devices. Equipped with powerful processors and plenty of storage, even the smallest tablets are capable of running full Windows, complete with the Office suite. While not as popular as smartphones, tablets are still widely used to socialize, communicate, plan events, and book trips.

Some smartphones are equipped with screens as large as 6.4 inches, while many tablets come with the ability to make voice calls over cellular network. All this makes it difficult to draw a line between a phone (or phablet) and a tablet.

Every smartphone on the market has a camera that, unlike a bigger (and possibly better) camera, is always accessible. As a result, an average smartphone contains more photos and videos than a dedicated camera; sometimes, it’s gigabytes worth of images and video clips.

Smartphones are also storage devices. They can be used (and are used) to keep, carry, and exchange information. Smartphones connected to a corporate network may have access to files and documents not meant to be exposed. Uncontrolled access to corporate networks from employees’ smartphones can (and does) cause leaks of highly-sensitive information. Employees come and go. With many companies allowing or even encouraging bring your own device policies, controlling the data that is accessible to those connecting to a corporate network is essential.

What You Get Depends on What You Have

Unlike personal computers that basically present a single source of information (the device itself consisting of hard drive(s) and volatile memory), mobile forensics deals with multiple data sources. Depending on the sources that are available, investigators may use one or the other tool to acquire information.

The mobile device

If you have access to the mobile device, you can attempt to perform physical or logical acquisition. Depending on the device itself (hardware) and the operating system it is running, this may or may not be possible. However, physical acquisition still counts as the most complete and up-to-date source of evidence among all available.

Generally speaking, physical acquisition is available for most Android smartphones and tablets, older Apple hardware (iPhones up to iPhone 4, the original iPad, iPad mini, and so on), and recent Apple hardware with known passcode. As a rule, Apple devices can only be physically acquired if jailbroken. Since a jailbreak obtains superuser privileges by exploiting a vulnerability in iOS, and Apple actively fixes such vulnerabilities, physical acquisition of iOS devices remains iffy. A physical acquisition technique has been recently developed for some Windows phone devices using Cellebrite Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED).

Physical acquisition is also available for 64-bit Apple hardware (iPhone 5S and newer, iPad mini 2, and so on). It is worth noting that physical acquisition of 64-bit devices is even more restrictive compared to the older 32-bit hardware, as it requires not only jailbreaking the device and unlocking it with a passcode, but also removing the said passcode from the security settings. Interestingly, according to Apple, even Apple itself cannot extract information from 64-bit iOS devices running iOS 8 and newer, even if they are served a court order.

Physical acquisition is available on a limited number of BlackBerry smartphones running BlackBerry OS 7 and earlier. For BlackBerry smartphones, physical acquisition is available for unlocked BlackBerry 7 and lower devices, where supported, using Cellebrite UFED Touch/4PC through the bootloader method. For BlackBerry 10 devices where device encryption is not enabled, a chip-off can successfully acquire the device memory by parsing the physical dump using Cellebrite UFED.

Personal computer

Notably, the user’s personal computer can help acquiring mobile evidence. The PC may contain the phone’s offline data backups (such as those produced by Apple iTunes) that contain most of the information stored in the phone and available (or unavailable) during physical acquisition.

Lockdown records are created when an iOS device is physically connected to the computer and authorized through iTunes. Lockdown records may be used to gain access to an iOS device without entering the passcode. In addition, the computer may contain binary authentication tokens that can be used to access respective cloud accounts linked to user’s mobile devices.

Access to cloud storage

Many smartphones and tablets, especially those produced by Apple, offer the ability to back up information into an online cloud. Apple smartphones, for example, will automatically back up their content to Apple iCloud every time they are connected to a charger within the reach of a known Wi-Fi network. Windows phone devices exhibit similar behavior. Google, while not featuring full cloud backups like Apple or Microsoft, collects and retains even more information through Google Mobile Services (GMS). This information can also be pulled from the cloud.

Since cloud backups are transparent, non-intrusive and require no user interaction, they are left enabled by default by many smartphone users, which makes it possible for an investigator to either acquire the content of the cloud storage or request it from the respective company with a court order.

In order to successfully access the phone’s cloud storage, one needs to know the user’s authentication credentials (login and password). It may be possible to access iCloud by using binary authentication tokens extracted from the user’s computer.

With manufacturers quickly advancing in their security implementations, cloud forensics is quickly gaining importance and recognition among digital forensic specialists.

Stages of mobile forensics

This section will briefly discuss the general stages of mobile forensics and is not intended to provide a detailed explanation of each stage. There is more-than-sufficient documentation that can be easily accessed on the Internet that provides an intimate level of detail regarding the stages of mobile forensics.

The most important concept for the reader to understand is this: have the least level of impact on the mobile device during all the stages. In other words, an examiner should first work on the continuum of the least-intrusive method to the most-intrusive method, which can be dictated by the type of data needing to be obtained from the mobile device and complexity of the hardware/software of the mobile device.

Stage one – device seizure

This stage pertains to the physical seizure of the device so that it comes under the control and custody of the investigator/examiner. Consideration must also be given to the legal authority or written consent to seize, extract, and search this data.

The physical condition of the device at the time of seizure should be noted, ideally through digital photographic documentation and written notes, such as:

  • Is the device damaged? If, yes, then document the type of damage.
  • Is the device on or off?
  • What is the device date and time if the device is on?
  • If the device is on, what apps are running or observable on the device desktop?
  • If the device is on, is the device desktop accessible to check for passcode and security settings?

Several other aspects of device seizure are described in the following as they will affect post-seizure analysis: radio isolation, turning the device off if it is on, remote wipe, and anti-forensics.

Seizing – what and how to seize?

When it comes to properly acquiring a mobile device, one must be aware of the many differences in how computers and mobile devices operate. Seizing, handling, storing, and extracting mobile devices must follow a different route compared to desktop and even laptop computers.

Unlike PCs that can be either online or offline (which includes energy-saving states of sleep and hibernation), smartphones and tablets use a different, always-connected modus of operandi. Tremendous amounts of activities are carried out in the background, even while the device is apparently sleeping. Activities can be scheduled or triggered by a large number of events, including push events from online services and events that are initiated remotely by the user.

Another thing to consider when acquiring a mobile device is security. Mobile devices are carried around a lot, and they are designed to be inherently more secure than desktop PCs. Non-removable storage and soldered RAM chips, optional or enforced data encryption, remote kill switches, secure lock screens, and locked bootloaders are just a few security measures to be mentioned.

The use of Faraday bags

Faraday bags are commonly used to temporarily store seized devices without powering them down. A Faraday bag blocks wireless connectivity to cellular networks, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, and any other radios used in mobile devices. Faraday bags are normally designed to shield the range of radio frequencies used by local cellular carriers and satellite navigation (typically the 700-2,600 MHz), as well as the 2.4-5 GHz range used by Wi-Fi networks and Bluetooth. Many Faraday bags are made of specially-coated metallic shielding material that blocks a wide range of radio frequencies.

Keeping the power on

When dealing with a seized device, it is essential to prevent the device from powering off. Never switching off a working device is one thing, preventing it from powering down is another. Since mobile devices consume power even while the display is off, the standard practice is connecting the device to a charger and placing it into a wireless-blocking Faraday bag. This will prevent the mobile device from shutting down after reaching the low-power state.

Why exactly do we need this procedure? The thing is, you may be able to extract more information from a device that was used (unlocked at least once) after the last boot cycle compared to a device that boots up in your lab and you don’t know the passcode.

To illustrate the potential outcome, let’s say you seized an iPhone that is locked with an unknown passcode. The iPhone happens to be jailbroken, so you can attempt using Elcomsoft iOS Forensic Toolkit to extract information.

If the device is locked and you don’t know the passcode, you will have access to a very limited set of data:

  • Recent geolocation information: Since the main location database remains encrypted, it is only possible to extract limited location data. This limited location data is only accessible if the device was unlocked at least once after the boot has completed. As a result, if you keep the device powered on, you may pull recent geolocation history from this device. If, however, the device shuts down and is only powered on in the lab, the geolocation data will remain inaccessible until the device is unlocked.
  • Incoming calls (numbers only) and text messages: Incoming text messages are temporarily retained unencrypted before the first unlock after cold boot. Once the device is unlocked for the first time after cold boot, the messages will be transferred into the main encrypted database. This means that acquiring a device that was never unlocked after a cold start will only allow access to text messages received by the device during the time it remained locked after the boot.

    If the iPhone being acquired was unlocked at least once after it was booted (for example, if the device was seized in a turned-on state), you may be able to access significantly more information. The SMS database is decrypted on first unlock, allowing you pulling all text messages and not just those that were received while the device remained locked.

  • App and system logs (installs and updates, net access logs, and so on).
  • SQLite temp files, including write-ahead logs (WAL): These WAL may include messages received by applications such as Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, and so on. Once the device is unlocked, the data is merged with corresponding apps’ main databases. When extracting a device after a cold boot (never unlocked), you will only have access to notifications received after the boot. If, however, you are extracting a device that was unlocked at least once after booting up, you may be able to extract the complete database with all messages (depending on the data protection class selected by the developer of a particular application).

Dealing with the kill switch

Mobile operating systems such as Apple iOS, recent versions of Google Android, all versions of BlackBerry OS, and Microsoft Windows phone 8/8.1 (Windows 10 mobile) have an important security feature designed to prevent unauthorized persons from accessing information stored in the device. The so-called kill switch enables the owner to lock or erase the device if the device is reported lost or stolen. While used by legitimate customers to safeguard their data, this feature is also used by suspects who may attempt to remotely destroy evidence if their mobile device is seized.

In the recent Morristown man accused of remotely wiping nude photos of underage girlfriend on confiscated phone report (http://wate.com/2015/04/07/morristown-man-accused-of-remotely-wiping-nude-photos-of-underage-girlfriend-on-confiscated-phone/), the accused used the remote kill switch to wipe data stored on his iPhone.

Using the Faraday bag is essential to prevent suspects from accessing the kill switch. However, even if the device in question has already been wiped remotely, it does not necessarily mean that all the data is completely lost.

Apple iOS, Windows phone 8/8.1, Windows 10 mobile, and the latest version of Android (Android 6.0 Marshmallow) support cloud backups (albeit Android cloud backups contains limited amounts of data). When it comes to BlackBerry 10, the backups are strictly offline, yet the decryption key is tied to the user’s BlackBerry ID and stored on BlackBerry servers.

The ability to automatically upload backup copies of data into the cloud is a double-edged sword. While offering more convenience to the user, cloud backups make remote acquisition techniques possible. Depending on the platform, all or some information from the device can be retrieved from the cloud by either making use of a forensic tool (for example, Elcomsoft Phone Breaker, Oxygen Forensic Detective) or by serving a government request to the corresponding company (Apple, Google, Microsoft, or BlackBerry).

Mobile device anti-forensics

There are numerous anti-forensic methods that target evidence acquisition methods used by the law enforcement. It is common for the police to seize a device, connect it to a charger, and place into a Faraday bag. The anti-forensic method used by some technologically-advanced suspects on Android phones involves rooting the device and installing a tool that monitors wireless connectivity of the device. If the tool detects that the device has been idle, connected to a charger, and without wireless connectivity for a predefined period, it performs a factory reset. Since there is no practical way of determining whether such protection is active on the device prior to acquisition, simply following established guidelines presents a risk of evidence being destroyed. If there are reasonable grounds to suspect such a system may be in place, the device can be powered down (while realizing the risk of full-disk encryption preventing subsequent acquisition).

While rooting or jailbreaking devices generally makes the device susceptible to advanced acquisition methods, we’ve seen users who unlocked their bootloader to install a custom recovery, protected access to this custom recovery with a password, and relocked the bootloader. Locked bootloader and password-protected access to custom recovery is an extremely tough combination to break.

In several reports, we’ve become aware of the following anti-forensic technique used by a group of cyber criminals. The devices were configured to automatically wipe user data if certain predefined conditions were met. In this case, the predefined conditions triggering the wipe matched the typical acquisition scenario of placing the device inside a Faraday bag and connecting it to a charger. Once the device reported being charged without wireless connectivity (but not in airplane mode) for a certain amount of time, a special tool triggers a full factory reset of the device. Notably, this is only possible on rooted/jailbroken devices.

So far, this anti-forensic technique did not receive a wide recognition. It’s used by a small minority of smartphone users, mostly those into cybercrime. The low probability of a smartphone being configured that way is small enough to consider implementing changes to published guidelines.

Stage two – data acquisition

This stage refers to various methods of extracting data from the device. The methods of data extraction that can be employed are influenced by the following:

  • Type of mobile device: The make, model, hardware, software, and vendor configuration.
  • Availability of a diverse set of hardware and software extraction/analysis tools at the examiner’s disposal: There is no tool that does it all, an examiner needs to have access to a number of tools that can assist with data extraction.
  • Physical state of device: Has the device been exposed to damage, such as physical, water, biological fluids such as blood? Often the type of damage can dictate the types of data extraction measures that will be employed on the device.

There are several different types of data extractions that determine how much data is obtained from the device:

  • Physical: Binary image of the device has the most potential to recover deleted data and obtains the largest amount of data from the device. This can be the most challenging type of extraction to obtain.
  • File system: This is a representation of the files and folders from the user area of the device, and can contain deleted data, specific to databases. This method will contain less data than a physical data extraction.
  • Logical: This acquires the least amount of data from the device. Examples of this are call history, messages, contacts, pictures, movies, audio files, and so on. This is referred to as low-hanging fruit. No deleted data or source files are obtained. Often the resulting output will be a series of reports produced by the extraction tool. This is often the easiest and quickest type of extraction.
  • Photographic documentation: This method is typically used when all other data extraction avenues are exhausted. In this procedure, the examiner uses a digital camera to photographically document the content being displayed by the device. This is a time-consuming method when there is an extensive amount of information to photograph.

Specific data-extraction concepts are explained here: bootloader, jailbreak, rooting, adb, debug, and sim cloning.

Root, jailbreak, and unlocked bootloader

Rooting or jailbreaking the mobile devices in general makes them susceptible to a wide range of exploits. In the context of mobile forensics, rooted devices are easy to acquire since many forensic acquisition tools rely on root/jailbreak to perform physical acquisition.

Devices with unlocked bootloaders allow booting unsigned code, effectively permitting full access to the device even if it’s locked with a passcode. However, if the device is encrypted and the passcode is part of the encryption key, bypassing passcode protection may not automatically enable access to encrypted data.

Rooting or jailbreaking enables unrestricted access to the filesystem, bypassing the operating system’s security measures and allowing the acquisition tool to read information from protected areas. This is one of the reasons for banning rooted devices (as well as devices with unlocked bootloaders) from corporate premises.

Installing a jailbreak on iOS devices always makes the phone less secure, enabling third-party code to be injected and run on a system level. This fact is well-known to forensic experts who make use of tools such as Cellebrite UFED or Elcomsoft iOS Forensic Toolkit to perform physical acquisition of jailbroken Apple smartphones.

Some Android devices allow unlocking the bootloader, which enables easy and straightforward rooting of the device. While not all Android devices with unlocked bootloaders are rooted, installing root access during acquisition of a bootloader-unlocked device has a much higher chance of success compared to devices that are locked down. Tools such as Cellebrite UFED, Forensic Toolkit (FTK), Oxygen Forensic Suite, and many others can make use of the phone’s root status in order to inject acquisition applets and image the device.

Unlocked bootloaders can be exploited as well if you use UFED. A bootloader-level exploit exists and is used in UFED to perform acquisition of many Android and Windows phone devices based on the Qualcomm reference platform even if their bootloader is locked.

Android ADB debugging

Android has a hidden Developer Options menu. Accessing this menu requires a conscious effort of tapping on the OS build number multiple times. Some users enable Developer Options out of curiosity. Once enabled, the Developer Options menu may or may not be possible to hide.

Among other things, the Developer Options menu lists an option called USB debugging or ADB debugging. If enabled, this option allows controlling the device via ADB command line, which in turn allows experts using Android debugging tools (adb.exe) to connect to the device from a PC even if it’s locked with a passcode. Activated USB debugging exposes a lot of possibilities and can make acquisition possible even if the device is locked with a passcode.

Memory card

Most smartphone devices and tablets (except iOS devices) have the capability of increasing their storage capacity by using a microSD card. An examiner would remove the memory card from the mobile device/tablet and use either hardware or software write-protection methods, and create a bit stream forensic image of the memory card, which can then be analyzed using forensic software tools, such as X-Ways, Autopsy Sleuth Kit, Forensic Explorer (GetData), EnCase, or FTK (AccessData).

Stage three – data analysis

This stage of mobile device forensics entails analysis of the acquired data from the device and its components (SIM card and memory card if present). Most mobile forensic acquisition tools that acquire the data from the device memory can also parse the extracted data and provide the examiner functionality within the tool to perform analysis. This entails review of any non-deleted and deleted data.

When reviewing non-deleted data, it would be prudent to also perform a manual review of the device to ensure that the extracted and parsed data matches what is displayed by the device. As mobile device storage capacities have increased, it is suggested that a limited subset of data records from the relevant areas be reviewed. So, for example, if a mobile device has over 200 call records, reviewing several call records from missed calls, incoming calls, and outgoing calls can be checked on the device in relation to the similar records in the extracted data. By doing this manual review, it is then possible to discover any discrepancies in the extracted data.

Manual device review can only be completed when the device is still in the custody of the examiner. There are situations where, after the data extraction has been completed, the device is released back to the investigator or owner. In situations such as this, the examiner should document that very limited or no manual verification can be performed due to these circumstances.

Finally, the reader should be keenly aware that more than one analysis tool can be used to analyze the acquired data. Multiple analysis tools should be considered, especially when a specific type of data cannot be parsed by one tool, but can be analyzed by another.


In this article, we’ve covered the basics of mobile forensics. We discussed the amount of evidence available in today’s mobile devices and covered the general steps of mobile forensics. We also discussed how to seize, handle, and store mobile devices, and looked at how criminals can use technology to prevent forensic access. We provided a general overview of the acquisition and analysis steps.

For more information on mobile forensics, you can refer to the following books by Packt:

  • Practical Mobile Forensics – Second Edition: https://www.packtpub.com/networking-and-servers/practical-mobile-forensics-second-edition
  • Mastering Mobile Forensics: https://www.packtpub.com/networking-and-servers/mastering-mobile-forensics
  • Learning iOS Forensics: https://www.packtpub.com/networking-and-servers/learning-ios-forensics 

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