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In this article by Soufiane Tahiri, the author of Mastering Mobile Forensics, we will look at the basics of smartphone forensics. Smartphone forensic is a relatively new and quickly emerging field of interest within the digital forensic community and law enforcement, as today’s mobile devices are getting smarter, cheaper, and more easily available for common daily use.

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

To investigate the growing number of digital crimes and complaints, researchers have put in a lot of efforts to design the most affordable investigative model; in this article, we will emphasize the importance of paying real attention to the growing market of smartphones and the efforts made in this field from a digital forensic point of view, in order to design the most comprehensive investigation process.

Smartphone forensics models

Given the pace at which mobile technology grows and the variety of complexities that are produced by today’s mobile data, forensics examiners face serious adaptation problems; so, developing and adopting standards makes sense.

Reliability of evidence depends directly on adopted investigative processes, choosing to bypass or bypassing a step accidentally may (and will certainly) lead to incomplete evidence and increase the risk of rejection in the court of law.

Today, there is no standard or unified model that is adapted to acquiring evidences from smartphones. The dramatic development of smart devices suggests that any forensic examiner will have to apply as many independent models as necessary in order to collect and preserve data.

Similar to any forensic investigation, several approaches and techniques can be used to acquire, examine, and analyze data from a mobile device. This section provides a proposed process in which guidelines from different standards and models (SWGDE Best Practices for Mobile Phone Forensics, NIST Guidelines on Mobile Device Forensics, and Developing Process for Mobile Device Forensics by Det. Cynthia A. Murphy) were summarized. The following flowchart schematizes the overall process:

Mastering Mobile Forensics

  • Evidence Intake: This triggers the examination process. This step should be documented.
  • Identification: In this, the examiner needs to identify the device’s capabilities and specifications. The examiner should document everything that takes place during the whole process of identification.
  • Preparation: In this, the examiner should prepare tools and methods to use and must document them.
  • Securing and preserving evidences: In this, the examiner should protect the evidences and secure the scene, as well as isolate the device from all networks. The examiner needs to be vigilant when documenting the scene.
  • Processing: At this stage, the examiner starts performing the actual (and technical) data acquisition, analysis, and documents the steps, and tools used and all his findings.
  • Verification and validation: The examiner should be sure of the integrity of his findings and he must validate acquired data and evidences in this step. This step should be documented as well.
  • Reporting: The examiner produces a final report in which he documents process and finding.
  • Presentation: This stage is meant to exhibit and present the findings.
  • Archiving: At the end of the forensic process, the examiner should preserve data, report, tools, and all his finding in common formats for an eventual use.

Low-level techniques

Digital forensic examiners can neither always nor exclusively rely on commercially available tools, handling low-level techniques is a must. This section will also cover the techniques of extracting strings from different object (for example, smartphone images)

Any digital examiner should be familiar with concepts and techniques, such as:

  • File carving: This is defined as the process of extracting a collection of data from a larger data set. It is applied to a digital investigation case. File carving is the process of extracting “data” from unallocated filesystem space using file type inner structure and not filesystem structure, meaning that the extraction process is principally based on file types headers and trailers.
  • Extracting metadata: In an ambiguous way metadata is data that describes data or information about information. In general, metadata is hidden and extra information is generated and embedded automatically in a digital file. The definition of metadata differs depending on the context in which it’s used and the community that refers to it; metadata can be considered as machine understandable information or record that describes digital records. In fact, metadata can be subdivided into three important types: Descriptive (including elements, such as author, title, abstract, keywords, and so on), Structural (describing how an object is constituted and how the elements are arranged) and Administrative (including elements, such as date and time of creation, data type, and other technical details)
  • String dump and analysis: Most of the digital investigations rely on textual evidences, this is obviously due to the fact that most of the stored digital data is linguistic; for instance, logged conversation, a lot of important text based evidence can be gathered while dumping strings from images (smartphone memory dumps) and can include emails, instant messaging, address books, browsing history, and so on. Most of the currently available digital forensic tools rely on matching and indexing algorithms to search textual evidence at physical level, so that they search every byte to locate specific text strings.
  • Encryption versus encoding versus hashing: The important thing to keep in mind is that encoding, encrypting and hashing are the terms that do not say the same thing at all:
  • Encoding: Is meant for data usability, and it can be reversed using the same algorithm and requires no key
  • Encrypting: Is meant for confidentiality, is reversible and depending on algorithms, it relies on key(s) to encrypt and decrypt.
  • Hashing: Is meant for data integrity and cannot be ‘theoretically’ reversible and depends on no keys.
  • Decompiling and disassembling: These are types of reverse engineering processes that do the opposite of what a compiler and an assembler do.
  • Decompiler: This translates a compiled binary’s low-level code designed to be computer readable into human readable high-level code. The accuracy of decompilers depends on many factors, such as the amount of metadata present in the code being decompiled and the complexity of the code (not in term of algorithms but in term of the high-level code used sophistication).
  • Disassembler: The output of a disassembler is at some level dependent on the processor. It maps processor instructions into mnemonics, which is in contrast to decompiler’s output that is far more complicated to understand and edit.

iDevices forensics

Similar to all Apple operating systems, iOS is derived from Mac OS X; thus, iOS uses Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+) as its primary file system. HFS+ replaces the first developed filesystem HFS and is considered to be an enhanced version of HFS, but they are still architecturally very similar. The main improvements seen in HFS+ are:

  • A decrease in disk space usage on large volumes (efficient use of disk space)
  • Internationally-friendly file names (by the use of UNICODE instead of MacRoman)
  • Allows future systems to use and extend files/folder’s metadata

HFS+ divides the total space on a volume (file that contains data and structure to access this data) into allocation blocks and uses 32-bit fields to identify them, meaning that this allows up to 2^32 blocks on a given volume which “simply” means that a volume can hold more files.

All HFS+ volumes respect a well-defined structure and each volume contains a volume header, a catalog file, extents overflow file, attributes file, allocation file, and startup file.

In addition, all Apple’ iDevices have a combined built-in hardware/software advanced security and can be categorized according to Apple’s official iOS Security Guide as:

  • System security: Integrated software and hardware platform
  • Encryption and data protection: Mechanisms implemented to protect data from unauthorized use
  • Application security: Application sandboxing
  • Network security: Secure data transmission
  • Apple Pay: Implementation of secure payments
  • Internet services: Apple’s network of messaging, synchronizing, and backuping
  • Device controls: Remotely wiping the device if it is lost or stolen
  • Privacy control: Capabilities of control access to geolocation and user data

When dealing with seizure, it’s important to turn on Airplane mode and if the device is unlocked, set auto-lock to never and check whether passcode was set or not (Settings | Passcode). If you are dealing with a passcode, try to keep the phone charged if you cannot acquire its content immediately; if no passcode was set, turn off the device.

There are four different acquisition methods when talking about iDevices: Normal or Direct, this is the most perfect case where you can deal directly with a powered on device; Logical Acquisition, when acquisition is done using iTunes backup or a forensic tool that uses AFC protocol and is in general not complete when emails, geolocation database, apps cache folder, and executables are missed; Advanced Logical Acquisition, a technique introduced by Jonathan Zdziarski (http://www.zdziarski.com/blog/) but no longer possible due to the introduction of iOS 8; and Physical Acquisition that generates a forensic bit-by-bit image of both system and data partitions. Before selecting (or not, because the method to choose depends on some parameters) one method, the examiner should answer three important questions:

  • What is the device model?
  • What is the iOS version installed?
  • Is the device passcode protected?
  • Is it a simple passcode?
  • Is it a complex passcode?

Android forensics

Android is an open source Linux based operating system, it was first developed by Android Inc. in 2003; then in 2005 it was acquired by Google and was unveiled in 2007. The Android operating system is like most of operating systems; it consists of a stack of software components roughly divided into four main layers and five main sections, as shown on the image from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Android-System-Architecture.svg) and each layer provides different services to the layer above.

Understanding every smartphone’s OS security model is a big deal in a forensic context, all vendors and smartphones manufacturers care about securing their user’s data and in most of the cases the security model implemented can cause a real headache to every forensic examiner and Android is no exception to the rule. Android, as you know, is an open source OS built on the Linux Kernel and provides an environment offering the ability to run multiple applications simultaneously, each application is digitally signed and isolated in its very own sandbox. Each application sandbox defines the application’s privileges. Above the Kernel all activities have constrained access to the system.

Android OS implements many security components and has many considerations of its various layers; the following figure summarizes Android security architecture on ARM with TrustZone support:

Mastering Mobile Forensics

Without any doubt, lock screens represent the very first starting point in every mobile forensic examination. As for all smartphone’s OS, Android offers a way to control access to a given device by requiring user authentication. The problem with recent implementations of lock screen in modern operating systems in general, and in Android since it is the point of interest of this section, is that beyond controlling access to the system user interface and applications, the lock screens have now been extended with more “fancy” features (showing widgets, switching users in multi-users devices, and so on) and more forensically challenging features, such as unlocking the system keystore to derive the key-encryption key (used among the disk encryption key) as well as the credential storage encryption key.

The problem with bypassing lock screens (also called keyguards) is that techniques that can be used are very version/device dependent, thus there is neither a generalized method nor all-time working techniques.

Android keyguard is basically an Android application whose window lives on a high window layer with the possibility of intercepting navigation buttons, in order to produce the lock effect. Each unlock method (PIN, password, pattern and face unlock) is a view component implementation hosted by the KeyguardHostView view container class.

All of the methods/modes, used to secure an android device, are activated by setting the current selected mode in the enumerable SecurityMode of the class KeyguardSecurityModel. The following is the KeyguardSecurityModel.SecurityModeimplementation, as seen from Android open source project:

    enum SecurityMode {

        Invalid, // NULL state

        None, // No security enabled

        Pattern, // Unlock by drawing a pattern.

        Password, // Unlock by entering an alphanumeric password

        PIN, // Strictly numeric password

        Biometric, // Unlock with a biometric key (e.g. finger print or face unlock)

        Account, // Unlock by entering an account’s login and password.

        SimPin, // Unlock by entering a sim pin.

        SimPuk // Unlock by entering a sim puk


Before starting our bypass and locks cracking techniques, dealing with system files or “system protected files” assumes that the device you are handling meets some requirements:

  • Using Android Debug Bridge (ADB)
  • The device must be rooted
  • USB Debugging should be enabled on the device
  • Booting into a custom recovery mode
  • JTAG/chip-off to acquire a physical bit-by-bit copy

Windows Phone forensics

Based on Windows NT Kernel, Windows Phone 8.x uses the Core System to boot, manage hardware, authenticate, and communicate on networks. The Core System is a minimal Windows system that contains low-level security features and is supplemented by a set of Windows Phone specific binaries from Mobile Core to handle phone-specific tasks which make it the only distinct architectural entity (From desktop based Windows) in Windows Phone.

Windows and Windows Phone are completely aligned at Window Core System and are running exactly the same code at this level. The shared core actually consists of the Windows Core System and Mobile Core where APIs are the same but the code behinds is turned to mobile needs.

Similar to most of the mobile operating systems, Windows Phone has a pretty layered architecture; the kernel and OS layers are mainly provided and supported by Microsoft but some layers are provided by Microsoft’s partners depending on hardware properties in the form of board support package (BSP), which usually consists of a set of drivers and support libraries that ensure low-level hardware interaction and boot process created by the CPU supplier, then comes the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and independent hardware vendors (IHVs) that write the required drivers to support the phone hardware and specific component. Following this is a high level diagram describing Windows Phone architecture organized by layer and ownership:

Mastering Mobile Forensics

There are three main partitions on a Windows Phone that are forensically interesting: MainOS, Data, and Removable User Data (not visible on the preceding screenshot since Lumia 920 does not support SD cards) partitions; as their respective names suggest, the MainOS partition contains all Windows Phone operating system components, Data partition stores all user’s data, third-party applications and all application’s states. The Removable User Data partition is considered by Windows Phone as a separate volume and refers to all data stored in the SD Card (on devices that supports SD cards).

Each of the previously named partitions respects a folder layout and can be mapped to their root folders with predefined Access Control Lists (ACL). Each ACL is in the form of a list of access control entries (ACE) and each ACE identifies the user account to which it applies (trustee) and specifies the access right allowed, denied or audited for that trustee.

Windows Phone 8.1 is an extremely challenging and different; forensic tools and techniques should be used in order to gather evidences. One of the interesting techniques is side loading, where an agent to extract contacts and appointments from a WP8.1 device.

To extract phonebook and appointments entries we will use WP Logical, which is a contacts and appointments acquisition tool designed to run under Windows Phone 8.1, once deployed and executed will create a folder with the name WPLogical_MDY__HMMSS_PM/AM under the public folder PhonePictures where M=Month, D=Day, Y=Year, H=hour, MM=Minutes and SS= Seconds of the extraction date. Inside the created folder you can find appointments__MDY__HMMSS_PM/AM.html and contacts_MDY__HMMSS_PM/AM.html.

WP Logical will extract the following information (if found) regarding each appointment starting from 01/01/CurrentYear at 00:00:00 to 31/12/CurrentYear at 00:00:00:

  • Subject
  • Location
  • Organizer
  • Invitees
  • Start time (UTC)
  • Original start time
  • Duration (in hours)
  • Sensitivity
  • Replay time
  • Is organized by user?
  • Is canceled?
  • More details

And the following information about each found contact:

  • Display name
  • First name
  • Middle name
  • Last name
  • Phones (types: personal, office, home, and numbers)
  • Important dates
  • Emails (types: personal, office, home, and numbers)
  • Websites
  • Job info
  • Addresses
  • Notes
  • Thumbnail

WP Logical also allows the extraction of some device related information, such as Phone time zone, device’s friendly name, Store Keeping Unit (SKU), and so on.

Windows Phone 8.1 is relatively strict regarding application deployment; WP Logical can be deployed in two ways:

  • Upload the compiled agent to Windows Store and get it signed by Microsoft, after that it will be available in the store for download.
  • Deploy the agent directly to a developer unlocked device using Windows Phone Application Deployment utility.


In this article, we looked at forensics for iOS and Android devices. We also looked at some low-level forensic techniques.

Resources for Article:

Further resources on this subject:


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