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Cell Phones

Cell Phones Posted on February 3, 2024

I stand at the vent hood and glance to my right, eyeballing the small package.  I think I glance at this thing every time.  Its foil backing is peeled back slightly to make access more efficient.  Time is of the essence if you’re about to “go down.”  It looks like a very small bottle of nasal spray and it’s innocuous and menacing at the same time.  It has a collar that’s meant to give solid purchase to the index and middle finger and a recess with plenty of room for any sized thumb to press from the bottom.  Its smallness and simplicity betray the seriousness of its presence.  Its chemical name is naloxone, but the package has the trade name Narcan and the single dose inside is meant to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

Some of the phones that come into the Crime Lab have been found at the scene of an investigation where the likely cause of death is overdose.  And the likely culprit these days is Fentanyl.  Sometimes it’s not an overdose, a lot of the time it is.  Those phones come to me. 

An opioid like Fentanyl is quite dangerous and if by some small chance I am exposed, I am glad that little white bottle with the red tip is there.  That is if I can get to it in time.  I’ve heard the stories but don’t know how fast I would react, if I could react, or how much actual time I’d have.  I only know it needs to be there; quietly waiting.

I stand at the vent hood, the motor whirring with white noise loud enough to drown out any sounds around me as I breathe into my mask.  My warm, moist breath presses it outward, but not enough to break the seal.  The spray bottle and industrial paper towel roll sit within the negative pressure air moving around me from behind as the vent hood pulls the air in and up to a HEPA filter.  I find myself wondering sometimes when was the last time that filter was changed.   Is it still working?

The cases wrapped around these phones tell me a little about the people who owned them.  Stickers adorn some but sometimes the case itself – plain, bejeweled, fancy, colorful, techno, steampunk – share a glimpse into who may have held this phone as they lay dying.  I once had a phone that had a dollar bill hidden behind it.   It was folded into the shape of a heart.   That made me a little sad.

I tear a length of paper towel off the roll and spray industrial strength cleaner onto it.  I rub down the phone.  I do this twice.  I spray the cleaner directly on the case and let it soak … twice.  Even if the risk of exposure is very low, Darla has asked that I take no chances.  That’s enough of a reason for these precautions.  

The phone and case are cleaned and I put the case back into the evidence bag, thinking of the possible residue in there.   Was cleaning just an exercise in futility?  Does putting anything back in the evidence bag render my efforts meaningless?  I don’t know.   I’m still going to follow my protocol.

Down the hall is the ”phone room”.  The tools are there, the hardware and software that allow me to see behind the passcodes and patterns that unlock these phones.  Courtney is there, perhaps processing a homicide phone, or maybe one with other things on it that no one should ever have to see.

Courtney doesn’t follow the protocols I do when dealing with these phones.  She’s done and seen a lot.  I would venture too much and I don’t like that sometimes for her.  She knows more and is aware of how it could go but has her own methods for handling phones.  We all do what we can based on our personal risk assessment.   Darla asked me to be careful.   That’s mine. 

The hardware and software used for gaining access to and downloading data from cell phones have people up in arms about civil rights.   They claim it’s a violation of privacy.  The media would have you believe that law enforcement is accessing any and all cell phones with impunity.  That’s bullshit.  There are search warrants required for some phones, sometimes permission from the owner is asked for and given, and family members can also give permission.  But we always make sure we have permission to analyze these phones.   Always.   The only time permission is not needed is with a phone from someone recently deceased.  “The owner is deceased and therefore there is no expectation of privacy.”  This is what I write in my report but I still try to treat their privacy with respect.   They don’t care, but I do, and it matters that I maintain that respect and unbiased approach when processing these phones.  They don’t expect that someone else is going to be looking at everything on their phone.   They don’t expect that someone might see the sweet nothings they texted their lover, or see the pictures or videos they took.  They likely didn’t expect to die either.   A lot can happen that we don’t know is coming.

Perhaps they have a particular obsession with cheese and have hundreds of images of cheese on their phone.   That’s their business and I don’t judge anyone for anything they do with their phones.  Not usually anyway.  If they’re involved with the one thing that a lot of the phones that come in have on them, that’s a problem.  The really bad stuff.  All bets are off for these phones and I give no quarter … if I have permission.  In those cases, I do everything I can to get every scrap of data possible.  Anything to help remove someone from society if they should not and don’t deserve to be there.  Innocent until proven guilty, right?  I see the evidence firsthand.  Being unbiased can be hard sometimes.   

For those phones that are just a regular person’s phone, what they do in their private life is (was) their business and I would be an arrogant prick if I were to think ill of the dead simply for what they had on their cell phone.  Especially, if they didn’t mean to die.  Because there’s no coming back from that to defend oneself.

I plug in the phone and begin the process.  Some of the time I simply follow the expected steps – clicking here, responding to prompts, entering something there – and everything works out. Other times I must decide a course of action based on an error or message that appears.  Phones can be finicky; bad ports, weird operating systems, weird apps, and about a hundred other things that can interfere with my intended goal.  There was once a phone that came into the lab with a bullet hole in it.  We still retrieved the data.

So I run the process and see what happens.  The software does things; magic things.  Not always, but often, the cell phone gives up its secrets, its data; gigs and gigs of it.   So much that it can be overwhelming at times.   Phones used to have just a few gigs of storage.  Now some phones can hold a terabyte of data.   That is a tremendous amount and within all that data are databases, text files, logs, images, videos, and software.  It all comes out for me if I perform the proper incantations.  Sometimes I only get a little bit of the data; the surface stuff.  Sometimes I get more than just a little.  Sometimes, I get it all.   Even if I don’t have the passcode, I get it all.  

A four-digit passcode has 10,000 possible combinations.   Using some “most likely” logic can divine these in a few minutes.   Otherwise, it might take just a few hours.   A six-digit passcode has a million possible combinations.  That could take years to find using brute force.

I want the data but I don’t always look at it.  Sometimes I must verify that something exists so I can let the investigator know there is more to do.   The rest of the looking is reserved for them.  There are some things I just don’t want to see but most of the time it’s vacation photos, selfies, pictures of food, the things that only the owner cares about.  It’s often very boring stuff

There was a phone from which I got all the data.   I couldn’t get the passcode but, as with most phones, there was a way in and I found it.  I got word that the family wanted the videos and images for the funeral and memorial service.   I was able to give that to them.   I was happy I could do that. 

This is my motivation.  Sure, I want it to get into the phone and get the data to help the investigation.   But more than that, I want the passcode; to be able to provide it to the family.   There might be someone who has lost someone they loved and who is in pain.  I see the lock screens on a phone and it brings home the fact that it used to belong to a person.   Maybe a father of two young children.  Maybe a young man with a girlfriend.  Maybe a young woman whose picture shows her living her best life the moment the lock screen picture was taken.   The stark contrast of that is not lost on me.

I do wonder what happened from time to time.  Did he break his leg and need pain meds?  Did those meds grab a hold of him with dusty, dry claws, refusing to let go?   Was it an experiment one day where she was out with a friend and on a whim decided to “try it,” certain it was OK just this once?  I’ll never know because I don’t get that information, but I wonder.  At the least, if the families have the PIN, they can see memories in photos and smile just a little about that one time they were all together.  I want that PIN code and it frustrates me when I can’t get it. 

In the end, getting a view into someone’s personal life is not the goal here.  The goal is any information that would lead to who might have provided them with their poisons.  We want to find out who it was that might have caused this phone to be in my hand; to find who created the need for me to be standing next to an innocuous-looking little red and white bottle that could, perhaps, save my life one day.

Golden, 2024