London cops want to suck your phone dry in an instant

The Met, London's police force, is buying "mobile device data extraction" devices that can suck all the data out of your phone "in minutes" -- that's where you've been, who you know, what you've said to them, what websites you visit, and, depending on your apps, what groceries you buy, when you've called for a cab, what your menstrual cycle is, what you eat, your passwords, and so on.

This is the police force that routinely DNA-swabbed suspects and refused to destroy the samples even after they were exonerated, despite being ordered to after a European high court ruling to the effect that this was illegal.

Does anyone know what technology they're buying, and what its limits are? I'd be interested in knowing if, for example, it is effective against the built-in Android mass storage encryption.

"When a suspect is arrested and found with a mobile phone that we suspect may have been used in crime, traditionally we submit it to our digital forensic laboratory for analysis."

Kavanagh said the new system located within the boroughs themselves will enable "trained officers to examine devices and gives immediate access to the data in that handset".

He said: "Our ability to act on forensically-sound, time-critical information, from SMS to images contained on a device quickly gives us an advantage in combating crime, notably in terms of identifying people of interest quickly and progressing cases more efficiently."

Met Police uses 'quick' mobile data extraction system against suspects (via /.)


  1. With cloud services linking all your devices together (including home computers), isn’t this effectively also giving them access to search the user’s home as well? (or at least stuff that was done/stored while at home?)

    1. I was going to say this. If you’re stopped and searched on the street and you have your house keys, that doesn’t mean the police can then go and search your house without warrant. And this to me seems the same.

      1.  It seems the legal system has yet to adapt to the digital world. The notion something is or is not searchable because its digitally stored in a cloud or on your phone it ridiculous.

  2. Upon careful consideration, we have decided that the English writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were both quite prescient. The future isn’t now.  It’s yesterday.

  3. The life-tracking personal device (mobile phone) is a legal liability in modern society, unless you are the epitome of square. Call me a Luddite or whatever else but the future of digital liberty needs to be considered realistically before one becomes enmeshed in the latest and greatest. I have no problem with the tech itself I am critical of how it can be plundered at the hands of swiftly-encroaching technological totalitarianism. 

    Smart people created atomic weapons that can obliterate millions, smart people are creating systems that can mine your entire digital essence and then draw distinctions based on that essence. The future is bleak for the knowing and will offer a landscape of fiendish delight to the tyrannical armies of enforcement.

  4. I’m glad that my motherland has taken this step to prove that my adopted home of America doesn’t have a monopoly on things that irritate me.

  5. Whether or not they can extract data from a phone depends on the phone and how it is setup.  In general, the newer the phone the harder it is to break into.  Most feature phones hardly have any protection and it’s pretty easy to extract things like call logs, SMS history, and contacts.  Early smartphones were a joke too.  The passcode lock on the iPhone 2 and 3 pretty much only locked the UI and didn’t protect the data.  

    Newer phones change all that.  The iPhone 4 and 4S have some very good full disk encryption if you have enabled the passcode lock.  Same goes for newer Blackberries and Android.  To the best of my knowledge, a locked iPhone 4S with a strong passcode that uses the full keyboard (not just numbers) is pretty much uncrackable for a reasonable amount of time (years).  Same applies to a properly setup modern BlackBerry.  I do not know about Android.

    However, if you have jailbroken  your phone all bets are off, since that removes a lot of the prote3ctions.  And some of these commercial applications are using vulnerabilities in the software to bypass the protection.  So if there’s a known vulnerability out there for your phone (including some of the ones used by jailbreakers) then it might be possible to bypass the encryption.

    More details in this paper from a company that sells this type of software: 

    1. There’s no practical difference between a new and old mobile phone. (I do forensic work for a living.) If you want a secure phone, there are two options:
      1. Go prepaid / disposable and DON’T re-use SIM cards.
      2. Use a Blackberry with your own private Blackberry Enterprise Server, hosted in the cloud in a country far, far away. Follow the device hardening guidelines, such as the use of a long password and full device encryption. If your phone gets confiscated, you can remote wipe it any time. If someone wants in and it’s locked, the only way is through your BES server.

      1.  I know it’s goofy to reply to myself, and at the risk of stating the obvious, pay cash for the above (or anonymous cash equivalents) in places without CCTV. Large retailers keep track of your IMEI/ESN, tie it to bank card information, then back to you.

    2. The Regulatory Powers Act means you must hand over any passwords if instructed to by a judge. There’s at least on animal rights person in jail for not handing over his computer password. 

      1. Don’t use passwords.  Use devices.  And if they can’t find ’em and you don’t know where they are or who has ’em, you’re covered.

    3. It’s safe to say that even most security-conscious people do not use a properly strong password on their phones.  Who wants to spend 10-20 seconds typing in a long/complex password on their phone?  Few, very few.

        Simple advice for impossible to guess easy to write/remember passwords


    Probably something like this is what they’re using, hardware based, not software.

    1. Android with full disc eruption and USB port off when phone is locked, there’s no way to get into it without the pass phrase. Also IIRC the pattern lock isn’t easily crackable. dunno about other phones but Android is pretty safe.

        1. I haz Whispercore and it’s awesome (just wish it would get an ICS update). Even better than the screen lock is the Selective Permissions app that comes with it. Every Android should have these features.

        2. I use the pattern lock on my Android phone. I also carry it in the neoprene pouch it came with (stuck into a second, slightly larger thin leather iPhone pouch which I use as my wallet), which is like microfiber and which actually wipes off the screen while it’s in my pocket (a limited amount). 

          However most importantly, I wipe my thumbs all over the screen (besides when I’m actually using the touchscreen) almost every time I’m about to put it away in an attempt to clear the smudges off. Not because I’m paranoid – just so it doesn’t get too smudgy, though it has the effect of eliminating the grease trail pattern lock problem too.

      1. I was thinking about the pattern lock thing the other day.

        Is it really any safer than a password?  If so how much?  You’re essentially just replacing a number with a dot, but it’s still a combination, just one you don’t lift your finger from the screen to input.

        Also has there been any studies yet that highlight common patterns people use?  It wouldn’t totally surprise me if there are a small set of very commonly used patterns.

        1. I would assume it would have to be harder to crack due to the need for manual human input; you couldn’t automate the efforts. With that said, however, I think the pattern lock is actually less secure than a pass phrase because of where the info is stored. Patten lock doesn’t work with full disc encryption.

          1. If you consider the dot position to be the same as a number, then I think you’d be better off using a numeric PIN with the same number of digits as your pattern covers dots.

            The keyspace is larger with a PIN – with a pattern, each dot must be adjacent to the previous one.  So, if you’re trying to guess your way through it, after guessing a ‘1’ for the first digit/dot, the second one could be anything from 1-9 for a PIN, but only a 2, 4, or 5 for a pattern.

  7. The moral of the story is (if you have iPhone) – to use iPhone 3GS or later. If your device was delivered with iOS version 4 or later the encryption is turned on – otherwise you need to do update to iOS 4 (or higher) and then do a wipe of a device followed by a total restore to have encryption turned on. 

    You also need to have complex passcode (e.g. q1W2e3r4$ instead of simple 4-digit passcode like: 1567 – because simple code can be cracked through brute force in a matter of minutes).Last but not the least – you have to turn on ability to wipe the phone is password is entered wrongly 10 times. Then – no matter what method they use the data on your iPhone will be safe – that is unless you reveal the password by yourself. 

    1. Wasn’t there some talk recently about a probable Apple backdoor? I faintly remember reading somewhere about this … maybe ars technica?!

    2. Sadly, while Apple’s claims are technically true, the encryption does not get you what you probably think it should.  The data may be encrypted, but it’s much much harder to actually see the encrypted data than to see the decrypted form.

      The encryption gets you one thing only: instant data wipe.  When an iOS device is “wiped”, the data isn’t actually changed on flash storage.  Instead, the phone just overwrites the encryption key in its crypto hardware, and is instantly unable to access any of the data.  Until that device wipe happens, the encryption gets you no protection.Try this if you have an encrypted iOS device – pretend you’re a thief, and see what you can get off the phone.  Don’t unlock it, just plug it in to USB and see what you can get.

      1. I tried it – I just got a message like “This phone is locked, please enter the passcode on the device and click Try Again”, and it wouldn’t mount until I did that.

  8. When I was a British Bobby (1996/2006) I remember we were instructed to check the IMEI number on the back of phones for entry into a database to check for stolen mobiles. Forms were printed, an office was set aside, a collators role was created and the scheme rolled out with much fanfare.
    Within days there was chaos, custody suites were full of bobbies trying to figure out how to remove batteries, claims were being made for damaged phones and forms were mislaid or out of stock whilst the guy whose job it was to collate the date was drafted onto other investigations (most likely standing outside the nick having a smoke).
    In my time I don’t think, although I may be wrong, that we found one phone that was stolen and the system pretty much fell down around us.
    I always think of that scheme when I read of these new projects or stories about data collection, and it reassures me that for all the government want to infringe our civil rights, chances are it’ll be let down by a shambolic tired bloke, three hours late going home, unable to get the computer to switch on and unable to work it assuming he can.
    Sleep safe people.

    1.  that might keep you safe for a while.

      every modern phone has bluetooth, wifi and microUSB. every operating system has bugs. as smart company can probably make an idiot proof device that can read 90% of phones.

      what happens when a law comes in that puts a backdoor into every phone. the government can say that its nothing new, they have had the power already, they just need this law to save them time.

  9. IIRC they have some very small handheld devices for dumping data from phones now. I can’t remember which company, but I believe it may have been Paraben, AccessData, or Cellebrite. But no existing forensics solutions are very good against an encrypted phone. Mobile phone forensics is still a very difficult area to be working in, because of the non-uniformity of devices and the lack of support for the creation of effective tools from many manufacturers (e.g., Apple).

    Getting a full flash dump is often so difficult that many of the companies providing forensics tools will actually sell a special camera set up so an investigator can go through and take video capture and/or pictures of the screens as they go through and investigate a device by clicking around. But this is all the type of thing that can and probably will change over time, so it is more worrying that they’re giving law enforcement the ability to do this, even if the current iteration will likely be so inept as to make it pointless.

  10. Time to start carrying a sledgehammer to demolish your phone lest it fall into the wrong hands. 

    1. I don’t know about that, wielding a sledgehammer while being arrested will probably just get you shot.

      I wonder how long it will take for a cell phone to come out that has some kind of “dead man switch” that bricks it if anyone other than the owner tries to use it. Fingerprint reader maybe? Some kind of implanted rfid system? 

      I guess the simple option would be to only use phones that store no data whatsoever.

      1.  A lithium battery will explode when deeply discharged.  Batteries contain features to prevent this happening.  A great deal of money was spent on research as to how to prevent the batteries from exploding because otherwise they couldn’t be placed in the hands of consumers.  I suppose there is some of disabling these features.

  11. Well, guess I am not going to England anytime soon as a tourist. At least not until after my phone is setup to fully and abruptly discharge its battery into any device that tries to extract data.

      1. In which case you don’t have to worry about your phone (at least in London). The Met will just shoot you for looking suspiciously foreign.

  12. I’m not sure where they get “in minutes” from, with the amount of data on my phone it’s going to take at the very least an hour…

  13. As the policeman Vargas says in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, A policeman’s job is supposed to be hard. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.

    1. Cory, Alex is right. The are based in Southampton. “Aceso Field empowers police officers with the ability to examine and interrogate digital mobile devices, quickly and accurately, from a convenient, lightweight, handheld terminal.”

      Fully portable, light and robust.Weight: 1.1kg. Fan-less, dust and water resistant (MILSTD-810F) and IP65 certified 6 foot drop rating.Secure key card log in.Safely block network access using our patent pending Handset Access Card.High levels of security and integrity.SIM-less handset acquisition.Simple to use touch-screen technology.7” sunlight readable touch-screen to allow easy, clear viewing.Complete, detailed acquisition audit trail with all data AES encrypted.Batteries support up to 8 hours’ continuous use and are hot swappable.Data capture from devices such as GPS and flash media.Metadata access.Accesses critical details, including time and date, geotagging and make and model of device used.Complete set of cables and peripherals.

  14. Time to load your phone with the phone numbers of government ministers, senior police officers, and other supposed pillars of the establishment.

    “I don’t know who owns this number, but it’s been in the last eight phones we’ve confiscated. I think we’ve found our Mr Big, boys. We just need to pick him up, and the whole network will go down …”

  15. Yes, include enough disinformation on the phone  to keep them scratching their heads for quite some time…

    1. Have at least one biggish file containing entirely random data. The only way you can tell properly encoded data from random data is by decrypting it. So if you are asked for the key to a particular file you can truthfully say that there is no key and it contains no data. Okay, you will still end up  in dungeon deep, in durance vile, for failure to provide evidence incriminating yourself. 

  16. Reading the Guardian article, it appears that this isn’t some new thing the London Filt…err…police are using: they are just upgrading to the same stuff used elsewhere in the UK already.

    But you can’t help but notice that this appears to be a RIM press release in disguise:
    “BlackBerry devices were “an interesting challenge”, Gill said: “they’re built from the ground up to be secure, which isn’t true for other phones which are more aimed at the consumer.” The onboard encryption on BlackBerry devices means that if it is used, no useful data can be extracted from it without the decryption key.”

    Wow, just like the “onboard encryption” on any recent iPhone or Android device…

  17. If I were going to do questionable things, I’d make damn sure that I didn’t

    1. google anything on it
    2. email anyone about it
    3. store shit on my phone or computer about it
    4. go on the InnerWebTubez and leave comments on blogs
    5. or leave a trail of any kind.

    Then there would be no need for encryption or all of this fuss.  But I don’t do questionable things, so there you have it.

    1. You only think you don’t do questionable things.  You’re leaving (we’re all leaving) a nice tasty trail for any fishing expedition you may get caught up in.  Nobody expects to get cancer either. 

        1. We BoingBoing commenters are all on a list.

          (though it may just be Obama’s “Reading List” in Safari)

    2. Please fucking define ‘questionable’ per awjt. ‘Questionable’ you see, is a very, very subjective state depending on your position to power. Plus, ‘questionable’ can change based on perception or profile. I’ll check back in for your answer.

      1. I’m above reproach, so nothing *I* do is questionable.  That means questionable things are what everybody else does.  Pretty simple.

  18. Fuck these assholes. You know what we need? Some kind of incendiary add-on that is able to be remotely activated and immediately sets the device on fire when it detects attempts to crack the phone’s encryption. A few burned down police stations should help change their mind on this. As long as you had a warning screen that made completely clear that any attempt to extract data will result in a fire I don’t see how it would be illegal.

    Don’t carry it onto a plane though :)

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