iPhones Help Cops Solve Crimes By Capturing Everything You Type, Do

Cops love finding iPhones at crime scenes because the phones carry so much priceless data about your usage habits, or as the cops call it, evidence. That email you typed months back about feeling stabby when you drink? It’s still there because there because the iPhone captures everything you type to help fuel its spellcheck abilities—even emails you thought you deleted. And that’s not all.

  • Every time an iPhone user closes out of the built-in mapping application, the phone snaps a screenshot and stores it. Savvy law-enforcement agents armed with search warrants can use those snapshots to see if a suspect is lying about whereabouts during a crime.
  • iPhone photos are embedded with GEO tags and identifying information, meaning that photos posted online might not only include GPS coordinates of where the picture was taken, but also the serial number of the phone that took it.
  • Even more information is stored by the applications themselves, including the user’s browser history. That data is meant in part to direct custom-tailored advertisements to the user, but experts said some of it could be useful to police.
  • Just as users can take and store a picture of their iPhone’s screen, the phone itself automatically shoots and stores hundreds of such images as people close out one application to use another. “Those screen snapshots can contain images of e-mails or proof of activities that might be inculpatory or exculpatory,” [said John B. Minor, a member of the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners].

Scary stuff!

Cops love iPhone data trail [Chicago Sun Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Herbz says:

    One more reason to buy a droid?

    • hansolo247 says:

      Here here!

      I’m sure there’s stuff stored on the Droid that you may not want, but at least you can format the card on those.

      Now, the real question on the iPhone is “what the heck is it doing transferring 50-75MB of data a night at 1AM???

      AT&T and Apple say it is for “billing information” but that can’t be true. It also appears that this data goes against the cap, contrary to what AT&T and Apple say.

      • bluecoyote says:

        Formatting the card = Formatting internal memory. Makes no difference.

        • jeff_the_snake says:

          true enough but you can install a custom recovery on a droid (the original anyway) and format /cache. some custom roms do it every boot.

      • El_Red says:

        That’s probably because the rep did not know that the “hour” for this type of transfers is “bullcrap”. Usually it is +-12 hrs, depending on which time zone the server that processed info was located. And this kind of variable time-zone billing weirdness is pretty much characteristic of all North American carriers. Why do they keep these time-stamps? No idea. Probabaly somewhere in the backend they do have servers location / info.

      • Stiv says:

        “Now, the real question on the iPhone is “what the heck is it doing transferring 50-75MB of data a night at 1AM???”

        I’ll let Gizmodo explain:

        Lordy, some of you people act as if the iPhone’s a piece of evil:

        I really don’t understand y’all’s need to go out of the way to villify a product you neither own or use.

      • shanelee24 says:

        thats impossible. how would they be able to offer a 200mb a month plan if the phone transferred out a minimum of 50 megs every night? youd be out in 4 days, and ive yet to see a news story saying as much.

      • FaustianSlip says:

        You realize that the vast majority of stuff you store on a Droid is synching up with your Google online account, right? You can format that card all you want, and it won’t make a bit of difference, since the po-po can just subpoena Google for the same information sitting on their servers.

    • george69 says:

      I have a Palm Pre, I friggen love it.

      Its an open platform, over clockable, home brew software. I have used both iphone and the pre, the pre is better. Too bad it does not have more software.

    • bluecoyote says:

      If you’re concerned about this a Droid would be the wrong direction to go, considering how much (contact synchronization, etc.) is tied in with Google’s servers, and Google’s track record of handing out account information to law enforcement.

      These phones are computers- a smartphone stores a lot of information about you. Treat it as such.

  2. iParadox{InLove} says:

    This is why I use smoke signals.

  3. Alvis says:

    Want to help the cops build a case against you? There’s an app for that.

  4. mandy_Reeves says:

    Does this go for the Ipod touch as well?

    • Pax says:

      They use the same OS, as far as I know, so … yes. It probably does.

      • myrna_minkoff says:

        But the Touch doesn’t have some of these capabilities, for example, I don’t think you can screen capture, and obviously, anything related to the phone portion of the device.

        So it may not be quite as intrusive.

        • ElleDriver says:

          Actually, you can do screen caps on an iPod Touch: simultaneously press the home and sleep/wake button on top of the iPod. The grab is saved into the Photos folder.

        • El_Red says:

          Unless your on Blackberry Enterprise Server, where your employer has a record of everything, including your pesonal history chats.

    • winnabago says:

      Same OS, but no camera nor GPS, don’t know about screenshot capability.

      • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

        It does use location, and as of iOS4, stores a screenshot for when you start the app up again. It shows you that image, then after location is activated, re-draws the map.

  5. icruise says:

    While a lot of this is true, the article implies that this occurs to a much greater degree than I believe it does. For example, apps do take a screenshot of what they are displaying at the time they are closed. This is to make them appear to start up faster the next time you open them. But they don’t save more than one of these, so it’s not as if they’re constantly tracking you. It could theoretically be useful if someone was doing something suspicious the last time they used an app, but that’s it. Similarly, the inclusion of GPS info on photos is is pretty useful feature, even if it could theoretically be used by the police. It’s not some sinister plot to track you. And I have a very hard time believing that the phone permanently captures everything you type, as is implied here. I imagine that you could only get usable information from this in relatively limited circumstances.

    It’s worth knowing about some of these things, and it’s possible that there are security issues that need examining, but why is it that every Consumerist article about the iPhone seems to be pushing some sort of “Apple is Big Brother” angle?

    • QrazyQat says:

      Well, we’re talking about a company which even wants to tell you how to hold their phone and how you can’t hold their phone.

    • hansolo247 says:

      Here here!

      I’m sure there’s stuff stored on the Droid that you may not want, but at least you can format the card on those.

      Now, the real question on the iPhone is “what the heck is it doing transferring 50-75MB of data a night at 1AM???

      AT&T and Apple say it is for “billing information” but that can’t be true. It also appears that this data goes against the cap, contrary to what AT&T and Apple say.

    • JennQPublic says:

      For some strange reason, people cannot handle the fact that iPhone owners are incredibly, ridiculously satisfied with their devices. My husband had nothing but snotty things to say about the iPhone- until I INSISTED that he get one. Now, a year later, he is still completely infatuated with it (there’s truly no word for it but infatuation).

      Sure, it’s not perfect (neither is any phone), but NO phone gets the irrational hate that the iPhone does. Other phones only work on one network, other phones store personal data, other phones have much higher price tags- but other phones don’t arouse the same ire iPhones do.

      Is there an antonym for fanboy? Hateboy?

      • Pax says:

        There’s only two things I hate about the iPhone:

        The Grip-of-Death (which is a design flaw any phone could have suffered form – but Apple’s denial of that fact, rather irks me) … and the IMO excessively heavy-handed way the APP store is handled.

        Otherwise … meh, it’s a phone with some nifty features. *shrug*

      • athensguy says:

        I own an iPhone 3GS. Honestly, I wasted my money. If there wasn’t an early termination fee, I would be out of it now instead next July.

        It’s slow and buggy and the inadequacy of AT&T’s network just exacerbates the problems.

      • InfoDump says:

        Yes. The opposite of fanboy is hater, and Apple has more of them than ANYONE.

  6. halfcuban says:

    Is the article photo showing ScummVM running Monkey Island 3?

  7. runswithscissors says:

    Just don’t break the law and you have nothing to worry about.

    Show your receipts to anyone who asks, whether they identify themselves or not, uniformed or not. Shoppers should be subject to random body searches and vehicle searches when leaving stores too.

    All spending should be tracked and monitored for suspicious activity. Cash should be outlawed in favor of networked electronic payments as the only form of purchase.
    In fact, we should all be recorded at all times, tracked, monitored, have to show papers to any and all authorities, and pass through armed checkpoints whenever moving around our cities.

    RFID chips and GPS units should be mandatory to carry at ALL times alongside Gov’t issued photo ID.

    Failure to obey ANY command from a police officer, TSA officer, By-law officer, or HOA official should warrant imprisonment indefinitely.

    This will make us safer. And if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

  8. Pax says:

    Why the fuck is the iPhone taking so many screenshots of itself?

    Isn’t that just going to start piling up in it’s memory? And if you can’t delete or erase it … is it ever AUTOMATICALLY deleted or erased? If not … what happens when you fill up the entire memory capacity? (I know that’d take forever, but still …)

    • the_wandering_monster says:

      If an app takes a screenshot of itself when it closes, it overwrites the previous screenshot it took of itself, so no, you’re not going to fill your phone with screenshots.

    • Caskey says:

      I think there’s some misunderstanding about the purpose of the phone taking screenshots of the app. The OS, not the app takes the screenshots as part of its user interface. When you are in an app and press the home button, do you notice how the application shrinks into the middle of the screen as it disappears? Due to many technical reasons that I won’t get into, the easiest way to achieve this effect isn’t to shrink down the app while it’s running (requiring graphics processing that’s unnecessary) the iOS takes a quick screenshot and then animates the picture shrinking down into oblivion. These photos are no longer needed and not kept in memory long. They are overwritten by newer pictures. There’s no way they’re kept indefinately on your phone. A screenshot on an iPhone I took today shows a size of 192kb. If it takes 500 shots a day, (a large number it would seem, but highly likely for someone like me who lives on his phone constantly when you really think about it) means that would be 4GB of files in one year. Theres no way that amount of storage is being used.

      At the most a small cache of only the most recent screenshot may be accessible by digging into a phone if it were taken into evidence following a crime.

      Consumerist also writes this article as though iPhones are the only device that could possibly track any personal information by a customer. The truth is all electronic devices become a treasure trove of personal data when examined by forensic computer detectives.

  9. Straspey says:

    Not so fast Kemosabi.

    Just this week a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of a man based on the fact that the police had been tracking the man’s movements by using a GPS device without first obtaining a warrant, thereby violating his 4th Amendment rights under the US Constitution.

    The case differs from the article here because the cops actually placed a hidden GPS device in the guy’s car without obtaining a search warrant. However – electronic surveillance is electronic surveillance, and I would imagine one could challenge any information obtained by law enforcement from your mobile device without a search warrant.

    Here’s a link to the story:


    • Larkspur says:

      I think the idea is that this is all the stuff they’re going to get off your iPhone once they’ve legitimately confiscated it as evidence.


    • Sandstar says:

      I’m pretty sure there’s a difference between what a police officers does to you, and what you do to yourself. I’m pretty sure most cops get a search warrant before looking through computers, cellphones, smart phones, and so on, found on your person.

  10. yankinwaoz says:

    iRat 4.0

  11. CherieBerry says:

    From personal experience, I’m sure there are police officers who will pocket the phone instead of use it as evidence….

  12. the_wandering_monster says:

    Also, Consumerist? Can we go maybe a *few* days without some iPhone linkbait? I don’t remember seeing any article on that little Android app which was, oh nothing special, it just sent your phone number to China…

  13. foofad says:

    This is more than a little bit misleading, so I’ll clarify.

    I’ll just go point by point.

    The map: When you leave the map application, the map images you last saw are cached so that the phone doesn’t have to download the images again next time you start up the app. The map is actually hundreds of images pieced together, kind of like when you print out a large image on multiple pieces of 8.5×11 and piece them together. This cache is dumped every time you restart the map application, or navigate to a different place on the map. What isn’t saved is your actual coordinates. You could be looking at a totally different part of the globe while actually being somewhere else, it doesn’t matter – what’s cached is what you’re looking at.

    Geotagging: All photographs taken with all digital cameras including phone cameras have something called EXIF (exchangeable image file format) metadata. This metadata shows what settings the camera was using (fstop values, exposure time, etc) as well as the make and model of the camera, a timestamp, and so on. GPS-enabled cameras and phone cameras also include the GPS data, but this is optional and can be disabled. Any savvy criminal will know to wipe out the EXIF metadata using a metadata viewer or even simpler methods, but most people don’t know about this.

    Browser history: This is extremely vague. Yes, some browsing data is saved in order to tailor advertising but it’s really not any different than what goes on on your home computer. I’m not sure if the phone saves some of this information outside of Safari’s history for purposes of advertisements or not.

    Snapshots: This is the most misleading of all, I think. What happens is, every time you close out an application the phone takes a snapshot of the last frame displayed before it closes. Then, when you load the application again, if it’s an application that supports backgrounding (iPod, SMS, Mail, Safari, and so on – not things like games, etc) then at the moment you recall the application this last-seen frame displays in order to create the illusion of the application loading faster than it actually does. In reality it takes a second or two for it to fully kick in again, but this process makes it seem faster. What this article fails to point out is that only one of these snapshots is kept, and it’s replaced every time you exit the application. It’s not like your application usage history can be mined solely from these screenshots, or anything. Quite simply, these applications live in the background anyway, so any law enforcement people could just have a look at them and see what you were looking at last within that application last without any fuss over screenshots.

    I guess the point that I’d like to make is that this isn’t some sort of Orwellian nightmare device. The article is perhaps embellished for effect.

  14. Newto-Rah says:

    I feel like not enough people know about the automatic geo-tagging. There are TONS of pictures of girls taking photos in various states of undress in mirrors. These photos are then posted to questionable websites started with 4 who are notorious for tracking people down. The scary part is the girls don’t realize that every picture they take contains their EXACT location.

    • sn1per420 says:

      The problem isn’t limited to 4chan. Kids don’t seen to understand the importance of maintaining their privacy online, and this includes putting personal info on facebook, youtube, etc

    • sn1per420 says:

      The problem isn’t limited to 4chan. Kids don’t seen to understand the importance of maintaining their privacy online, and this includes putting personal info on facebook, youtube, etc

  15. Bkhuna says:

    Just another example of the Bush administration and it’s wanton disregard for Civil Rights.

    Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help! Help! I’m being repressed!

    • hansolo247 says:

      so you cite the Bush administration and leave out the Obama administration??

      You know, the administration that wants nudie pics of you STORED and TRANSMITTED every time you go through one of those scanners???

    • BigHeadEd says:

      Bloody peasant

    • bhr says:

      I have no idea what this has to do with the federal government. If you commit a crime and LEAVE YOUR PHONE BEHIND the police can use it for evidence because it saves a lot of things. This article says nothing about remote access, the ability to confiscate/search or anything of the sort. The “Government is EVIL” people are just reaching.

      (Im a freaking libertarian and I see no problem with this being used by police if you are that dumb)

    • newfenoix says:

      The Clinton and the Obama administrations’ civil rights violations far out weigh anything that Bush did.

  16. ap0 says:

    If you’re gonna commit crime and use a phone, use a pre-paid one. Simple as that.

    • El_Red says:

      Even better: don’t commit a crime.
      Electronic devices store a lot of info. Same with commuters. Also prepaid devices aren’t as safe as movies make us think. the police will know which unit, and can track it back to point of purchase and time of purchase. Most stores have cameras.

  17. Smart-Alec says:

    Doesn’t your computer OS record every key stroke you type as well? It’s not easy (or maybe even possible) to erase it without shredding your drive.

  18. wednesdayaddams says:

    I am more worried about Google’s ties to the Gov. There is a lot happening now with the CIA and Google. In-Q-Tel anyone? I have a theory that Google was approached by the CIA years ago and couldn’t give the CIA what they wanted then because they didn’t have the money. So they got In-Q-Tel . Now they have these nice phones that integrate Google’s Tech like Google Voice Number that filters ALL your data. Funny thing is you signed up for it so you agree to the intrusion on your privacy. You can’t even create a Google account without a cell #. I think it’s funny how people say “Don’t do anything and you don’t have to worry.” That’s ok now but they also have this great technology called Recorded Future they use to predict terrorist activity. Look it up it’s scary. They track you too. Through your Google phone…and most defiantly your ip address. There is no more privacy in the US. The only way to get out of it is to get off the net.
    How can you unplug from the Matrix??
    Do I sound paranoid???

    • yankinwaoz says:

      Actually, I firmly believe Facebook is the CIA’s secret weapon. You can make connections and derive amazing information from that.

  19. Cyniconvention says:

    Why don’t they just use the Faceback application?

    Anyway, it seems that with all that info they save, they’d run out of space quick…wait, how much storage does an iPhone have anyway? I can’t ever recall hearing people talk about it, only 3G, 3Gs, 4G, ect.

  20. Splendid says:

    this is outrageous! who could have guessed that these pocket computers funtion like… computers?

  21. Villnius says:

    So, if I get arrested, does this mean that I can use my iPhone as an alibi, or will the authorities disregard this “evidence” when it gets inconvenient?

  22. Preyfar says:

    I think I’m going to put my iPhone in a drawer and hide from it now. Little disturbed here.

  23. HogwartsProfessor says:

    So if a serial killer grabs you, snap his photo real quick and then throw your iPhone into the weeds!!

    No, seriously, that’s both creepy and awesome at the same time. I might think about getting one if I ever 1) become rich enough to pay the bill on the thing, and 2) end up away from my computer more.

  24. Mr.Grieves says:

    Here’s how to get a picture off your iphone without posting GEO tags:

    1. Move picture to your computer
    2. Open picture
    3. Hit print screen button, located some where on the upper rightish side of your keyboard
    4. Open pain or photoshop or whatever
    5. ctrl+v (PASTE)
    6. Crop photo
    7. Save as another .jpeg/whatever
    8. ???
    9. PROFIT!

  25. aintgotone says:

    Whoa, never knew I carry a little spy device in my pocket.

  26. mattlohkamp says:

    this is the second time I’m going to cut the consumerist out of my RSS feeds – consumer advocacy is one thing, but this is just sensationalism. it’s not worth it to me to read over-hyped headlines and summaries that kind of blow the issue itself out of proportion – does anyone read the actual articles before they post them here?

  27. Anaxamenes says:

    Um, maybe you shouldn’t be doing anything wrong… Just sayin.

  28. Destron says:

    Well, as an Android developer I can tell you that Android phones are just as guilty as this as the iPhone is. In some cases – more so.

    BUT let me make one thing clear – there are two types of Android phones, there are phones that run the Android OS, and there are “Google Experience Phones”. Phones that simply run android are not linked to Google in the same way Google Experience Phones are. In fact the newest Android phones do not even require a Google account. Some example “experience” phones are the Moto Droid and the the HTC MyTouch – these phones are specifically branded Google phones.

    However, weather it transfers that data to Google or not, these phones do store a ton of data about your everyday life and usage habits, Yes, it’s mostly to make the phone easier to use and make things more convenient for you, but it’s still info that could be used against you.

  29. Harry_Greek says:

    I am replying because the iPhone shows a pic from Curse of Monkey Island. I like Curse of Monkey Island and would gladly buy it if it was released on the iPhone.

    That is all.

  30. Dapper Dan says:

    Why not just stop committing crime?

  31. rgetter says:

    Every cell phone potentially has the same problem, but smart phone are particularly vulnerable.

    Because of wear-leveling algorithms used to extend the life of flash memory, anything that has ever been stored is potentially recoverable unless enough data has been written to completely fill the memory twice. A simple format isn’t enough unless it completely overwrites every block of memory. Even then, it should be done twice.

    This goes for both micro-SD cards and internal storage.

    Also, because micro-SD cards are usually formatted FAT-32, files that have been recently deleted can be undeleted using MS-DOS undelete tools.