The Metropolitan Police is deploying mobile phone forensic systems in 16 boroughs, allowing ordinary coppers to play their favourite CSI character with wrong 'uns' handsets.
The kit comes from Radio Tactics, and is basically a Windows 7 PC loaded up with forensic software and a touch interface complete with step-by-step instructions on where to plug in each cable. Three hundred police will be trained to use the system, which will extract everything it can from a mobile handset for examination, and storage, by the bobbies.
Mobile forensics is already big business, but at the moment handsets are carefully bagged and sent off to specialist companies for analysis. Different police forces use different companies, but it's an expensive and time-consuming process and as the number of smartphones increases, the police would like to be able to get at more data more easily and in less time.
Which is why the Met is spending £50,000 on hiring 16 terminals from Radio Tactics for a year, thus pulling the basic analysis in-house, though the approach isn't without risk.
A basic course in mobile forensics will last four or five days, for which a company such as Control-F will charge a shade over £2,000. That covers not only the data the cops might be able to extract from a phone, but also the way in which the handset must be handled and stored in order to make the evidence stick.
"Digital evidence is very damning," the company told us, "so defence lawyers will go after procedure instead". Forensic software has to be secured against interference, just as physical evidence would be secured in an evidence room, and police operating the kit have to know how to avoid compromising the data being collected.
Not that they always know what to do with the data concerned – the amount coming off phones is doubling annually – but the stuff being pulled off PCs and other IT kit seized by the fuzz is growing exponentially and securely storing all that data is a headache in itself.
Introducing Clippy-assisted forensics is only going to increase the amount of data the police have lying around the place. The police reckon this is no more than an evolution of an existing procedure, but Privacy International told the BBC that the routine gathering of data from mobile devices was a "possible breach of human rights law", though since the police gained the right to search one's pockets on request it seems only logical to extend that right into digital pockets too. ®