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How forensic technology can assist data extraction from contraband phones

Advances in technology are allowing investigators to fully exploit the data in seized phones as a rich source of actionable intelligence and evidence


In this photo made available by the South Carolina Department of Corrections on Wednesday, April 6, 2016, shows cell phones that were seized in a single raid from the Lee Correctional Institution, S.C.

Stephanie Givens/South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP

By Joel Bollo, MSAB

The growing numbers of contraband cell phones in state and federal corrections facilities present both challenges and opportunities for correctional facility leaders.

The challenges include:

  • The difficulty of stopping the steady flow of phones into inmates’ hands;
  • Regulatory and technical obstacles to blocking wireless calls to unauthorized phones in specific areas around prisons;
  • Speeding up processing of seized phones and eliminating the backlog of phones that need to be processed and analyzed

The opportunities include being able to fully exploit the data in seized phones as a rich source of actionable intelligence and evidence, which can:

  • Help reduce gang violence and gang activities inside prison walls;
  • Reduce inmate-directed crime in the world outside correctional facility walls;

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Ajit Pai, commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, noted in a 2016 USA Today Op-ed article: The problem with contraband cellphones extends beyond violent crime. With contraband cellphones, prisons have become a base of operations for criminal enterprise.”

The data shows that criminals are using contraband cell phones for a host of illegal activities both outside and within the prison walls.

A 2016 CNN article reported that “A single South Carolina prison detected 35,000 cell phone calls and texts over a 23-day period.” As recently as November 2017, USA Today cited a Tennessee case, where “A sex offender behind bars used a cellphone smuggled into prison to swap child pornography and invite a pedophile to help him rape his own daughter.”

Gang leaders use contraband phones to:

  • Communicate with their gang followers;
  • Threaten members against collaborating with prison officers;
  • Organize attacks on inmates and staff;
  • Direct drug and weapon smuggling;
  • Direct criminal activity outside of the correctional facility.

Fortunately, there are tools that can help address the challenge of exploiting contraband cell phones, at the pace required to keep up with their proliferation behind bars. Several states have seen positive results by finding and implementing the right technologies.

One state leading the charge is Tennessee. Prior to 2017, the Tennessee Department of Correction, like most state prison systems, struggled to manage the number of contraband phones that were seized. The agency had a major backlog problem.

Until April 2017, Tennessee’s DOC relied on one employee to extract data from seized contraband phones from 10 correctional facilities spread across the state, where only one forensic analyst was responsible for handling extraction and analysis. In some months, as many as five boxes of phones would arrive, containing hundreds of phones each. In urgent, high-profile cases, phones would be driven to the Nashville office, consuming many hours of employee time and resources. Backlogs were high, processing was slow, and investigations were impeded.

That changed in early 2017 with the rollout of a new mobile forensic system, which used eight specialized extraction kiosks and five PC-based software applications.

The kiosks are computers with “wizard-like workflows” that make it easy to extract phone data by following simple steps. Every investigator received two days of training, enabling them to manage the extractions successfully in almost every case.

The number of phones processed increased by 584 percent in 2017 vs. the same period in 2016. Reports on phones were processed quickly, and valuable and actionable intelligence was gathered when phones were seized from inmates. (Over 60 percent of the phones analyzed in 2017 contained gang-related information).

“Our department’s mission is ‘to operate safe and secure prisons and provide effective community supervision in order to enhance public safety,’” said Korey Cooper, director of the Office of Investigations & Compliance at the DOC. “Our new mobile forensic system helps us to fulfil our mission daily. Contraband cellular phones can have a wealth of information stored in their memory. By extracting and analyzing more devices, the TDOC Office of Investigation & Compliance can reduce violence and contraband introduction statewide in a more timely fashion.”

“Technology and applications (apps) improve daily. TDOC can rest assured that the new tools in our intelligence toolbox will help us stay current on today’s technological progressions. Additionally, this new system allows the department to collaborate more with our partner law enforcement agencies to share intelligence gathered.”

Today, the Tennessee DOC investigators are getting updated intelligence and evidence with no delays. In terms of prison and public safety, the switch to forensic technology paid off in a number of ways:

  • It enabled the identification of high-ranking gang members, as well as helped prison officials isolate and house them safely;
  • Through timely analysis of phone data, investigators have been able to look for evidence of potential attacks on staff members, before they occur;
  • The Tennessee DOC’s Community Supervision staff members have also begun using the same technology in their work monitoring residents on parole, probation and other forms of release and community service.

Implementing the right tools and technologies for prison systems to combat contraband cell phones is imperative. Other states would do well to explore similar efforts and approaches as Tennessee’s, to help address the contraband cell phone problem and convert the data on the contraband cell phones into a rich source of intelligence for investigators.

About the author
Joel Bollo is CEO of MSAB, a provider of mobile forensic technology.