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How Smartphone Data Can Be Used as Legal Evidence

How Smartphone Data Can Be Used as Legal Evidence

As of January of 2017, 95% of Americans now own some kind of cellphone — and smartphones make up the vast majority of those, with 77% of Americans owning one. It’s only logical to assume that that percentage will have increased by January 2018. And the amount of data created is staggering as well.

Around 15.2 million texts are sent every minute. Uber takes 45,787 trips every minute. There are 456,000 tweets sent each minute and 46,750 photos Instagrammed each minute. And across all devices, we perform 3.6 million Google searches every minute.

So clearly, smartphones and their all important data have become ubiquitous. We rely on these small personal computers for nearly every aspect of our life — we store our passwords, our banking access, our emails, texts, phone calls, photos, and videos. We track how many steps we take, and how long we’ve slept — and where. We store our travel information, and the contents of our wallets. We can control the temperature of our house, check and set our alarm system, turn lights on and off, and shop for everything from groceries to birthday gifts.

From a personal perspective, they’re the ultimate multi-tool. But to others, they’re small tracking devices that reveal everything from our whereabouts to the private questions we ask Google. And as marketers mine this information to target us with exact science, these little treasure troves of data have also become exceptionally useful as legal evidence.

What data evidence lives on our smartphones

A little shift in perspective is all it takes to start seeing a smartphone as a window into the user’s life. Texts, call logs, timestamps, and GPS geotags can quickly be used to build timelines of events, proof of relationships, and motives or alibis. Texts and emails have also been used to confirm contractual terms or debts.

Our phones are constantly communicating with cell phone towers, and the apps we enable to “know our location” constantly — a recent study by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University found that “12 popular Android apps collected device location — GPS coordinates accurate to within 50 meters — an average of 6,200 times, or roughly every three minutes per participant over a two-week study period.”

So our cell phones have a built-in ability to put us in a time and place with incredible accuracy. Beyond GPS locations too, every phone has an activity log that tracks power cycles, the last computer the phone was plugged into, and what apps have been installed and uninstalled. This kind of data is not only useful for location information, but data and activity logs have also been used to prove phone addiction in child custody cases.

Not only that, but simply because a photo or a text or call log has been deleted by the user, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever — that data can usually be recovered by forensic data specialists.

Then there’s a user’s browser history — including voice searches — as well as conversations sent through Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media messaging.

Example: text messages as evidence

2012 saw the first homicide conviction for texting while driving in Madison, Wisconsin — a conviction determined with key evidence provided by text messages on the accused’s phone. Stephanie Kanoff had been driving when she struck and killed a 21-year-old UW-Madison student. She had claimed that her view had been blocked by the car in front of her, but her cellphone revealed a different story: Kanoff had been both sending texts and making phone calls after she left work that day, and was in the midst of writing a text to her boyfriend when she struck the student. Prosecutors argued that had she not been distracted, she would have seen him.

The case’s head detective, Detective Cindy Murphy, testified before the jury about how she had analyzed Kanoff’s phone to determine how its deleted messages could affect the order of her text message log, proving it to be a reliable source of evidence.

Murphy has also shared that her department frequently sees gang members, drug dealers, and other suspects take photos of their guns and drugs that they then use to boast to their buddies.


As we grow closer to reaching 100% cell phone ownership in America, with 100% smartphone ownership not far behind, it’s clear that the amount of data and reliance on phones is only going to grow.

If you’re in need of a team of experts to help your firm collect, store, and analyze all of this data, we can help uncover the stories smartphones have to tell. Contact us today to get started.