Elizabeth Loftus of Harrisburg, a computing and information science major at Saint Vincent College, is completing a senior research project that demonstrates how commonly available forensic methods can recover information from mobile phones that were not properly erased before being recycled.
Loftus began her research by ordering a box of 30 phones from Goodwill Industries for $10. “Only six of the phones had readable data on them,” she reported. “However, what I was able to recover on those phones was really amazing. You never know what you are going to find because they belonged to real people.”
“Most people don’t realize when they turn in a phone for recycling, even if they have done the recommended resets, a lot of data is still readable by forensic software that is available to anyone,” she said.
“One of the phones I studied contained evidence of illegal activity,” she noted. “I reported what I had found to my advisers on my senior project, Dr. Cynthia Martincic and Dr. Anthony Serapiglia. We immediately brought it to the attention of college counsel Bruce Antkowiak who referred it to the district attorney in the area where the owner resided. It turned out that the owner had already been arrested and was in jail so none of the phone data was used to bring criminal charges against him. However, that could have happened.”
If information stored on a mobile device is not properly erased, forensic methods can recover and exploit this private information. “The importance of this practice has become more evident in recent times, as law enforcement agencies are often tasked with extracting crucial evidence from suspects’ devices.”
Loftus suggested that people use great care when recycling their old phones. “Factory resetting is not enough,” she advised. “Only about half of the data is overwritten.”
Loftus’ study was designed to emphasize the accessibility of personal information from mobile devices when storage units are not erased and to demonstrate methods for extracting and uncovering information from mobile devices by forensic means.
“I collected recycled mobile devices and by performing various forensic examinations sought to identify past owners,” Loftus explained. “I believe that the average person does not consider the quantity of non-public personal information that is stored on a mobile device before they abandon any expectation of privacy they may have had in that device. I sought to prove this by recovering lost or abandoned data from these devices.”
The phones involved in the research study represented a wide variety of operating systems. “Two ran iOS, one ran Android, two ran Blackberry and one ran Windows Mobile,” she said. “The data collected on these devices during my examinations using Oxygen Forensic Suite software varied in quantity. I will perform similar tests using Paraben Device Seizure during the upcoming months.”
“I am not associated with any law enforcement agency and therefore I am not working on a live criminal investigation,” she noted. “Instead, I performed post-mortem memory examinations which means that the device examined was in a dead state. These types of investigations have a very low risk of jeopardizing data because there is no need for passwords or other credentials nor is there need for a disconnection from mobile networks to gain optimal access to the system.”
In addition to her major in computing and information science, Loftus is also completing minors in criminology, law and society and in forensic studies – cybersecurity. After she completes her undergraduate degree at Saint Vincent in May, she plans to pursue a master of science degree in fraud and forensics at Carlow University and a full-time job in the information technology field with an area corporation.
At Saint Vincent, Loftus has been active in women’s varsity golf, campus ministry and served as a volunteer note taker. She has been honored with membership in the Dean’s List and Alpha Iota Mu (information systems honor society).
She has completed internships with the Pennsylvania Justice Network in Harrisburg and as an information technology intern with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, also in Harrisburg.
Daughter of Zoe and Jim Loftus, she is a 2013 graduate of Bishop McDevitt High School. She is a member of Saint Catherine Laboure Church, Harrisburg.
Photo: Elizabeth J. Loftus displays one of the phones she studied in the computer forensics laboratory at Saint Vincent College’s Sis and Herman Dupré Science Pavilion.
Don Orlando, Director, Public Relations
Saint Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA 15650-2690
Phone 724-805-2010, FAX 724-805-2019, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.stvincent.edu