We’ve written about this in the past, but it’s hard to overemphasize the fact that modern digital devices are collecting and storing mountains of discoverable digital information about our everyday activities. If you happen to be a smartphone owner, and most of you are, your phone is streaming an ever-expanding set of data to Google’s and Apple’s cloud services. If you took a moment to investigate what this data entails, you would probably be astonished.
As digital forensics investigators, we know that cloud accounts can be one of the most useful sources of ESI and digital evidence. Unfortunately, we also find that time and time again, prosecutors and litigators often omit cloud services in their discovery requests simply because they do not understand the scope of data stored in cloud accounts or how to obtain it.
Nowhere is the usefulness of this data illustrated so vividly as it is in this year’s hit podcast “To Live and Die in LA.” In the podcast, journalist Neil Strauss teams up with a private investigator to unravel a murder mystery.
Strauss spent countless hours interviewing witnesses and patching together a narrative that was chock full of contradictions and inaccuracies. Entire days were often wasted following up inconsequential tips and dead-end leads.
All that changed when Strauss obtained a copy of the murder suspect’s Google Cloud dataset. Because the suspect had an Android phone, the dataset was especially rich, but particularly so with accurate, time-stamped geolocation information.
While police never bothered to investigate the suspect’s phone or cloud data, Strauss was able to use this data to trace the suspect’s exact route, confirming his visit to the backroad resting place of the victim’s body. Later, the data revealed the suspect visited a pair of car washes and a dozen gas stations, presumably to destroy evidence and dispose of the victim’s belongings. The geolocation information is so detailed that it shows not only visits to the gas stations, but the suspect’s walking paths to the gas stations’ dumpsters located in the back.
Geolocation is just the tip of the iceberg—your Google account is capturing activity from a broad range of Google products. Every Google search, every YouTube video you watch, every Gmail you send, every Google News article you read, every ad you click — it’s all cataloged chronologically and held into perpetuity. It doesn’t matter if you erased your browsing history or cleared your bookmarks on your local machine, this data is almost always maintained in your history file up in the Cloud.
iPhone users face similar issues. While it appears that Apple isn’t storing geolocation data with the same level of detail as Google, it’s still possible to see a history of “significant places” you’ve visited with your phone. Opening up Location Services on my own iPhone, I can clearly identify the major stops on my 2018 road trip from Phoenix to Milwaukee. Even when I was deep in the Norwegian fjords a month earlier, my iPhone was capturing my meanderings and uploading it to the Cloud.
Consumer activism about privacy concerns has forced the tech giants to provide convenient ways for users to download and view the information that these companies are storing.
Of course, this ends up being a double-edged sword. While seeing this information gives consumers a way to understand what data the tech giants are collecting, it provides an easy avenue to download a concentrated amount of sensitive information about a person. And this information can be subject to discovery in legal matters.
Below are links to articles and resources to help you better understand the types of data that are in the Cloud and how you can download it.
We strongly urge any legal professional to call a digital forensics professional when attempting to secure digital evidence from a cloud service. While you may be able to download user data easily, you still need to preserve the data in a matter that guarantees authenticity. A digital forensics professional can help you devise a strategy to gather relevant information and preserve it in a forensically-sound matter, ensuring admissibility for future litigation.
- Here’s How to Download Your Apple Data (Entrepreneur)
- Your iPhone Has a Hidden List of Every Location You’ve Been (Medium)
- How to download a copy of everything Google knows about you (CNBC)
- What Google knows about you (Axios)
- Accessing & Downloading Your Facebook Information (Facebook)
- How to see everything Facebook knows about you (Alphr)