Phone texts don’t die: they hide

The computer forensics expert who recovered the text messages that brought down parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper has warned that any messages or files you think you have deleted from your smartphone are still there if someone really wants to find them.

The national head of the IT forensics practice at corporate advisory firm PPB Advisory, Rod McKemmish, was brought in by the legal team of Mr Slipper’s former staffer James Ashby, as some of the messages he had received from the former speaker had been deleted.

He was able to use an automated forensic process to bring the messages back from the dead.

“The delete button on the phone should really be called the ‘hide’ button, because the data is still there, you just can’t see it,” Mr McKemmish said. “In the forensic process we can bring it all back.”

While most politicians and business people are unlikely to be communicating about the sort of topics that brought down Mr Slipper, many might rethink the privacy of their communications.

With soaring levels of smartphone penetration in Australia, it is fair to assume that a significant amount of sensitive discussions take place via SMS.

Mr McKemmish said his skills were increasingly being called upon to investigate corporate cases, where firms were concerned about confidential information residing on the phones of staff leaving. Most phones have a “factory reset feature”, which is supposed to revert the phone to the state when it was first used, but it’s insufficient.

IBRS technology analyst James Turner said businesses needed to be more alert to the permanent nature of digital communication, as more important conversations were handled by SMS and email.

“This can be share price-impacting information, because deals can be made via an SMS that are worth a lot of money,” he said. “The audit trail is all important when it comes to being able to report that due process has been followed, so i f people are using electronic communications, then they must expect that there is a record.”

Not all communication via SMS or email is related to big deals of course. Much could be slotted into the files marked “harmless banter” or “office gossiping”. Common stuff, but not necessarily words that people want to be accessible once the messages have been deleted.

Unfortunately for regular texters,cA computer forensics expert and adjunct professor at Queensland University of Technology, Bradley Schatz, says smartphones were designed to hold on to data as a guard against accidental loss.

He says there are a number of factors that will govern how long a message exists on a phone after it has supposedly been deleted, but a basic guide is that it will remain somewhere on the phone until all available space for new data has been exhausted.

“The memory inside many of these small-scale digital devices is called flash memory, which is the same kind of memory that you would find in a USB key,” Schatz said.

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