In today’s world, our lives are on our computers — our plans, our work, our family life, our desires and needs. These details are all stored on our laptops, re-stored on our smartphones, backed up to servers belonging to our employers, the phone company or drives in our home offices. We even spread our information into the cloud — nobody seems to know where that is, exactly — and who knows where else?
Computers can be used for committing computer crimes, like hacking and draining bank accounts or snooping behind firewalls — or they can hide evidence about real crimes and provide insights into motives and connections or plans for murder, robbery, kidnapping or other offences.
Do you have a (digital) warrant?
In order for authorities (not counting the NSA among them) to gain access to your computer files, there is a pretty high standard that needs to be considered. Computer data can be linked to a variety of sources that may or may not be covered under a mandatory search order. For example, if the police needed to look at medical files at a doctor’s office and assuming they were granted access for cause, they would not have the right to look at other patient files.
A search order must be obtained (just like searching any physical location) that specifies what computers, peripherals, cell phones, printers, scanners and other devices are suspected of containing evidence. This search order must be validated by proof.
Personal haven or hidden intrigue: your email inbox.
Email evidence is sensitive, as it may contain communications between criminals that would implicate them. At the same time, it also contains a lot of personal information from the owner and many people whom he or she communicates. Forensic investigators need to be diligent when they conduct a search so as to protect third parties. Generally, once an account is seized and downloaded for examination, along with recovered erased messages and backups, the investigators will run a search program for certain keywords that answer the warrant specifics — and only access those files.
What you post can haunt you: social media.
Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Instagram. These can be a treasure trove for forensic investigators. Authorities have already adapted marketing tools (such as the app 33Across) which determines a person’s tastes, then finds similar interests across their network of friends. Since drug dealers and gangs now use social media to distribute their goods and give orders to their minions, 33Across rounds them all up.
Social media networks scorn privacy and are made to be publicly accessible. While deep investigations may require special authority, publically available posts, messages and images can be used in a court of law if they help support a case against an individual.
Deeper metadata can tell where you were and at what time, especially if this information is supported by your own smartphone’s GPS record and list of cell tower accesses. Even your browsing history can tell tales. Surface data — what we type and post — is one level of information, but each packet of bits and bytes contained in computer memory also keeps invisible records of times, dates, where it came from and when it was used. These are in headers, geotags, metafiles and more.
Big brother is watching: security video.
In major metropolitan areas around the world, video cameras have become a mainstay. Even in workplaces, businesses, stores and entertainment venues, someone is watching or recording your every move. This should not necessarily be worrisome, as nobody sits and watches all of the footage generated unless there is something to look for. However, once a person of interest is identified and a suspect area is determined, authorities will use a search warrant to acquire all recorded relevant video files.
Even ATMs, parking lot cams, store cams and footage taken by tourists could be helpful. Once that proof is booked into evidence, it will be analyzed and added to the substantiation.
Locking it up: guarding against intrusion.
Whether your information is being hacked — legally or illegally — and whether or not you will ever be the subject of a search warrant, you do have some safeguards. First of all, think. Will what you are writing, posting, or storing be misconstrued? If so, rethink making it public, and start erasing easily misinterpreted files before they can give evidence against you.
You can buy programs that will encrypt your files so that only you or another person with a synchronized encryption program can retrieve them. Heavy passwords may also prevent others from easily accessing your data. There are programs that change a randomized password every few minutes, so that without a certain decoding device, nobody can enter your cyberspace. You will not be obligated to cooperate with the authorities and provide keys to your data, although that sort of uncooperative stance seems to raise more suspicions than it settles.
We live in the information age. What you see on television, in the movies, on crime shows and science fiction films exists. It is not as easy to sort out as depicted, but you are an open book – or iPad, so to speak – to those who need to know what you have been up to.
Your Turn: Are there any other cyber repositories of information relating to individuals that we might have missed here? Not so sure that some of these databases of details can be turned against you? We’d love to hear what you think. Leave your comments here.