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Social snares left in cellphones can help law enforcement catch criminals
Officials increasingly see crimes transmitted over apps like Snapchat
Cellebrite technology
Gainesville Police Sgt. Margaret Johnson can use her Cellebrite technology to obtain information off a suspect’s cellphone in criminal investigations. - photo by For The Times

HALL COUNTY - Data deleted from a smartphone is never forgotten, especially when Gainesville Police Sgt. Margaret Johnson hooks up her phone-cracking Cellebrite technology.

Johnson was one of the first officers to learn the technology six years ago. The device allows police to get information off a suspect’s cellphone in criminal investigations.

“The system uploads software or cracks whatever it needs to crack depending on the type of phone it is, and then from there the computer essentially sucks down all the data off the phone, deleted and the usable data,” Johnson said.

In recent months, a number of cases involved accused young offenders and the use of social media on their phones.

Talon Lowery, 19, of Sautee, was indicted on a murder charge following a Nov. 2 shooting at a Cleveland Highway Texaco station that was reportedly filmed on Snapchat.

Gainesville Police took a report Jan. 18 involving distribution of obscene materials that was considered to be consensual sex by teenagers filmed on Snapchat.

In cases dealing with juveniles, Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said a report may lead to a juvenile complaint form, after which the information is sent to Juvenile Court.

“A lot of times what we will do is we’ll send the paperwork to Juvenile Court, and then what they do is they put them in programs and things of that nature instead of (the juveniles) being charged,” he said. “It’s kind of different with juveniles, so we pretty much just do the reports, and then it goes to the Juvenile Court’s hands to determine whether charges are filed or put them in the system or whatever happens there.”

First Baptist Church of Gainesville is holding two panel discussions, one March 11 called “The Impact of Technology on our Children’s Social, Emotional and Physical Well-Being” and another March 18, “Legal Ramifications of Social Media Misuse.” Both will be moderated by Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard.

“I think really over the past, I would say three or four years, we’ve seen an increase of it, and that’s just because of social media platforms and kids that are growing up with Twitter and Facebook and all of that stuff. They’re just moving that more, and now they’re going from grade school to high school,” Johnson said of reports involving minors and their use of technology.

Johnson said police have at times sent search warrants to Snapchat, owned by Snap Inc., who has been “fantastic” in responding.

“They (social media posts) may be gone on your phone, but that doesn’t mean they are gone off the Snapchat servers. It doesn’t mean the information has disappeared,” she said.

Johnson estimated authorities search about 100 phones each year using the technology, 90 percent of those being authorized through a search warrant.

Superior Court Judge Clint Bearden previously served as a Dawson County Magistrate Court judge, the type of official primarily tasked with signing off on a search warrant affidavit.

“Typically, you’re going to be very specific on what they have to request, and it is very specifically limited to certain portions of the phone or certain portions of the electronic device,” Bearden said. “It’s very rare, in my experience, to see search warrants executed or signed by a judge for broad access to an electronic device without there being some really compelling reason to allow that.”

Bearden said evidence suppression efforts are a common tactic by defense attorneys, who often argue before the judge on how the search warrant was intended and how information was obtained.

“If the searches were to exceed what they feel like the search warrant allowed for, that’s going to create an issue for the trial court to decide,” he said.

Johnson said she continually talks to teens and younger kids about the dangers of what they send on phones.

“I tell them that whatever information they are sending out, be prepared that it could go public,” she said. “There is nothing private on the internet, no matter if you try to lock it down, password-protect it, sending it to a friend, sending it to a spouse. It is going to come public at some point.”

A Cellebrite report can generate thousands of pages of reports on messages, geolocation data and other information stored by a device.

“The problem with cellphones is that when I process it, it doesn’t necessarily just pull out one piece of data,” Johnson said. “Like if they want deleted information, in the search warrant it’s written that sometimes I have to process the entire phone (and) pull down all the data in order to get that deleted information.”

In some instances, geolocation on a person’s phone has corroborated an alibi. In February 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled on an appeal from Lynitra Ross, who was accused of being the go-between in the 2010 Valentine’s Day murder-for-hire of Richard Schoeck in Lula.

Authorities claimed Ross connected Stacey Schoeck to triggerman Reginald Coleman. A search of phone records showed Coleman made a call to Ross using a cell tower near the scene of the crime.

All three were later convicted.

Ross argued the records should not have been shown to the jury as the search violated her Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

The court ruled “the ‘tower dump’ cellphone records at issue here are no different than telephone billing records, which are business records owned by the telephone company, not the defendant.”

“As a result, defendants (like Ross) generally lack standing to challenge the release of such records under the Fourth Amendment because they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in records belonging to someone else,” according to the ruling.

The time it takes to fully search a phone can range from 90 minutes to 24 hours, due to the numerous gigabytes of data potentially stored on a device.

Cellphone companies have not presented pushback to law enforcement during a search, but some companies may not store all their potential data like text messages.

“Because of the amount of data that is being pushed through cellphones, they’re not storing information like they used to. We can get information from some of the providers,” Johnson said. “However, some of the data information we like coming from the cellphone specifically.”

Every phone is different in terms of storing information; an iPhone will hold information differently than a Samsung device.

“Even from one iPhone to the next iPhone, it can vary, and they can be the same exact model,” Johnson said.