Screenshots of digital messages are regularly served as evidence in criminal cases, usually to support allegations like harassment and malicious communications. However, they can appear in any case where digital messages are capable of supporting the prosecution case. By extension to this it can be reasonably assumed that many defendants in criminal courts up and down the country have pleaded guilty to an offence on the back of what is contained within the screenshot.
Can screenshots be faked?
This may be news to some readers but may be common knowledge to others … screenshots can be easily faked! It is not difficult for somebody to create a very convincing looking screenshot in a matter of minutes using online tools which can be found easily and simply by searching google.
If a defendant argues that they did not send the messages contained within the screenshot in a case where an officer has taken a victim’s or witnesses’ phone and downloads the data from that phone, then the original message can be obtained.
Alternatively, if the original message has been deleted and is not available on the hard drive, then the metadata for the screenshot can be looked at. For those who are not aware, metadata is the data behind an image such as the time and location it was taken and also the device that generated the image. Some devices will actually state whether the image is a screenshot or not. The metadata behind an image that has been obtained properly, when examined by an expert, will usually be able to demonstrate whether the image can be relied upon.
The problem with this is that officers are often reluctant to take a victims or witnesses phone from them. The rationale being that they do not want to ‘punish’ the law abiding victim or witness by taking their phone away from them for a period of time in order for it to be downloaded and analysed.
How can the police prove legitimacy of a screenshot?
Officers will often simply ask for a screenshot of the message to be emailed over to them or they may even take a photograph of the screen of the phone in question and store the image in that way. The issue is that, by failing to obtain the phone from the victim or witness, police are often removing the potential for the legitimacy of the image to be examined. An emailed image will contain no metadata and a photograph of a phones screen will contain only the metadata of that image, not of the image on the phone in question. This can lead to the legitimacy of the evidence being called into question and ultimately can result in it being excluded from the case which could lead to a prosecution failing.
So, in answer to the question, whether or not screenshots can be relied up as criminal evidence is not a simple yes or no. The answer is that if properly obtained then yes there is potential that a screenshot can be relied upon, however the way that police obtain evidence is often flawed and in these circumstances combined with how easy it is to make a fake screenshot, the answer can often be a resounding no.
How can Olliers help?
Olliers have long standing relationships with leading digital forensic experts. If there are issues in relation to whether screenshots are legitimate not then we can consider instructing an expert. We can also liaise with police at the investigative stage and make known any concerns in relation to screenshot evidence.
Article written by Alex Close-Claughton
If you wish to discuss screenshots in more detail please contact Alex for a confidential discussion.