Attribution of phones: How can the police prove a phone belongs to me?

Written 12th June 2024 by James Claughton

Mobile phones are used by most people in today’s society, the main benefit of which has made staying in contact with one another much easier. However, the prevalence of mobile phones and the data they provide means that they can also provide reliable evidence in criminal cases – for both the prosecution and defence.

Calls and texts messages are longstanding forms of contact between people and are often used in the attribution of phone evidence both directly and indirectly. However, social media applications and other methods of communications are becoming more and more prevalent.

Expert reports relating to the attribution of phone data are frequently used in prosecutions particularly those involving alleged major drug operations and other large-scale prosecutions such as multi-handed fraud.

Police analysts will generally prepare such reports using call data records obtained as part of the investigation; such reports are designed to provide evidence to show that a particular phone number is linked to a suspect and sometimes indicative of a pattern of behaviour relevant to the alleged criminal activity.

The mobile phone evidence will consist of a mobile phone download showing messages, images, and social media data and it will also include call data records which will show cell mast data. A review will often entail identifying the most frequently used cell masts to establish the main location where the phone is/was used and whether that can be linked to a suspect and/or significant event.

Police analysts will use the data to prepare timelines or schedules to demonstrate where the phone moves, who it is in contact with, content of messages, ANPR data and vehicle tracking data.

Police analysts will also consider various other factors in the attribution of phones to suspects and indeed others. Police will consider where the device was seized such as from a specific location or from a specific suspect. They will seek to establish who the phone is registered to, if anyone. The analysis will often include the following:

Phone contacts

Police experts will analyse phone contacts stored on a device to establish whether there are individuals who can be linked to the suspect. A suspect’s family member being saved as a contact such as “mum”; “dad”; “bro” will often provide strong and indeed rather obvious support in the attribution of a phone to a suspect.

Cell masts usage times and locations

This can establish a pattern of behaviour in the usage of the phone and if that proves to be consistent with the actions of a suspect it may add support to phone attribution. For example, if the individual is present at a certain location at a time which is consistent with the phone number this may tend to support the attribution i.e. work, the gym. Analysis could also show that a phone is in the same vicinity as another device linked to another suspect or alleged criminal activity.

Call patterns

If an analyst can establish a pattern of the phone consistently contacting other numbers of relatives or friends, this may support in the attribution of a phone to a suspect. Experts will also assess phone records to check whether the phone may have contacted another number linked to a suspect or persons of interest.

Message content

Analysts will review the content of SMS messages and social media messages. These messages may implicate a suspect via name or otherwise (photos, voice messages etc.) and this could assist with attribution of phones to a suspect.

Social media/email accounts

Numerous social media ( Facebook, Instagram etc.), email (Hotmail, Gmail etc.) and other personal accounts (internet dating sites etc.) can and often are linked to modern smart phones, which may support attribution of the phone to the owner of those accounts.

Cell-site analysis

Cell site analysis is carried out to check if a phone is used in the general area of a particular cell mast at a particular time, or to show general patterns of movement of the phone. This can support attributing a phone number to a person such as if there are frequent connections to a cell site near a suspect’s home address.

Network providers must keep information data of calls and texts and data connections for 12 months. Using these records, experts can detail the times and number of communication entries pertaining to a phone number. It is obviously important to establish the context of a message i.e. was it sent to a number of people or was it a direct message to someone. Furthermore, it is important to establish whether a call actually connected or went to voicemail but in broad terms the information obtained can be at least a building block in the attribution process.

Whilst phone evidence is frequently used by the prosecution it can be crucial in supporting a suspect’s defence and providing rebutting evidence if it can show that the suspect was actually in another location at a particular point in time or show that there has been limited contact with a co-accused. Furthermore, an expert analysis by someone with experience in working with defence teams could be used to illustrate a rather different analysis of alleged contact and messages which could suggest the suspect was not involved in the allegations as alleged by the prosecution.

In summary, phone evidence is an important tool in the armoury of not just the prosecution but also the defence but key to how useful it actually is will be successful attribution. The points above are a short summary of the key considerations. The team at Olliers will often engage with defence experts who can assist with not only attribution but all of the issues arising from the same.

 

James Claughton

James Claughton

Solicitor

Manchester

Head Office

London

Satellite Office

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