The Cellphone Forensics Team - More Than A Hollywood Spy Tool

Aug 5, 2018

The cellphone forensics team collects the raw data from cellular providers or other data sources for missing aircraft or missing persons, lost hiker searches. They collect that data and look at analyzing it and presenting useful and actionable information to search and rescue teams in the field.

A cellphone forensics team might sound like something out of a Hollywood spy movie, but it’s a real thing. The people on this team of tech experts aren’t working with the C.I.A. or the F.B.I., they’re working with search and rescue.

“Hollywood gives us a perception of what cell phones can do or how easy it is to track somebody using their cellphone,” said Justin Ogden, a major in the Civil Air patrol who works with the cellular forensics team in the Air Force coordination center. “The truth of the matter is that it’s not that simple.”

Finding the location of a cellphone is more complicated than just typing codes into a computer and getting an exact position. Ogden said the information given to search and rescue is best described with pictures and maps. For example, a helicopter in Pennsylvania went missing and the cellphone forensics team was activated.

“In this particular case we had exceptional data on a phone that was inside that helicopter,” Ogden said. “We could look at the location information that existed, it allowed us to get a very precise location to where we could almost walk somebody into the accident site.”

Using the cellphone data along with Google Maps and Google Street View, Ogden’s team was able to direct searchers to a more specific area. The crash site was found within 30 minutes.

“The advantage that a cell phone has in providing clues is that it leaves behind some bread crumbs historically,” Ogden said.

Those breadcrumbs are useful for investigations like the one on the plane crash that happened in Cache Valley last month. The pilot never sent out a beacon or an emergency signal before crashing. Information from a cell phone could help with the investigation.

Ogden said emerging technologies like drones are helping search and rescue missions become more efficient. He said teams still need to use all the tools in the toolbox including drones, cellphones and radar. All those tools work best when people 911 first instead of friends or family.

“Making that call to 911 leaves behind the best location data, allows us to get it quickly,” Ogden said. “It was a purpose-built system to get help to people who are in distress.”

If you get out of a bad situation by yourself, Ogden said you can always call them back.