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Canny thieves remotely wipe phones in police custody

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UK police forces say that data is being deleted from seized phones and tablets using remote access features

Crooks are remotely wiping stolen phones and tablets taken into police custody, potentially deleting crucial evidence. Forces in Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Nottingham, Dorset and Durham have all reported data being deleted from seized devices.

Phones or tablets with a mobile or Wi-Fi signal can be remotely wiped using built-in software. The feature is designed to protect people’s personal data from thieves but criminals are now using the technology themselves. Police forces said that no cases had been affected by devices being remotely wiped but that it was impossible to know what data had been lost.

Speaking to the BBC a spokeswoman for Dorset police said that six devices had been wiped within one year:

“We have cases where phones get seized, and they are not necessarily taken from an arrested person – but we don’t know the details of these cases as there is not a reason to keep records of this.”

Derbyshire police reported one incident, where the phone in police custody was from an investigation into romance fraud. A spokeswoman for the force said the deletion of data did not impact upon the investigation and that a conviction was still secured.

Ken Munro, a digital forensics expert with Pen Test Partners told the BBC that seized devices could be put in a radio-frequency shielded bag to stop signals getting through and deleting data. He also said that putting devices in a microwave was just as effective:

“If we can’t get to the scene within an hour, we tell the client to pop it in a microwave oven. The microwave is reasonably effective as a shield against mobile or tablet signals – just don’t turn it on,” he said.

Remote wipe features on Apple and Android phones and tablets are designed to protect data when devices are stolen. In the USA any phones sold after July 2015 will come with a ‘kill switch’ to remotely delete all data.

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