A Stark Reminder That Your Smart Phone is Spying on You

Vanity plus a large ego plus technological ignorance equals disaster.  While there is no confirmation that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s interview with Sean Penn ultimately led to the fugitive’s arrest last week, many of us in the digital forensics world are speculating that his unintended digital footprint did, in fact, lead to his demise.

Could it be that digital evidence on mobile devices used by star-struck El Chapo, the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo or his Hollywood friend Sean Penn led authorities to El Chapo?  Indeed.  Our devices are relentless snoops.  They spy on us even when we think we have politely asked them not to do so.   Geopositioning features, “deleted” text messages, relentless applications telling the world of our whereabouts, like the last Sushi restaurant we dined at, are quite busy documenting our activities… often without our knowledge.  In the El Chapo case, there are reports that flirtatious Blackberry text messages between El Chapo and del Castillo, who allegedly brokered the meeting between the drug fugitive and Penn, may have been intercepted by Mexican authorities, leading to El Chapo’s arrest.

iStock_000018678295_LargeReports of fugitives or “on the lamb” celebs being outed by their vain and ill-conceived internet communications are not new, and the digital blunders committed by these narcissistic internet-challenged dupes can be as big as their self-centered egos.  Many of us remember, for example, how the internet software guru John McAfee was ultimately nabbed while he was on the run as a “person of interest” in the murder of his Belizean neighbor.  A now-famous photo of the fugitive McAfee that was posted on social media while he was evading authorities contained GPS metadata that revealed his GPS latitude and longitude.  He was then quickly located by the police.  Oops.

The takeaway?  Be mindful that smartphones are systematically documenting our location and many of the intimate details of our lives…even when we have taken active steps to “turn off” these pesky features.  By “accepting” the terms of agreement embedded in the fine print of some smartphone applications we can be actively authorizing these sites to collect data about us, which can include our location and detailed daily activities.  And when you are involved in eDiscovery, don’t forget to go after the ESI located on these mobile devices, as this digital evidence can be relevant, compelling, and completely overlooked by those who have a vested interest in hiding it.