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Playing offense: Contraband phones as a tool not a threat

Not only is the cell phone problem among the biggest contraband challenges faced by prison officials of all time, but it’s far more dangerous than those to come before it.

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

Unlike a knife or drug, cell phones can be used to harm people outside the prison. Suddenly, one of incarceration’s principal duties has been threatened.

Shall we jam?
No foolproof solutions exist to stop this mounting problem. However, tomorrow the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill to allow jailors to jam cell phone connections inside prisons.

This is an excellent step forward, but it’s not without its flaws. For one, the jamming wall will never be totally impenetrable; you can’t block all signals without blocking all signals, and to do so would have obvious and dangerous implications. Second, it is often difficult to contain the area jammed. For prisons located in densely populated areas, this creates a serious problem, making it hard to block only the signals inside the prison without affecting users on the outside.

So what are our alternatives?
Technology used to detect and locate devices in a prison has proven successful. Currently, the technology costs a lot to install, but it provides correctional staff with several benefits that jamming simply cannot.

I make my living outfitting laboratories with mobile device forensic tools. Thus, my experience inclines me to a bias toward detection and location systems over signal jamming.

However, with this aside, the fact that cell phones can contain extremely valuable intelligence should not be lost in the conversation. It certainly isn’t being considered enough.

Think of it this way: by using technology that already exists, contraband cell phones can be used to solve other crimes.

Bait your hooks with cell phones
The major benefit to cell phone detection is what comes after you find the phone. First, there is the high probability that other contraband will be found with it. Second, there is what’s happening in the developing field of mobile device forensics.

Forensics allows staff to track the communications of a phone user by digging into information such as sent and received texts messages and emails. Once a phone is found, it can be processed using software and hardware that pulls the address book, call log and other identity information from the device. By taking this information and matching it to the prison’s inmate calling system database, mobile device forensics can match an inmate or caller to a person, gang or other organization on the outside.

Additionally, both sent and received photos are often found on phones. There have been more than a few instances in which forensic tools have been used to pull images and video - including deleted content – from an inmate’s phone that has, in turn, revealed and/or solved crimes committed on the outside. For example, images of inmates set to be released have been found on other inmates’ contraband phones, revealing them as targets the phone user wanted killed on the outside.

Aside from being expensive, the challenge with mobile device technology is that unlike on the outside, most phones in prison are pre-paid, throwaway phones. It’s not likely that an inmate will sign up for T-Mobile’s “Friends and Family plan”. Instead, the devices are kept active through the purchasing of minutes, which can be done by someone on the outside of the prison and easily communicated to the inmate. This makes them much harder to track.

Think of today and tomorrow
Despite current issues, the developing benefits of mobile device forensics should not be overlooked. Forensics helps us tie the pieces together, identifying who’s using phones and why. And though there is still no one-size-fits-all forensic solution for mobile device analysis, there are increasingly better tools available for prisons to consider. As technology develops, these tools will only get better and more affordable.

I believe the most effective way of combating the contraband phone problem is a combination of techniques that includes isolated jamming, detection and location, as well as monitoring and device forensics. By combining these three solutions, prisons can better control phone use, identify offenders and either confiscate the devices or monitor them for intelligence.

If jamming is deemed too crude a solution for law makers to feel comfortable with, perhaps giving the prisons the ability to detect and locate a device in their facilities, and then monitor the offending caller, should be explored more closely and considered more seriously.

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