In the famous Sherlock Holmes novel – ” A Study in Scarlet”, one of the clues that helps Holmes solve the mystery was identifying some cigarette ash left at the scene of the crime. Indeed he actually informs Watson in the same book that he has written a monograph of cigarette ash. The incriminating ash belonged to something called a Trichinopoly cigar from Tiruchirappalli in India. However in today’s world I suspect Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t need to bother with such detailed research as criminals seem to spend a lot of their time posting them up on social media.
Take for example the recent case in South Wales, where a large drugs gang where caught primarily not because they were smoking Indian cheroots, but because of the incriminating evidence they placed online themselves. It sounds stupid, but it’s true – here’s the photo which led to the arrest of the gang.
The photo was posted to a WhatsApp group, and before you start worrying about the police monitoring all these groups – it turns out it was actually retrieved from the mobile phone itself. This criminal mastermind had taken a photo, of his drugs for sale posted it to a WhatsApp group and then failed to delete or remove the photo from his phone.
It was subsequently seized by the police in a later unrelated arrest and passed on to the police forensics team. They discovered lots of drug related deals and messages, plus crucially this photo which was to lead to the arrest of other members of the gang.
From the picture, the police analysed the partial fingerprint which was enough to match to another known suspect. From this the police were able to trace other members including bitcoin deposits of over £20,000 in several dealers accounts. I suspect if Sherlock Holmes were involved he’d probably have solved the whole lot using a fast broadband connection in Baker Street!
It illustrates several things, including perhaps the IQ levels of some South Wales based criminals! One of the points worth remembering for those who do value their privacy is that although messaging applications like WhatsApp offer end to end encryption, that’s not the whole issue. There are lots of ways to hide the transmission including the applications security plus layering on encryption using a VPN with a residential IP. However secure a messaging system is regarding transit and delivery, it’s normally very difficult to apply that security to the end devices. If anyone has access to the device that was used to send or receive the message, whether it’s phone, tablet or PC, then it’s usually fairly simple to access it.
Of course, the ground breaking element of this case is using a partial photograph to provide fingerprint evidence. It would seem that there’s huge potential here to identify and solve all sorts of crimes using social media images and related records. How many incriminating images are posted on Facebook and Instagram daily for example, I’m certain plenty if you knew where to look.