The Evidential Value Of Satellite Navigation Devices

16 July 2010

Once a device associated only with taxi drivers, satellite navigation (Sat Nav) systems, which provide directions to drivers as they travel, have become a popular purchase among road users worldwide. But despite a growing user base expected to reach 400 million by 2015, few people are aware of the level of data stored on such devices and that they can be used to retrieve Sat Nav forensic evidence.

In order to provide the user with directions to their desired location, Sat Nav devices send signals to global positioning satellites (GPS) in order to map the vehicle’s position. In the course of performing this function, Sat Nav devices collect detailed information about the vehicle’s movements, which is then stored across a variety of files on the device’s internal drive or external memory card.

A basic Sat Nav stores a range of information including business and home addresses, if entered by the user, alongside a record of the places a user regularly visits. Destinations, departure points and the date and time of a journey are also stored. Well known brands such as Tom Tom and Garmin are known to store a very large quantity of this type of data. For example, the TomTom 910 has a storage capacity of 20GB external hard drive, equivalent to over 300,000 paperback books.

The degree to which users are able to access this information stored on a SatNav depends largely on the age and model of the device. On older Tom Tom devices, for example, there is typically an internal hard drive or an external data card which can be accessed by connecting the device to a PC. In newer TomTom devices, however, access via a standard PC is usually blocked by the manufacturer.

The Garmin Nuvi 260W unit, however, is known to store up to 16 days of trip data, which is easily accessible to the user. By connecting the device to a PC, the user can access detailed latitude, longitude, altitude and heading coordinates in standard text format, or export the data to mapping services such as Google Earth.

Clearly, then, the information stored on a Sat Nav device could prove vital in criminal investigations, particularly with regard to prove the location of a suspect at a particular time. For this reason, Sat Nav units are now routinely confiscated during investigations and passed to Sat Nav forensic experts for analysis. This involves the scientific examination of data stored on the device in a manner that is compliant with Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines, to ensure that all digital evidence is extracted accurately and in a manner that preserves its admissibility in a court of law.

And as technology progresses, the range of information stored on Sat Nav devices also widens. For example, some devices now allow users to pair the system with their mobile phone via Bluetooth to create a hands free kit which relays calls and text messages to the Sat Nav unit. As such, a Sat Nav forensic expert could now expect to find telephone numbers, text messages, call logs and even multimedia files on a device that had been paired with a mobile phone.

As such, there can be little doubt that Sat Nav forensics will play an increasingly vital role in criminal investigations, with the Metropolitan Police revealing last year that the analysis of Sat Nav devices has already led to breakthroughs in a number cases, including kidnaps and terrorism.

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