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Submitted by Marshall University. Marshall digital forensics faculty member John Sammons (left) works alongside graduate student Celia Whelan to conduct vehicle forensics research at the Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex

HUNTINGTON - The automotive industry's push toward high-tech cars is opening doorways in forensic investigations, according to Marshall University's director of digital forensics and information assurance program.

John Sammons, who is also the interim chairman of the Department of Forensic Science, is leading the university's vehicle forensic research, which could enhance resources for law enforcement or other investigative agencies to retrieve data from a vehicle with device-pairing capabilities.

Sammons presented research Thursday at the 69th annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in New Orleans, lecturing on the importance of the undeveloped field. The research was done in conjunction with the National White Collar Crime Center in Fairmont, West Virginia.

With legal battles between Apple and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation over whether the company can be forced to assist the government in unlocking cellphones with data encryption, Sammons said vehicles can store just as much data - but without the protection.

Sammons said the research shows that the retrievable data includes what phone was connected to the vehicle and at what time, call logs, contact lists, navigation data, text messages, media files, social media components and other material.

Vehicle event data, which is like a black box on an airplane, also provides a vehicle's location, when it was started and turned off, when its doors open and when brakes are applied.

Similar parallels between vehicle systems and mobile devices were found, he said.

"One thing we did is when we unpaired the phone, the data remained," he said. "When he hit the option that said delete personal information, some data remained."

The same is true when users believe they deleted information from their phone. Sammons said the information is actually still there in a lot of cases, and deleting the items often works as if you are tearing an index out of a book.

Sammons said the initial research was just the beginning, and he hopes to investigate to see if items not recoverable from a phone would be in the vehicle. Different operating systems and hardware in both the phones and in vehicles make it difficult, he said.

"All of this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "It's even going to get more connected."

As the research in the area continues, Sammons said automobile companies could move toward researching how to encrypt their devices.

Several students have worked with Sammons in his research, including Celia Whelan, 24, who presented her vehicle forensics research at Eastern Kentucky University's student chapter of the High Technology Crime Investigation Association earlier this year.

Sammons, who has been researching the topic for about six months, said he understood the information could be alarming for some.

"I wouldn't lose a ton of sleep," he said. "The stuff is not easily accessible. There is just one company that makes the device, and it takes a lot of tools to use it. The bigger issue would be if you are going to rent a car, because that's going to be out of your control."

While vehicle event data has been available for a long time, the mixture of the two areas could help solve criminal cases, he said.

"This is a great source to help us," he said. "It's another great investigative tool we want to make sure is available to the law enforcement and forensics community to say there is a way to exonerate the innocent or prove someone is guilty."

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at and via Twitter @HesslerHD.


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