Saturday, March 26, 2011

Smartphones in Forensic Psychology

Author: Allison Gamble

The increasing popularity of smartphones has made them a ubiquitous factor of modern life. According to figures researched and published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in April 2009, 53 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 in the United States reported having used a handheld device to access the Internet. When it comes to American small business owners, the figures are even higher: 49 percent report owning a smartphone. As such, the unabated growth of smartphone usage has caught the attention of the legal community, particularly those that work in the field of forensic psychology.

These days the data contained in a smartphone, and the way the device is utilized, can be collected as evidence and entered in court. To this extent, computer forensic investigators have been updating their methodologies to better understand how information stored in a smartphone can be extracted and organized. Forensic psychologists can not only examine the contents of a smartphone that is introduced as evidence; but also use the information found on the phone to discover unique patterns of use and behavior pertinent to the user. A forensic psychologist can then use their findings to help the court rule upon the validity of the device being entered as evidence. For example, the forensic psychologist can determine whether the smartphone (and its contents) constitute hearsay, or if they are subject to the exclusionary rule.

Forensic psychologists can also use the information found on smartphones to help them determine a person’s motives for committing a crime. For instance, an opinion could be formulated by examining the online browsing history and search records found on the defendant’s phone. Such is the case of the alleged Arizona gunman responsible for a massacre outside a supermarket in Tucson. Jared Loughner's online search history could reportedly be introduced as evidence by the prosecution.

However, the personal attachment people develop to their smartphones has already been challenged in the constitutional arena. In a recent case heard before the California Supreme Court, a defendant charged with the sale of an illicit substance to a police informant moved to squash evidence obtained from his cell phone's text messages without a search warrant. At the heart of the argument was the defendant's right to privacy. Although smartphones are widely used in public, people feel that a reasonable expectation of privacy applies to their mobile devices (this is a major reason behind the use of passwords and biometrics to lock smartphones).

Thanks to the growing use of smartphones and cloud computing, the digital footprint left in cyberspace by individuals is becoming more extensive and accessible. To a forensic psychologist, this digital footprint can offer an intimate glimpse into an individual's personality, behavior and though processes. Smartphones are not only changing our perceptions, they are also changing our behaviors and forensic psychologists are taking note.

About the author:

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing.

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