What are the challenges in digital forensics as it relates to mobile devices?

Digital forensics is the process of extracting and analyzing digital data and devices to gather evidence for use in investigations or legal proceedings. It involves obtaining, preserving, and examining digital artifacts such as files, operating systems, network traffic, and mobile applications (https://www.cybernx.com/b-5-benefits-of-digital-forensics). Digital forensics first emerged in the 1980s as personal computing became more widespread, and has become increasingly important as more aspects of our lives are stored digitally.

The goal of digital forensics is to provide an accurate account of digital events, while maintaining the integrity and security of the data. Proper handling of digital evidence is crucial, as even small alterations can diminish evidentiary value. Digital forensics can aid law enforcement in prosecuting cybercrimes such as hacking, online fraud, and identity theft. It also assists organizations in responding to security incidents like data breaches.

Overall, digital forensics plays a critical role in the modern justice system. As cybercrime rises globally, the techniques and tools of digital forensics will continue advancing in capability and scope.


One of the biggest challenges in mobile forensics is increased use of encryption on devices like smartphones and tablets. Both iOS and Android platforms now offer full-disk encryption by default (Elcomsoft, 2019). This means the user data is encrypted using a key derived from the device passcode, making it extremely difficult for investigators to bypass the encryption and access the data. Even with lawful court orders, encrypted devices often cannot be cracked without the passcode.

For Apple devices, hardware encryption has been enabled by default since the iPhone 3GS and iOS 4. Full-disk encryption utilizes AES-256 and the device’s UID as the encryption key. Android followed suit in Android 5.0 Lollipop, enabling full-disk encryption by default using a key derived from the lockscreen password/PIN (Darwin’s Data, 2023). Even if investigators can root the device, the data remains cryptographically secured.

This means investigators often cannot access user data like messages, photos, app data, and more without the passcode. Forensic tools can extract some data like contacts and call logs that are not encrypted, but Encryption remains a major roadblock to comprehensive mobile data extraction and analysis.

Cloud Storage

One of the biggest challenges in digital forensics relating to mobile devices is retrieving evidence stored in the cloud. As more data is stored remotely rather than directly on devices, critical evidence can exist outside investigators’ immediate reach (Zawoad 2013) [https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA590911.pdf]. For example, Android and iOS devices automatically sync data like photos, messages, and documents with Google Drive, iCloud, and other cloud services. Even deleted content can remain archived remotely.

To gather a complete forensic record, investigators need legal authority and assistance from cloud providers to access associated online accounts (Grispos 2012) [https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1043&context=interdiscipinformaticsfacpub]. However, this process can be slow and challenging compared to extracting data directly from a seized device. Cloud providers may resist cooperating or be unable to provide information in a forensically sound manner. Investigators also have limited capabilities to validate that they have received complete archives from the cloud.

Multiple Accounts and BYOD

One of the biggest challenges of digital forensics when it comes to mobile devices is the use of personal and work accounts on the same device, also known as bring your own device (BYOD).

According to https://simplemdm.com/blog/challenges-of-bring-your-own-device-byod-policy/, personal and work information gets commingled on BYOD devices, making it hard to separate data that belongs to an individual from data that belongs to a company during an investigation or discovery process. This complicates legal issues around privacy and data ownership.

Additionally, as noted by https://cdslegal.com/insights/insights-forensics/when-byod-backfires/, BYOD can make it difficult for companies to enforce security policies, monitor network traffic, control app usage, and erase data when an employee departs. This increases the risk of data theft and unauthorized access.

Overall, the prevalence of BYOD has created significant challenges for digital forensics related to data access, preservation, and ownership. Developing clear usage policies and utilizing mobile device management (MDM) tools can help mitigate some of these risks.

Various Operating Systems

One of the major challenges in mobile forensics is extracting data from the wide variety of mobile operating systems like Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and Blackberry (Darwinsdata.com).

Android and iOS combined account for over 99% of the global smartphone market share (Securityscorecard.com). Performing forensic analysis on devices running different versions of these operating systems presents unique obstacles.

On Android, each device manufacturer customizes the OS differently. Extracting data from various versions of Android requires physical acquisition methods like jailbreaking or rooting which vary across devices (Datanarro.com).

iOS utilizes strong encryption and does not allow jailbreaking. Performing advanced forensic analysis requires bypassing the passcode lock screen (Darwinsdata.com).

As new OS versions and models are frequently released, forensic tools must continually be updated to extract and parse data from different mobiles devices (Securityscorecard.com). The diversity of mobile operating systems is a key challenge for forensic investigators.


Anti-forensics refers to methods used by criminals to counter digital forensic investigations. With mobile devices, anti-forensics techniques aim to prevent or obstruct the extraction of artifacts that could be used as digital evidence. Some common anti-forensic techniques used on mobile devices include:

Encryption – Encrypting data on the device makes it unreadable without the proper decryption key. Full disk encryption, encrypted archives, and encrypted communications can prevent forensic examiners from accessing key evidence.

Remote wiping – Remote wipe capabilities allow perpetrators to remotely delete data on the device to destroy evidence. This can happen automatically when an incorrect password is entered too many times.

Steganography – Information can be concealed within image, audio, and video files through steganographic techniques. This hidden data is not visible to forensic tools.

Misdirection – Anti-forensics tools are available that plant fake artifacts and browsing history on devices to mislead investigators.

Obfuscation – renaming, encrypting, or hiding files using special characters can make it difficult for investigators to find key evidence. Metadata stripping and evidence tampering are also common tactics.

Law Enforcement Training

A significant challenge in digital forensics related to mobile devices is the lack of adequate training among law enforcement. As mobile devices and OSes grow increasingly sophisticated, many law enforcement agencies struggle to keep pace in terms of digital forensics expertise and tools. According to the VBGN website, “With cellular phone evidence playing a pivotal role in many criminal and civil lawsuits today, demand is increasing for law enforcement training in cell phone forensics.”

This lack of proper training can result in critical evidence being overlooked or mishandled during investigations involving mobile devices. A report from Best Accredited Colleges notes that “To effectively investigate cybercrimes, law enforcement agents and investigators need to possess digital forensics skills and detailed technical knowledge.” INSIT Intelligence offers law enforcement training on cell phone forensics and digital forensics, underscoring the vital need for these specialized skills in the field.

Cross-Border Investigations

As mobile technology advances and crimes increasingly cross international borders, law enforcement cooperation faces challenges during digital forensic investigations. Investigators must navigate complex legal processes to access data stored in foreign countries or on servers located abroad (Casino 2022). For example, the CLOUD Act passed in the United States in 2018 aims to simplify cross-border access to digital evidence, but these bilateral agreements remain limited in scope (Olber 2021).

Differences between countries’ cybercrime laws also pose obstacles. While some nations have comprehensive laws, others lack legal frameworks for obtaining electronic evidence outside their jurisdictions. International standards would enable smoother cooperation and evidence sharing between law enforcement agencies during investigations (Casino et al. 2022).

Language barriers, bureaucracy, inconsistent workflows, and trust issues between countries further hinder effective collaboration. Law enforcement requires adequate technical training and resources to swiftly process international requests while preserving digital evidence integrity (Olber 2021). More extensive global partnerships and information sharing could help investigators navigate cross-border challenges.

Advancing Technology

One of the biggest challenges in mobile device forensics is keeping pace with the rapid advancement in mobile technology (SecurityScorecard, 2021). New smartphone models with different hardware and software are constantly being released by manufacturers. Forensic examiners must continually invest time and resources into acquiring the latest devices, learning their architectures, and developing extraction tools and techniques for each new model. As an example, Apple releases a new iPhone model every year with custom chips like the A12 bionic processor that require new strategies to bypass security and acquire data (Datanarro, 2021). The exponential growth in mobile device technology makes it incredibly difficult for forensic investigators to stay current.


Mobile device forensics faces several key challenges that make extracting data more difficult than traditional computer forensics. The wide adoption of strong encryption, use of impermanent cloud storage, multiple user accounts and BYOD policies, and the diversity of mobile operating systems all present obstacles to forensic investigations. Criminal use of anti-forensics techniques further hinders evidence collection. However, improving training programs for law enforcement and strengthening collaboration across borders can help agencies overcome some of these difficulties. Though advancing technology will likely introduce new complications, ongoing research and development efforts aim to keep digital forensics current. In summary, while mobile forensics will remain a complex field, maintaining specialized skills and resources as well as adapting policies and procedures can help meet emerging needs. The outlook points to mobile device forensics remaining an indispensable tool for law enforcement despite persisting and emerging challenges.