A motorcycle is a vehicle of change, after all. It puts the wheels beneath a midlife crisis, or a coming-of-age saga, or even just the discovery of something new, something you didn’t realize was there. It provides the means to cross over, to transition, or to revitalize; motorcycles are self-discovery’s favorite vehicle.
― Lily Brooks-Dalton,
I rode on the back of a motorcycle for the first time when I was just a little kid. My dad would take us for long rides in the country on his Gold Wing, and I absolutely loved it. The smells, the sounds, and the sights were all sharper. The wind in my face and feeling of leaning into corners spoke to me of freedom and felt like adventure. I rode a dirt bike on my own for the first time when I was about 12.
Though its been years since I’ve ridden, I fully understand the appeal and I still hold a motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s licence, just in case. There is a blissful freedom and a bright awareness of the “now” that you experience when riding a motorcycle.
But I’ve also experienced the dark side of motorcycle riding. I’ve responded to countless severe injury and fatality motorcycle crashes during my 31 years in law enforcement. I lost a dear cousin to a fatality motorcycle accident when he was just 18. A close friend of mine was severely injured and nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in June of 2015. His stellar career as a law enforcement K-9 handler ended in an instant, and his family nearly lost him. Thankfully, due to his stubborn determination and amazing inner strength, he’s still with us today.
A number of years ago, I had to intentionally put my beloved Kawasaki EX-500 down on the roadway to avoid hitting car that ran a red light in cross traffic in front of me. That day I learned that I could exercise all the care and control over my bike in the world–but I had absolutely no control over what other drivers might do. And I learned a really poignant first-hand lesson about Newton’s laws of physics. Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt badly.
The physics involved in a motorcycle crash can be nearly unimaginable. All too often, they are fatal.
Newton’s first law of motion, otherwise known as the law of inertia, states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. For the motorcyclist, this is a scary proposition, as they don’t have a car’s frame around them to protect them and absorb some of the force of the impact if they get in an accident.
The same laws apply to any objects a motorcyclist carries, including phones. Newton’s first law of motion can result in some extremely badly damaged cell phones for our motorcycle crash forensics specialists to examine.
In this case, the unimaginable happened.
A passionate, hardworking, 20-year-old son, brother, and grandchild–well loved by his community and full of future potential–was killed in a motorcycle crash. His family reached out to Gillware through their attorney, hoping that we could extract the data from his phone as a memento of his life. They hoped their son’s pictures, videos, music files, and other data could be saved.
The car and motorcycle crash forensics cases Gillware takes (thankfully) tend to be non-fatal for the victims, and often have to do with insurance claims. Once in a blue moon, Gillware Digital Forensics does a pro bono case based upon need or the compelling nature of the situation. This was one of those situations.
His phone was a Samsung Galaxy S7 SMG935T, which came to us literally in pieces. It also had an unknown screen lock code applied. The SIM Card and MicroSD data storage card were in good shape. However, the logic board from the phone was bent and cracked, with some electronic components sheared off.
If this phone had been a Samsung Galaxy S6, it would have been a natural choice for chip-off data extraction. The data on Samsung Galaxy S6 chips, though advertised as encrypted, does not come encrypted by default. This means that data can be extracted and read from S6s via chip-off when other methods aren’t an option. Our chip-off extractions from various models of Samsung Galaxy S7 however, have revealed that encryption is active by default.
In this case, I was hopeful that we would be able to swap the board from the damaged phone into a donor phone and use mobile forensic tools to extract as much data as possible from the phone, as we have often done in the past.
We ordered the same model of phone from eBay, and I disassembled the new phone, removed the printed circuit board, and replaced that PCB with the one from the damaged phone. The damaged board was warped and had some sheared-off components and cracks. Nonetheless, with some gentle and careful handiwork I could still ‘persuade’ it to fit in the new phone’s body.
In mobile forensics, sometimes you just have to hold your breath and hope it’s going to work. For this motorcycle crash forensics case, that time was now.
After reconnecting and reassembling the phone, it was time for the moment of truth.
I pushed the power button, and was a bit more than pleasantly surprised when the phone powered on without any problems whatsoever: It was one of those successes the whole office heard the moment it happened!
I used Cellebrite UFED4PC and Physical Analyzer to perform a partial file system extraction and to analyze the extraction. The hard work of our motorcycle crash forensics experts paid off, and we were able to reunite a grieving family with digital mementos of their lost son that otherwise would have been lost forever. This is certainly no happy ending, but we were at least able to salvage some memories for the family.
The summer months are upon us, and there will be a lot more motorcycles on the road. According to 2015 statistics collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcyclists are 29 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash. Please keep your eyes open for cyclists, pedestrians, motorcycles, other cars, and other hazards. And please keep your focus off of your phone and other distractions and on the roadway. Share the road responsibly. Every life counts.