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Chicago Computer Forensics Company 4Discovery Recovers Data From a Mobile Phone Submerged in Pressurized Ocean Salt Water

CNN Reporter Ted Rowlands Puts Computer Forensics Company to The Test in Malaysian Air Flight 370 Mobile Phone Device Data Recovery Reenactment

Chicago, IL

As the search for missing Malaysian Air Flight 370 continues, a great deal of curiosity has been generated about what could potentially be found on the mobile phones of passengers, if the aircraft is ever located.  A CNN team led by reporter Ted Rowlands decided to pose this question to Chicago-based computer forensics firm, 4Discovery, recently. The dramatic results were aired this week on CNN’s evening show, “OutFront with Erin Burnett.”

CNN took one of their executive’s phones, erased the old data, placed it in the “airplane mode” and then travelled around Chicago loading the phone with text messages, photos, videos, and emails.  Then, Rowlands and the 4Discovery team paid a visit to Chicago’s very own Shedd Aquarium where the phone was submerged in a salt water tank, pressurized, and chilled to 50 degrees, courtesy of the enthusiastic scientists at the Shedd, chemist Allen LaPointe and fish biologist George Parsons.  Assorted seaweed was added to the tank to increase the “slime-effect.”  Finally, a steady flow of moving water current was introduced into the pressurized tank to further replicate the hostile ocean environment.  This experiment was, of course, an attempt to simulate the condition of phones and other mobile devices that could be recovered from the doomed Malaysian Air Flight 370, which is believed to be at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  Could data recovered from these devices, (think photos, videos, undelivered text messages, etc.) help to tell the story of what happened to the aircraft?


After the phone was submerged for a week in the green saline soup, CNN and computer forensics experts from 4Discovery, Chad Gough and Josh Fazio revisited the scientists at the Shedd Aquarium and recovered a very sad looking phone from the bottom of this chilly lab-created “ocean.”  Covered in green slime, the device literally spewed salt water onto the 4Discovery lab bench when it was disassembled.  The protective seal designed to protect the inner workings of the phone had virtually dissolved.  4Discovery has forensically recovered data from many damaged computers and phones for a number of cases, including those destroyed in fatal automobile accidents, falls from multi-story buildings, (while inside the now deceased person’s jeans pocket), phones intentionally destroyed by nervous trade secret thieves, and SIM cards swallowed by arrested child molesters.  “We have never seen a phone like this,” said Fazio, a former computer forensics expert with the Will County Prosecutor’s office.  Once the phone was dry, the caked-on white salt residue gave the phone the appearance of being exposed to fire.


“Once we saw how badly this device was damaged, we began to question our use of the term ‘absolutely’ when previously describing our likelihood of success to the guys at CNN,” said 4Discovery’s Gough, a co-founder and partner of the firm.


The experts gave the phone a nice long bath in a temperature controlled ultra-sonic tub of Isopropyl Alcohol, then after a gentle brushing and air dry, they attempted to power up the board. Nothing. The phone’s delicate circuitry was still too corroded with salt deposits to power up.  Next, they tried a number of more intrusive and advanced data restoration techniques, with no results.  Last resort, a “chip-off” process in which the phone’s tiny memory chip is removed from the circuit board by melting the connecting solder with an industrial hot air gun and then installed in a chip reader.  For this last step 4Discovery collaborated with their strategic business partner, Scott Holewinski from Gillware Data Recovery.


All of this was observed and filmed by the CNN crew.


The result?  A successful recovery of the phone’s data, including unsent text messages and emails (written by Rowlands while the device was in the “airplane mode” to prevent transmission), videos and photos. The recovered data even included the former CNN executive’s personal data that had been previously “erased.”  “A lot of people were saying it’s not possible,” said CNN’s Erin Burnett.  “I am…in awe.”


“Today, massive amounts of important data is being stored on mobile devices,” according to Jeffrey Hartman, a partner and co-founder of 4Discovery.  This information is becoming increasingly critical in a wide-array of cases, and sometimes the phones have suffered catastrophic damage, like this phone we examined for CNN, making data recovery exceedingly difficult.  4Discovery is among an elite group of just a few firms that have the capabilities to perform this extreme level of sophisticated computer forensics, and our clients are placing a very high value on these skills.

Will Malaysian Air 370 ever be found?  Perhaps not.  But if those passengers and their phones are ever recovered, mobile device forensics could play an important role in recreating the flight’s final moments…and providing peace, closure, and a final communication to loved ones.


About 4Discovery

4Discovery is an elite Chicago-based computer forensics consulting firm that provides digital forensics, computer incident response, and eDiscovery consulting to some of the finest companies and law firms in the world.  4Discovery’s experts have testified and been trusted advisors to each of the top 25 law firms in Chicago.  You can learn more about their work at www.4Discovery.com

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