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Are Tom Brady’s Text Messages Recoverable?

New England Patriots QB Accused of Destroying Potentially Damning Text Messages

Well, I can not resist.  Prepared to just let this story go away, I watched the online debates about just how “recoverable” Brady’s text messages are…and how the NFL apparently believes when one destroys a phone the text messages are destroyed as well.  Now I will somewhat reluctantly add our voice to the “Deflate Gate” conversation.  I hope this decision is not an air, I mean error, on my part.

NFL_LogoLast week, the NFL upheld the four game suspension of Brady when they determined he was “generally aware” of the team’s deflation of footballs.  The decision by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was fortified in part by the revelation that Brady destroyed his cell phone shortly before meeting with league investigators.  While this behavior, similar to the old “the dog ate my homework” alibi, looks pretty suspicious, Brady insists he was just replacing his broken Samsung phone with a new iPhone6.  Yeah, Right.

The elephant in the room:  Brady’s text messages are almost certainly recoverable via other means, and if NFL lawyers are not aware of this, I would like to offer to have them attend one of our CLEs on mobile device forensics….in exchange for a few good seats at the 2016 Super Bowl, of course.

Our clients may recall the CNN news coverage of 4Discovery last year when we recovered text messages and other data from a producer’s phone that had been at the bottom of a salt water tank at the Shedd Aquarium for a week.    (mimicking what the conditions of missing Malaysian Air Flight 370 might be like).  Unless the phone’s chip is completely destroyed, relevant data can be forensically recovered from the device, and we do this in our lab every day using advanced “JTAG” and “Chip Off” techniques.  Just last week, our very own Jared Sikorski, successfully performed JTAG on a phone badly damaged in a fatal auto accident and recovered important evidence to the delight of our client.  The digital trail left behind by mobile phone users will far outlive the physical device itself, and this fact renders the reaction to Brady’s alleged destruction pretty ridiculous.

Lacking the physical device, or in cases when the phone’s chip is completely destroyed, text messages can often be brought back to life in a number of other ways as well.   Data created by Google and Apple phone users is routinely synced with cloud storage systems and other devices continuously…sometimes without the owner’s knowledge.  Even if a user attempts to delete their text message history, messages can often be recovered forensically, or by downloading a user’s data via cloud back ups.

Phone-270x300A few years ago, we handled a case involving a high-ranking school official accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a coworker.  Although the official “wiped” his phone just days before he was ordered by the court to produce it for a forensic exam, we were able to recover dozens of case-making text messages from the user’s iCloud / iTunes account.  Ooops!

Finally, missing text messages can also be found on an individual’s personal computer when users of those devices are syncing their iPhones with iTunes.  Depending on settings, a back-up of the phone’s settings and data – including the phone’s text message history – is often saved on the users computer.  iMessages created on a mobile phone, for example, may be mirrored on iPads.  Again, smart phone users (particularly individuals under investigation who may be attempting to destroy evidence) may be unaware of the many locations where relevant digital evidence can be recovered.

The Take-Away: Don’t let a lost or destroyed phone deflate your case.  Remember that text messages and other critical data (videos, emails, web history, etc…) often reside in a number of locations.  As mobile devices increasingly become the computer of choice by many users, odds are the digital evidence you need in the future is in the palm of someone’s hand.

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About Jeff Hartman

Jeff is a 30 year veteran of the corporate security, computer forensics, and eDiscovery community and a co-founder and partner at 4Discovery. 4Discovery is a leading provider of computer incident response and computer forensics services to attorneys, corporate security executives, and the information protection community.