You know the old saying, “shoot first, ask questions later”. It refers to the notion that careless law enforcement officers can often be short sighted in solving the problem at hand. It’s impossible to ask questions to a dead person, and if you need answers, that really makes it hard for you if you’ve just shot them. They’ve just blown their only chance of questioning the suspect by failing to take their training and good judgment into account. This same scenario applies to digital evidence. Many law enforcement agencies do not know how to properly handle digital evidence, and end up making mistakes that cause them to effectively kill their one shot of getting the answers they need.
In the case involving Farook’s iPhone, two things went wrong that could have resulted in evidence being lifted off the device.
First, changing the iCloud password prevented the device from being able to push an iCloud backup. As Apple’s engineers were walking FBI through the process of getting the device to start sending data again, it became apparent that the password had been changed (suggesting they may have even seen the device try to authorize on iCloud). If the backup had succeeded, there would be very little, if anything, that could have been gotten off the phone that wouldn’t be in the iCloud backup.
Secondly, and equally damaging to the evidence, was that the device was apparently either shut down or allowed to drain after it was seized. Shutting the device down is a common – but outdated – practice in field operations. Modern device seizure not only requires that the device should be kept powered up, but also to tune all of the protocols leading up to the search and seizure so that it’s done quickly enough to prevent the battery from draining before you even arrive on scene. Letting the device power down effectively shot the suspect dead by removing any chances of doing the following: