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Frozen Forensics: Exploring VTO’s radical new research on water damaged mobile devices

Fatality! This is the first thought that most of us have after dropping our $1000 cell phone in the toilet. Conventional wisdom has taught us that water and our beloved smartphones don’t mix. One could even say water and smartphones are mortal enemies. This volatile relationship can cost consumers thousands of dollars in repair and warranty costs over the course of their lifetimes. Of course, most of us have heard or read about incredulous home remedies for water laden devices – such as putting them in bags of rice or blow drying them until the water has evaporated – but the manufacturing industry has never endorsed these methods because, quite frankly, they don’t work.

Mobile phone manufacturers have attempted to engineer a solution to this water problem ever since they put these devices into our clumsy hands. To this end, manufacturers like Apple have even removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from their devices partially because it’s so difficult to waterproof.

Let’s zoom out even further than the impact of us accidentally dropping our phones in a hotel jacuzzi and focus on the consequences surrounding criminal investigations. I’d wager that every day bad guys around the world are looking to destroy evidence by chucking their cell phones into lakes and ponds. What if law enforcement officials or soldiers chasing the bad guys recovered these water-soaked devices? Is the data recoverable? Is it possible for these phones to work again? What kind of damage is happening to the printed circuit boards? The list of questions goes on, but these are exactly the types of riddles that the researchers at VTO are trying to solve.

In pursuit of trying to turn conventional wisdom on its head, researchers at VTO took eight smartphones, put them in a crude metal basket, and launched them into a frozen pond.

Lying in wait during the dead of a Colorado winter, these phones rested at the bottom of a frozen pond for three weeks.

Before illustrating the recovery of these devices, let’s discuss a bit more about why VTO is performing this experiment. As experts in damaged device forensics and data recovery, VTO researchers used this frozen pond as a conduit to test a few hypotheses:

First, forensic scientists at VTO believe that even under some of the most hazardous conditions, as in this case with freezing temperatures, water will not destroy or affect data on a mobile device.

Second, most circuit boards found in mobile devices have a remarkable tolerance for all forms of water. (Of course, this hypothesis is contingent on devices not being fed power whilst basking in water.)

And lastly, if a mobile device is sanitized and cleaned post-exposure to water, the device will not sustain any major malfunctions.

But in order to move toward proving any of these hypotheses, VTO researchers must first fish these phones out of the frozen pond.

Recovering the phones out of the pond is not a simple task. The frozen canopy of the pond must be forcefully cracked open once again. Nonetheless, VTO researchers broke through the ice and reeled in the metal basket of phones.

These mobile devices endured weeks at the bottom of the pond, accompanied