Spooked by leaks of WhatsApp chats in high-profile Bollywood cases, many from India’s upwardly mobile community, including top-of-the-line celebrities, are hiring private forensic experts for device-cleanup services. According to India Today, since the time it appeared to these users that law enforcement is equipped with hi-tech tools that can retrieve even deleted content from handsets and computers, private digital laboratories have been doing a brisk business of purging data.
Several private digital laboratories in Mumbai that were checked conceded that they had received a whole new range of well-heeled clients who want to format their cell phones, hard drives and remote backups forensically which means deleting select data permanently and making it unrecoverable.
A leading private forensic expert said that her team, which had worked with investigators before, is now offering cleanup services to celebrities, affluent customers, including many from the film industry infamous for a dark underbelly.
Her lab would charge around Rs 2,00,000 per phone for deep cleaning.
“[Seized] Phones go to the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratories. My experts worked with them. They know the internal system thoroughly,” she said. “We’ll check everything. What if the phone (we are working on) is confiscated and is sent there? We’ll check (at our end) what can be retrieved. We’ll see whether deleted content is actually deleted or stays in retrieval form. It’s important to check this. This is the system and the process.”
The expert explained that the forensic cleanup of devices is technically referred to as wiping. It involves cutting-edge technology, she said.
“We are confident because we have done this. We have worked for the film industry in the background. We cannot disclose the names [of our clients] though,” she said. “It [deleted content] cannot be recovered. It’s called wiping. We’ll wipe out the data.”
The specialist would advise her rich clients, including celebrities, to clean up select apps instead of erasing all data from their phones. “I won’t suggest wiping the phone completely as that will definitely raise doubts (suspicions). Rather, we take out controversial chats from suspicious (targeted) apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Messenger and other advanced applications.”
The tools she would deploy would delete content from backup storage and the cloud as well, the expert added. “It costs Rs 200,000 per phone.”
A senior expert at another private lab in Mumbai said his facility is offering its deep-clean services to clients, mostly celebrities, facing court cases. His lab would charge Rs 12,000 a handset plus Rs 6,000 per application.
“We are getting clients facing legal matters (cases). They want to get it (the devices) cleaned. So that it cannot be (recovered),” he said. “We remove everything in a way that cannot be recovered again in life. The phone stays intact. There’s a recovery tool that’s used by central, state, CBI, Indian and even US forensic laboratories. That’s the best available tool that is used for data recovery. But we have developed a procedure that will neutralize the recovery process. We have done experiments and developed a (counter) tool which will fail any recovery attempt, even if it’s done ten times.”
The private cleanup services are expensive but offered with a promise of secrecy, India Today found.
“We do our job with full confidentiality. No user data is shared with anyone,” said a third private forensic expert in Mumbai. “We have the cases of big businesspeople. But I won’t share the names of our clients, their personal data.”
He claimed no government agency can extract data his lab would forensically delete from user devices
“So, no agency can retrieve data you delete, right?” the reporter asked.
“No. It won’t be able to. That’s because those who will try to retrieve it are like us only. We use the same tools as most of those agencies deploy,” the expert replied. “It will cost 25 lakh rupees for 20 phones.”
Bollywood celebrities were shaken last year when the NCB accessed actor Rhea Chakraborty’s WhatsApp chats in connection with the Sushant Singh Rajput probe.
In his bail petition late October, Aryan Khan insisted the NCB was misinterpreting his chats. “WhatsApp chats are ex-facie for a period prior to the incident for which the secret information was received i.e the rave party on board the cruise liner Cordelia on 2 October. By no stretch of imagination can those purported messages be linked to any conspiracy for which the secret information was received,” read the plea to the Bombay High Court.