NBC News: Families Cling to Hope That iPhone Holds Clues to Florida Teens Lost at Sea

Originally published by NBC News.

Missing Florida teenagers on boat
Video released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Law Enforcement Division shows two missing teens in a boat heading out of Jupiter Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean in July 2015. Image: Florida Fish and Wildlife

An iPhone found stashed inside a compartment of the boat shared by two teenagers who vanished off the Florida coast last summer could hold clues in a confounding mystery: How did the boys — both skilled boaters — disappear at sea?

Data-recovery experts say that while salvaging data from the barnacle-encrusted iPhone 6 — which apparently spent an extended period submerged in saltwater — isn’t impossible, the circumstances suggest extracting any information is a long shot.

The parents of the two teens — friends Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14 at the time — are clinging to hope that it could help explain their disappearance. The two families even waged a legal fight over preservation of the cellphone, although that apparently was settled on Friday.

DriveSavers, a data recovery company based in California, says it typically receives more than 300 phones a month in various state of ruin — including some damaged after being dropped in the ocean.

“Most of the phones were in the ocean for short periods, but there were several weeks to months before the customer sent the phones to us for recovery,” said DriveSavers spokesman John Christopher. “That makes a huge difference because the saltwater speeds up the corrosion process and can make the data recovery difficult to impossible.”

Even so, the company has been able to resurrect data in some scenarios, he said.

In the case of Perry and Austin, the phone they were using could have been in the water for eight months, based on the barnacles found on the cracked device when it was recovered.

Another expert, Robert Heller, a digital forensics expert with CKC Consulting in Texas, told NBC News that if the phone can be revived, the contents could include text messages that were never sent, call logs, pictures and possibly GPS-related information.

“At the end of the day, if you have a shred of information that’s recoverable, it can be helpful to painting a better picture of what may or may not have occurred,” he said.

The capsized boat was discovered March 18 by a Norwegian supply ship about 100 miles off the coast of Bermuda. The boys, who remain officially classified as missing persons, were not with it.

The phone was found with two fishing rods and two small tackle boxes on board the 18-foot, single-engine Seacraft vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The friends had set out on a fishing trip the morning of July 24 from the Jupiter Inlet, just north of West Palm Beach, as severe weather approached. New video released Friday by investigators shows the boys as they cruised around the inlet before heading out to sea that day.

The video was taken by a home with a security camera ahead of their ill-fated trip.

When they didn’t come home after 4 p.m., the Coast Guard was dispatched. They found the abandoned boat two days later. A personal flotation device and the boat’s cover were gone.

A marine salvage company was later sent to tow the vessel back, but by then it had drifted away.

At the time, officials said, they were focused on finding the teens and didn’t have the resources to locate the craft. About two weeks later, the search for the pair was called off.

Read more: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/families-cling-hope-iphone-holds-clues-florida-teens-loss-sea-n564296