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What Will We Find On Passengers' Cell Phones From Flight MH370?

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Bearing in mind that CNN is the same network that suggested Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 might have flown into a black hole, it was nonetheless interesting to hear the network speculate that the cell phones of the flight's passengers might hold an archive of unsent emails, texts, photos, and videos of whatever sequence of events befell the doomed airliner—and that these fragile digital files could still be recovered.

As CNN phrases it, friends and families have been "left wondering if their loved ones tried to use their cell phones to send a message before the plane went missing." Taken together, these unsent messages, locked now inside data cards at the bottom of the sea, "could provide crucial details about what happened to flight 370."


This is obvious, of course: people on a troubled plane might have tried to use their cell phones. We don't need CNN or Gizmodo to tell us this. But what's intriguing about the idea of recovering those personal texts and photos is at least two-fold: one, the very fact that these messages could still be saved at all, despite the fact that the phones, laptops, and other devices have already spent weeks now submerged in saltwater, and, two, that these messages—assuming they do, in fact, exist—could thus offer us a constellation of narrative viewpoints on the disaster as it occurred. It is this latter aspect that I personally find so compelling, and I'll come back to it in a second.

CNN goes on to interview a representative of 4Discovery, a mobile phone data forensics firm based in Chicago, and he is quick to agree that this material exists—probably—and that it would still be recoverable even after weeks or months underwater. A large part of this would come down to appropriate object handling, he explains—implying that forensic investigations are really a kind of museology of the disaster scene. This would include keeping the passengers' phones and laptops fully submerged, even post-recovery, up until the very moment of data analysis. At that point, despite weeks underwater and regardless of other physical damage, "as long as the data cards are intact, the information is still there."


Of course, no one will know for sure until the plane itself is actually found—at which point, its own black box will do quite a thorough job in helping to reveal what really occurred. Random and quite possibly incoherent unsent text messages, in other words, are just lacework: a filigree of additional clues, but by no means the real heart of the matter.

However, on a narrative level, there is something so intriguing about the idea that literally hundreds of witnesses could, in fact, have been documenting the events aboard the plane that night, producing fragmentary and, of course, highly subjective accounts of MH370's surreal disappearance, but nonetheless recording the flight's final hours from within.

The very possibility that this Roshomon-like collection of work exists adds intense psychological texture to a story that has, by now, become anything but personalized—unfolding, instead, as a kind of technical mystery, with misleading pings and underwater drones battling for headlines with long-distance aircraft and eagle-eyed satellites on the edge of space.

Like recovering the diaries of a lost ship's crew in some Victorian novel of letters, MH370's 21st-century mystery suddenly becomes almost unnervingly humanist, holding hundreds of untold stories, viewpoints, and interpretations, with notes, prayers, or frantic messages written, saved, yet never delivered until the right analytic equipment comes along to find them. [CNN]


Lead image via Ogle Earth