Building the Case for Digital Evidence

Every crime has digital evidence, whether it's a suspect's cell phone, a witness's cell phone video, camera footage from a doorbell, a fitness tracker, or data from any number of IoT devices and sensors. This wealth of digital data is both an asset and a challenge for law enforcement. Six out of ten professionals now rank digital evidence as more important than DNA evidence. However, the sheer volume of digital evidence--the average device holds 60,000+ messages, 32,000+ images, and 1,000+ videos--provides challenges for understaffed teams that often rely on manual processes to review these valuable assets.

As digital evidence continues to grow in volume and importance, law enforcement agencies across the nation are looking for ways to more efficiently review, manage, and secure this critical asset.

Infrastructure Sets the Stage

New York state aimed to shorten the time defendants had to stay in jail before a trial by accelerating the timeline for sharing data among law enforcement, the prosecution, and defense. Meeting this timeline required the use of digital evidence sharing and it became quickly apparent many municipalities did not have the right infrastructure in place.

Sharing digital evidence via USB devices is still incredibly common, even though it presents logistical challenges--you have to physically hand off the drive--and huge security risks--encryption is difficult to implement and chain of custody is hard to audit. Many organizations are shifting to cloud solutions to better share digital evidence. Doing so allows for an automated trail of who accessed what and when, hardening trust in the evidence.

Integrating the Tools

With the right infrastructure in place, law enforcement agencies can more effectively harness the power of digital evidence. Real-time crime centers provide the promise of proactive policing by pulling in video footage and other field data to pinpoint suspicious activity before it impacts the community. These centers combine video with technologies like automatic license plate readers, gunfire detectors, real-time officer geolocator feeds, and more to provide a holistic set of evidence for officers to review. The network of cameras can include those belonging to private citizens or businesses that opt to have their feeds used for investigations.

This practice has raised concerns about surveillance and privacy; officers report they do not have the time to proactively monitor cameras, and instead they typically use the data collected as part of their response for service.

Next Generation of Management

Maintaining an accurate and secure chain of custody is critical for both physical and digital evidence. For physical items, agencies are implementing RFID and other tagging solutions to ensure 24/7 real-time inventory of evidence location and ownership. For evidence that moves in cyberspace, blockchain holds the promise to raise the level of security and trust in digital evidence. Blockchain technology offers an immutable chain of custody, guaranteeing data integrity, preventing fraud, and providing a transparent, auditable system of record for digital assets.

For more information on how law enforcement is evolving the management of digital evidence check out these resources:

  • Empowering Statewide Policing through Data-Driven Reporting: The Maryland State Police Journey (April 17, 2024; webcast) - This webinar will explore the implementation of a state-wide repository for crime data, revolutionizing data reporting.
  • Law Enforcement & Public Safety Forum 2024 (May 14, 2024; Washington, DC) - This year's event will focus on Protection Through Prevention Empowered by Advanced Technologies. Key focus areas will include cyber resilience, data, artificial intelligence (AI), and cloud computing.
  • IACP 2024 (October 19-22, 2024; Boston, MA) - The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Annual Conference and Exposition brings together public safety professionals to learn new techniques, advance their knowledge and careers, and equip their department for ongoing success.
  • Three Key Technology Advancements Enabling Law Enforcement Modernization (white paper) - This paper looks at how foundational architectures, including cloud, artificial intelligence, and edge solutions, enable law enforcement to better utilize digital evidence with current staffing.
  • Enabling Data for Modern Law Enforcement: Better Efficiencies and Effectiveness (white paper) - In the digital era, law enforcement and public safety agencies have access to volumes of valuable data: information on operations, locations, and trends derived from service calls, patrol reports, and more. Such data can improve law enforcement efforts, enhance public trust, and strengthen citizen safety when agencies know how to accurately collect and analyze it.

You can explore more examples of digital evidence management and next-generation policing on GovEvents and GovWhitePapers.

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