Data says tech is helping convict criminals

There's an increasing number of law enforcement agencies relying on digital evidence to convict criminals in the US.
30 July 2018

Law enforcement is increasingly using tech to secure a conviction for criminals. Source: Shutterstock

When law enforcement agencies are able to prove that a certain person of interest with significant evidence against him or her, was at the scene of the crime using cell-phone location data, it’s easy to secure a conviction.

It’s what is increasingly being seen in the US. Law enforcement agencies are starting to rely on location data and other technology-based evidence, to bolster their cases against criminals.

According to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report, US law enforcement made over 130,000 requests for digital evidence to just six tech companies—Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Oath (formerly Yahoo!), and Apple last year — with Facebook and Google getting the bulk of these requests.

Add in Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast, and the numbers jump to over two-thirds of a million. These requests covered everything, from communications content to metadata (such as location information), and names and IP addresses of particular users.

However, the report highlighted that these numbers only cover a portion of the interest.

“They only include the requests actually made—not those never initiated because law enforcement didn’t know where to go to seek data or how to make the requests. They also only cover the largest tech companies,” says the report.

As everything from driving routes to sleep patterns to home entry comes to be digitally recorded by connected devices, the so-called internet of things (IoT), a growing amount of information collected by smaller IoT companies is likely to become of interest to law enforcement as well.

According to the report, the increased digitalization of society presents both opportunities and challenges.

In many cases, it means that law enforcement is able to access a lot more information a lot more efficiently, and without risking tipping off the target of the investigation.

However, it also creates significant challenges for law enforcement. The possibility of using digital evidence creates a a variety of choices and issues for law enforcement:

  • What services does the investigative target use?
  • What information does that service provider have?
  • What is the appropriate and lawful means for requesting and/or compelling disclosure from that provider?
  • How does one make sense of the data that is eventually returned to law enforcement?
  • And how can it be effectively introduced and authenticated in court?

Are our officers tech-savvy enough?

Since the country’s law enforcement agencies aren’t equipped to be digital-first, they’re facing an acute shortage in supply of talent.

“Even the FBI, whose Science and Technology branch has an annual budget of $600–800 million and over 6,000 staff,13 struggles to meet its own digital evidence needs,” said the report.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough resources to better train our law enforcement agents to understand and leverage digital evidence.

The sole federal entity with an explicit mission to facilitate more efficient cooperation between law enforcement and industry, the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center (NDCAD), has a budget of US$11.4 million.

The NDCAC’s budget is spread thin, among various different programs intended to distribute knowledge about service providers policies and products, develop and share technical tools, and train law enforcement on new services and technologies, among other initiatives.