Accessible Digital Evidence Tech for all Officers

June 25, 2020
As crimes become more complex and increasingly influenced by technology, there is a need to empower frontline responders to access information that is critical to reducing time to evidence.

When the paramedics reported to the Cleveland Police that there was a possible murder scene at a home in Middlesbrough, England, investigators immediately opened a forensic investigation. Only this time, rather than simply gathering physical evidence and questioning suspects at the crime scene in a conventional way, local police took their field investigation digital to solve the case faster. 

"Investigators and examiners are facing extreme challenges in managing the explosion of digital data, exacerbated by budget cuts and the shortage of overtime allowances."

The case began when paramedics received a call from Ms. Lona James who reported that a woman had been killed in her home. Arriving at the scene, first responders found the lifeless body of Laura Harrison, a 36-year-old mother of two young children, who had sustained numerous injuries including multiple stab wounds to her back and head.

Harrison’s partner, Jonathon Joseph Robinson, was immediately questioned about the incident. He had an alibi and suggested that Harrison might have sustained her injuries from a fall out of bed. However, he also had a history of domestic violence, which immediately raised eyebrows. Police then questioned Robinson’s mother, Lona James, who had reported the incident. She told quite a different story.

During a separate interview, James revealed she’d had a conversation with her son the night before. She told police that her son (Robinson), had confessed to assaulting Harrison but that he had refused her pleas to take Harrison to the hospital citing his concern that the incident could jeopardize his access to their two children. She also offered up a critical piece of evidence: four images of Harrison’s injuries that Robinson had sent to her via WhatsApp the night before.

The investigating officers needed to get the images and messages from her device quickly to confront the suspect during questioning at the crime scene. Using a kiosk strategically placed in-the-field (a local station) and other digital intelligence tools, trained investigators were able to instantly gain access and analyze the digital evidence. They were able to bypass the backlogged lab to retrieve a full extraction and capture the evidence in a forensically sound manner that could not be questioned later by solicitors when the case went to trial.

The ability to integrate the findings into the case and share the evidence with the interrogation team helped to expedite the interview process, refute the suspect’s alibi, speed the time to an arrest, and ultimately convict a murderer to life behind bars.

With more than 97% of cases today involving at least one smartphone, technology and digital intelligence solutions are the future of policing. There is a critical need to allow frontline officers simplified access to evidence they can act on, the ability to deliver defensible data, and the means to collect evidence in accordance with industry best practices to keep communities safe. Access to kiosks and consent-based collection applications that reside on officer’s mobile phones, all of which are centrally deployed and managed, may provide the best solution for law enforcement to legally gather information from mobile devices while also building community trust.

Tech’s role in policing of the future

As devices and apps become more sophisticated, criminals are taking advantage of new ways to hide their communications and transactions. From opioid and narcotics trafficking to homicides, human trafficking, terrorist threats, and border security, criminals have been quick to adopt digital technology for illicit purposes—and the mountains of data being generated are staggering.

As crimes become more complex and increasingly influenced by technology, there is a need to empower frontline responders to access information that is critical to reducing time to evidence. Digital intelligence solutions are the most effective way to protect communities, clear case backlogs, and deal with resource constraints while increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of law enforcement personnel.

Yet, investigators and examiners are facing extreme challenges in managing the explosion of digital data, exacerbated by budget cuts and the shortage of overtime allowances. Police are weighed down by this data deluge. They are burdened by massive backlogs and caseloads that traditional investigation techniques alone won’t fix.

Data deluge

The role of digital data in investigations has grown 82% in just a few years. Today, there are over 5 billion mobile devices and 1.5 billion computers in use worldwide. Half of all cases now involve access to data stored in the cloud.

The new generation of digital devices has storage capacities as high as one terabyte. Despite the differing types of digital sources and the volume of digital data that typically needs to be reviewed in an investigation, most agencies are using manual reviews instead of applying AI-based solutions. This means, on average, investigators spend 43 hours per week reviewing evidence and reporting on it.

Extracting and analyzing digital evidence plays a key role in determining guilt or innocence in today’s investigative process. In fact, if investigators don’t generate leads in the 48 hours after a crime is committed, their chances of solving the case plunge by 50%.

With the increase of digital devices, examiners face an average 3-month backlog with an average backlog of 89 devices per station. Field solutions are key to overcoming the data deluge, reducing case backlogs, and speeding time to evidence. In fact, 75% of investigators report that gathering digital evidence at the scene of the crime is critical for investigations.

Using digital intelligence tech in the field to build trust with communities

To drive adoption and make the use of devices such as kiosks acceptable to the public, transparency will be critical. Agencies around the world can look to the police in Scotland as they have taken a proactive stance to educate their communities about how this technology works, how they will use it to protect privacy, and how it will positively impact their communities. So far, the feedback has been extremely positive.

Leicestershire police have used an integrated kiosk solution to enhance their digital forensics output since 2016, receiving international accolades for their innovation. In this time, they have reduced their backlog and turnaround times for mobile device examinations to be among the fastest in the UK through their successful deployment of kiosk setups around their force area.

"Today, the data captured from smartphones is often superior to evidence gathered in physical searches."

Digital evidence captured at the scene of a crime from witnesses and victims with consent-based authorization consistently contains critical insights. However, the current means of gathering this digital evidence presents a problem to investigative teams. Over 70% of officers must still ask witnesses and victims to surrender their devices so evidence can be extracted at the station or in a lab. Unsurprisingly, most people do not want to have their primary communication device taken away for an indefinite period.

To combat these issues, patrol officers need to be equipped with solutions in the field to extract consent-based digital evidence quickly and easily, without having to confiscate personal devices and take them back to the station to add to the backlog. Kiosk and frontline applications installed on an officer’s phone provide field teams with the power to securely extract digital data and surface insights from the widest range of devices quickly and easily by simply plugging in a phone. Victims and witnesses are accommodated because they only have to surrender their phones for a short time while investigative teams can immediately begin case analysis to garner actionable intelligence fast.

Further, device owners giving law enforcement consent want to know (and often restrict), the type and amount of information being extracted. Having the ability to selectively retrieve specific information rather than copying an entire drive, helps law enforcement instill trust and creates a more comfortable environment in which witnesses are more likely to offer their support and consent. By allowing patrol officers to engage with the public in a respectful way, it puts the power in the hands of the citizens and helps to build public trust.

However, there is no point in putting a powerful tool in the hands of a patrol officer who doesn’t know how to use it.

Building trust internally while collecting data

Managing the data to drive collaboration between investigators and prosecutors is pivotal to identifying defensible data and ensuring justice is fairly served. Lab experts and prosecutors must be able to trust field officers to collect evidence in accordance with proper protocols and the chain of custody to ensure it is reliable and admissible in court.

This means law enforcement organizations need to be trained on the latest innovation and digital intelligence solutions. Ongoing training is also required to ensure officers know how to properly operate the latest digital intelligence technology, and that they understand where to look for evidence and utilize the best practices for gathering, storing, and managing digital evidence.

Governance and management of data are particularly important due to the large amounts of data that need to be maintained. If the data is mismanaged, it can quickly be misplaced in various locations like a thumb drive or improper place on the server. Additionally, the data could be stored in an employee’s personal cloud account or storage device, which presents a serious issue if a staff member is no longer employed.

Increasingly, law enforcement is leveraging digital evidence to expedite case conclusions. Today, the data captured from smartphones is often superior to evidence gathered in physical searches. It is not just a cliché to say that investigators will even “step over dead bodies” to get to phones first because they will reveal greater data critical to solving a case than anything else at the scene of the crime. But in order to solve more cases faster and build trust within communities, it is critical to implement an end-to-end digital intelligence strategy to access, manage, and analyze digital evidence.

Modern police forces that embrace tech to collect digital evidence in the field will be far better prepared to meet today’s digital evidence challenges and beyond.   

Alon Klomek is General Manager of International at Cellebrite. Cellebrite’s products, solutions, services and training help customers build the strongest cases quickly, even in the most complex situations.

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