Evidence, Evidence everywhere By Giovanni Gaccione

Speaking at the Police Federation Conference last year, the Home Secretary Sajid Javid made encouraging statements about ensuring police officers are equipped with the resources they need. Since then, the government has pledged an extra £300 million in police funding. It’s a positive development but of course doesn’t reverse the 20 percent real term cut in police funding from 2010 to 2017 and the 21,000 officers out of work. With this in mind whatever new funding does become available must continue to be channelled towards initiatives that enable forces to do ’more with less’.

One area in which I believe savings are possible is by phasing out analogue approaches to the collection, storage and management of digital evidence. Yes, a digital evidence management system costs money but the efficiencies that are made possible can easily offset this. Furthermore, without such streamlining its hard to see how police forces can cope with rising volumes of digital evidence. According to a study by the US National Institute of Justice, the amount of stored data is estimated to double every 18 months!

This figure is hardly surprising. After all, a surge in the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement, an increasingly smartphone-savvy public and the growing popularity of dashcams has dramatically increased the chances of an incident being caught on camera. Logically, this abundance of data available should assist law enforcement in making sense of what occurred, allocating liability and securing a conviction.

Yet, in practice collecting, cataloguing and securely sharing this data is inefficient and time-consuming. So much time is spent getting hold of the footage that it leaves little time to actually investigate. As a result, we’ve failed to witness a significant improvement in clearance rates. Digital data should be collected and stored via digital means, otherwise we risk simply drowning in the deluge.

To begin to understand where time and cost savings might be possible we can start by looking just at the process of getting hold of video footage. Outside of the hardware that is directly owned by the police themselves, the evidence we’re interested in could belong to a citizen, to a business or to a public body. It will then exist on all manner of different devices, running all kinds of different software. Furthermore, the data itself could be stored locally on the device, in a private data centre belonging to the company or in a public cloud such as AWS or Microsoft Azure.

Regardless of this, officers will usually be required to visit the scene in person to obtain this footage and burn it to a DVD or USB drive. In some extreme cases, the only option is to take the entire unit itself. The physical storage media must then be catalogued and stored in a physical evidence locker and/or uploaded to a shared drive. When it comes to reviewing the footage, it will then often need to be converted to a different file format so that it can be played. (For obvious reasons computers used by law enforcement must have high levels of IT security enabled. It therefore isn’t a simple process to simply install an additional piece of software or codec to view the footage in its original form). Furthermore, these devices do have potential to carry malicious software and therefore their use should be discouraged.

Finally, to ensure the chain-of-custody should the footage later need to be admissible in court, access must be strictly enforced with an audit trail dictating exactly who had access, what they did with it and when. For example, traceability can be hard to establish if footage has been sent via traditional mail. This leads to a heavily siloed approach in which it is very difficult for other officers or agencies to become aware of existing data that may be pertinent to their enquiries. Collaboration efforts are significantly hampered by a system that make their lives difficult. We can keep relying on frontline officers to do all of this, with all the time and inefficiency this requires. Or we can use technology to make it far easier for the public and businesses to share digital information, giving time back to officers to actually investigate what is useful and worth considering as evidence.

Labour-intensive manual approaches are outdated and make little sense in a world where cloud services Dropbox and websites such as LinkedIn make the sharing of information simple and instantaneous. These consumer-facing services build in protocols that dictate who can access what information and under what conditions so that the validity of the data can be maintained. They also make it easy to view video on any internet-connected device, regardless of the manufacturer or model that the data originated from. Such flexibility is commonplace in our day-to-day lives. So why shouldn’t we be making use of it when it comes to solving crime?

Yes, a digital evidence management system costs money and requires some changes in behaviour with regard to how evidence is acquired, accessed and stored. For example, decisions will need be taken around which users and departments have access, who needs to get training, the retention periods for different types of crimes and who will manage and enforce the policies. However, this can easily be offset through the greater potential for collaboration and by eradicating manual processes that ultimately free up frontline officers to carry out more valuable work.

It’s encouraging that police funding is set to increase going forward. However, for it to have its most meaningful impact the money needs to be spent in ways that prioritise on-going impact over short-term impact. Back office evidence-handling procedures may not be the most headline-grabbing or visible investment. Yet the potential to reduce the administrative burden and redeploy staff to more valuable work is significant.

Giovanni Gaccione

Giovanni Gaccione

Giovanni is a Justice and Public Safety expert based in New York City. With a background in both cyber and physical security, he is currently working with highly respected international tech company, Genetec