Law Enforcement’s Struggle to Effectively Utilize Digital Evidence

Hand holding smartphone with media icons and symbol collectionAs digital technology becomes increasingly common in our lives, illicit activities are more likely to leave a digital trail for law enforcement to follow. However, the question remains: are law enforcement entities able to effectively utilize digital evidence? Low-Hanging Fruit: Evidence-Based Solutions to the Digital Evidence Challenge, a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that law enforcement’s biggest challenge in accessing, analyzing, and using digital evidence is not encryption, but rather a multitude of smaller, yet still significant obstacles.

One example of a significant challenge identified in the report is accessing data from service providers. This challenge is two-fold: law enforcement officers must first identify which service provider has access to the data needed, and then actually obtain the data needed. Moreover, law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level must develop and maintain its own expertise in regards to digital evidence.

This report suggests that a new National Digital Evidence Policy, spearheaded by a National Digital Evidence Office, can take on the responsibility of overseeing and coordinating efforts to provide law enforcement agencies with the tools and knowledge needed to improve access to digital evidence, consistent with civil liberties. The report further calls for the National Domestic Communications Assistance Center (NDCAC), or an equivalent agency, to receive the authorization and funding necessary to create a “support center [that] would conduct and develop both in-person and online trainings; collect and disseminate knowledge about provider policies and products; educate law enforcement about how to submit lawful and appropriately tailored requests for data; develop and maintain technical tools for analyzing lawfully obtained digital evidence; and disseminate these tools to appropriately trained law enforcement personnel around the country.”

The HSDL offers many additional resources related to digital technology in our special featured topics Cyber Crime & National Security, Cyber Infrastructure Protection, and Cyber Policy.  Please note: HSDL login is required to view some of these resources.

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