As digital evidence becomes just as critical as fingerprints or DNA, digital evidence management has emerged as an essential law enforcement tool
As our society spends more and more time in digital spaces, criminal investigations must inevitably consider the digital lives of suspects. There’s just one problem — the sheer volume of evidence required to bring a single case to trial tends to measure in the gigabytes. Roughly 66% of agency managers believe that digital evidence is more important than DNA, which means digital evidence management tools are essential for getting to the heart of complex cases.
So what is digital evidence? This article summarizes everything legal and law enforcement professionals need to know to successfully implement the right procedures and systems for this crucial resource.
What is digital evidence?
Digital evidence is any information stored or transmitted in an electronic format that is admissible as courtroom evidence. At one time, this digital evidence definition was limited to emails and files found on hard drives. Today, electronic devices are so commonplace that evidence can come in multiple forms from various sources. Some examples include:
Portable thumb drives
Video chat conversations
Communication logs from online video games
Footage from body-worn cameras
Usage logs from a TASER energy weapon
As technology evolves, law enforcement departments and legal teams constantly add new evidence categories to this list. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which technologies can be treated as evidence.
For example, legal experts do not universally agree on whether all blockchain transaction receipts fall under the category of inadmissible hearsay. These debates will likely continue with every new advancement that gains mainstream appeal, forcing legal professionals to watch each development closely.
What is digital evidence management?
Digital evidence management is the set of tools and policies that help agencies, law firms and partner organizations manage this essential source of information. In some regards, it’s little different from using evidence lockers to secure items from a crime scene and the rules that govern who can access them. The primary difference is that digital evidence management tools are accessible through any authorized device, speeding and adding accountability to the evidence review process while raising new challenges for security, ethics and operations.
There are millions of potential sources of evidence, most of which are not generated by law enforcement agencies. That means investigators and evidence reviewers often need to account for contextual details, such as how a video was recorded, its resolution, whether it was converted from another format, or if it requires specialized equipment. These details are vital to ensure everyone involved with a case can understand the evidence and present it consistently and objectively.
By quickly ingesting relevant evidence and allowing for more intuitive usage of that data, effective digital evidence management systems can break down data silos across law enforcement and legal organizations.
How is digital evidence used today?
Law enforcement and legal personnel must analyze digital evidence no less rigorously than they do fingerprints or DNA records. To do so, agencies are turning to digital forensics — the field of studying digital material for evidence. While this practice is relatively new, it has already produced some impressive tools, such as the following projects from the National Institute of Standards and Technology
National Software Reference Library
When police claim a computer as evidence, most material on the hard drive won’t be relevant, but investigators must review it anyway. The National Software Reference Library supports this goal with an archive of digital signatures from known and traceable software applications, ranging from video games to password-cracking tools. Identifying the links between individual files and software applications lets agencies narrow their focus on the details that will be most relevant to their primary case.
Computer Forensic Tool Testing
No electronic tool is perfect, and the consequences of misinterpreting evidence can lead to false verdicts or cases thrown out of court. To that end, NIST’s forensic tool testing program provides a methodology for testing digital evidence tools so that agencies and law firms can stand by their results.
NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Program
Understanding how cloud technology operates is vital when digital evidence is stored on servers in multiple states. This program helps research cloud forensics techniques, implements cloud evidence architecture, and addresses gaps in how law enforcement collects cloud-based data.
Digital evidence collection
Digital evidence management is not just the domain of forensics teams — frontline agents need to be aware of what digital evidence means to their departments and partner organizations. For example, there are different sets of procedures for accessing CCTV cameras, submitting a warrant for a hard drive or storing a cell phone turned in at a police station.
One important consideration is whether the evidence comes from a first or third-party source. Body-worn and dashboard cameras generate digital footage in real-time, making them an invaluable source of evidence fully under law enforcement’s control.
Third Party video isn’t as simple because you cannot control which cameras recorded in what format. One key thing to remember - always acquire the original file. You never want to collect a compressed or converted file because many DVR systems and 3rd Party players can alter the video evidence. Digital evidence management provides collection standards for recording footage, leveraging a forensically sound tool like Axon Investigate to play the videos accurately, and training officers in correctly using all equipment.
Digital evidence management systems
Centralizing and organizing information, and only allowing it to be accessed by authorized parties, is the primary purpose of a digital evidence management system or DEMS. These platforms also need tools that mitigate the inherent risks of digital technology, such as online security, access control and file backups. Finally, digital evidence management systems must unify all these features in a way that is helpful to law enforcement agencies, digital forensics teams and prosecutors.
When implemented well, a digital evidence management system can eliminate the inherent inefficiencies of physical evidence procedures. For example, agencies can share evidence with all parties with a few clicks instead of physically transferring items to prosecutors and defense teams. Along with making it easier for professionals to ensure justice is served, it also leads to measurable benefits within agencies and law firms themselves:
Burnout mitigation: High caseloads can overwhelm even the most dedicated legal professionals, making it one of the highest causes of attrition. Digital evidence management systems can help streamline menial tasks, which the Colorado 21st Judicial District found aided its agency retention.
Productivity: The same district noted that transcription tools, instant evidence delivery, and review notifications enhanced the organization’s productivity, helping day-to-day operations run seamlessly.
Less reliance on third-party tools: With dedicated first-party digital evidence tools, law enforcement agencies can better organize and present evidence without relying on third-party vendors. This reduces delays and the likelihood of compatibility errors during evidence review.
Given the right digital evidence support, all departments can spend less time on procedural redundancies and more time on cases. Axon Justice Premier achieves this goal with features tailored for legal professionals, such as unlimited transcription, centralized data collection, third-party video conversion, playback support and more. In the same way, Axon Evidence achieves this goal with DEMS features designed for Law Enforcement.
The best part? Evidence can be efficiently and securely shared between Axon Evidence with Axon Justice Premier, making the evidence transfer process from Law Enforcement to Attorneys easier than ever before.
Contact us to speak with an expert about how Axon Justice can support your office.