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Op-Ed: New Challenges for Law Enforcement in a Digital World

More and more, police officers and first responders are required to secure digital evidence in the field. They must know where to begin and when to stop

George Petersen

Apple launched the iPhone just 10 years ago and opened up a vast new digital world that has transformed the way we communicate, connect, and transact business. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly all Americans — 95 percent — now own a cellphone of some kind. The share of Americans that own smartphones is now 77 percent, up from 35 percent in 2011.

Mobile data and serious crimes

Today’s mobile devices compress the computing power of a 1980s-era supercomputer into a sleek, pocket-sized package. We live our lives through our smartphones. We use these powerful devices to stay in touch with friends and family via social media; access every form of news and entertainment; take, store, and share millions of personal photos and videos; shop and pay for purchases; and navigate our way home. The data contained on a smartphone can provide a very clear picture of an individual’s location, movements, and activities — as well as the activities of everyone they are connected with. The central and growing role of mobile devices in managing our daily lives makes this technology a critical tool for law enforcement. Digital data plays an increasingly important role in investigations and operations of all kinds. Making data accessible, collaborative, and actionable is a requirement for law enforcement today.

Most New Jersey police departments use evidence extracted from mobile devices to investigate serious crimes, including homicides, drug and gang investigations, crimes against children, and terrorism. The challenge of effectively gathering and analyzing this evidence is increasing. A particular case may involve compiling and decoding data from multiple devices, including smartphones, tablets, GPS devices, and personal computers, used by multiple people. Investigators must analyze data from multiple sources and separate relevant data from the unimportant, often under intense time pressure.

In the field

Specialized forensic labs and technicians — both state and federal law enforcement agencies and private contractors — do much of the work of recovering data from mobile devices, using specialized software that automates and accelerates the search for the specific information needed to make or break a case. But increasingly, police officers and first responders are required to secure digital evidence in the field. They must understand how to properly search for evidence on mobile devices — from a technological and legal perspective.

Courts are more closely examining the procedures used to gather or analyze smartphone data, to ensure users’ privacy is protected. Recent legal decisions such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Riley v. California mean that neither first responders nor investigators can expect to scroll through a device at their leisure. Search warrants are now the rule, and they must be precise. What happens if a search of evidence of one crime results in evidence of another? For example, investigators searching for text messages during a homicide investigation may discover messages that indicate child exploitation, narcotics trafficking, or another offense. In a lab environment, the search must stop while examiners obtain a different warrant. In a field situation, the best practice is to stop the search, document the evidence that was found for both the original offense and the new one, and submit the device to the lab for a new warrant and deeper processing.

Given the rapidly evolving technological and legal landscape, ongoing training is a critical requirement for law enforcement officers and investigators to help them stay informed of new technology, legal issues, and how it impacts their work. The need for such training is rapidly expanding as more and more frontline officers become involved in gathering digital evidence.

Digital evidence gathering is a daily part of modern police work. New Jersey and its municipalities should ensure police departments have the technology and training they need to effectively and properly conduct investigations, seek justice, and make the world a safer place.

Dr. George Petersen is assistant professor of criminal justice at Centenary University. Jody Wacker is vice president of marketing at Cellebrite, Inc.

Centenary University teamed with Cellebrite, a leading provider of mobile forensic technology, to offer a college-credit course on mobile device evidence collection. The course, which was offered in Morris County, covered extracting data in a forensically sound manner and how to analyze and use the data as a digital forensic practitioner. It provided the necessary baseline for understanding and using digital intelligence.

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