And each day that a computer or mobile device sits in a police department's backlog waiting to be processed is one that a criminal remains on the street.
Electronic devices routinely contain evidence related in some way to the planning, coordination, commission or witnessing of crimes. And the digital information contained in seized devices is typically sent to specialists in digital forensics laboratories to be processed.
Explosion of digital forensic evidence
Today digital forensics laboratories alone can no longer manage the sheer volume of digital evidence in criminal cases. The backlog of caseloads from law enforcement agencies has grown from weeks to months worldwide. Digital forensic specialists cannot be trained fast enough and the number of specialists required to analyze the mountains of digital evidence in common crimes is simply beyond budget constraints.
According to Luc Beirens, Superintendent of the Federal Computer Crime Unit (FCCU) in Belgium, “the number of seized computers is a multitude of the number that was seized ten years ago. Every person that we search probably owns a desktop computer, a laptop, an iPad, and a smart phone and in addition you may see a pile of external hard disks. All those systems need to be investigated.”
But of equal or perhaps more importance is that sending digital evidence to specialists takes the critical parts of criminal investigations out of the hands of investigators.
Typically, the digital information related to a case requires the detective’s knowledge to determine what information may be relevant and what clearly is not. New tools to triage digital evidence in the field exist, but the capabilities are limited and investigators must still deal with the difficulties of explaining evidence to the digital forensic specialists.
These specialists can examine evidence— when they can get to it—but not in the context of the case or how digital traces relate to other evidence. Not even investigators can know exactly how digital evidence will emerge or its value to a case until they see it themselves.
A targeted, local approach to digital investigations
The Police Zone Schelde-Leie in the East Flanders province of Belgium recently caught a thief red-handed in a store. He defended himself with the classic excuse—he had never stolen anything and he would never do it again. No stolen goods were found during a search of his home and normally the police would have to swallow his excuse. But this time was different.
Since June the Schelde-Leie police unit has been using new software technology that allows non-technical investigators to process and analyze digital forensic evidence.
The detectives seized the thief’s computer and found on the hard drive photos of other stolen goods that the man had posted on a classified advertisement site.
Police Zone Schelde-Leie is a small police unit but very sophisticated. Because they were fed up with waiting three to six months for results from the federal computer crime units they became the first local Belgian Police Zone to use software to extract data from mobile phones.
The De Pinte police unit is among a growing base of law enforcement units worldwide using new web-based software solutions, to enable their non-technical detectives to quickly process and extract valuable information from seized mobile devices and computers—without having to wait for the digital experts in the forensic lab.