Countering Criminals’ Attempts to Destroy Digital Evidence
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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Criminals have discovered that through technology and cybercrime, they can make more money than with traditional crimes. While technology has resulted in an increase in cybercrime, it has also proven to be an effective tool for law enforcement.
Police officers should understand the role of technology in terms of criminal investigations and evidence collection. Technological devices exist in most homes around the United States. Whether those devices are in the form of smartphones, smart assistants such as Alexa, smart televisions, smartwatches, Fitbits, cloud storage, or Google glasses, technology is a valuable tool for law enforcement if the capacity of these devices to store evidence is not overlooked.
Today, even new vehicles store data from smartphones. Data is stored virtually everywhere and can be invaluable to law enforcement.
For example, many crimes have a digital footprint. While a digital device may not be used in the commission of a crime, it can serve as a useful witness if it is accessed by law enforcement.
Digital Evidence Needs Careful Collection to Preserve It for Prosecution
In order for law enforcement to effectively use digital evidence, it is important that it is collected in a manner that preserves the evidence. Smartphones are one of the most common devices that hold digital evidence.
Whether that digital evidence is in the form of pictures, text messages, social media accounts, or other data stored in a smartphone, these devices provide valuable evidence during prosecution. Criminals know that digital evidence can be detrimental to them, which is why it is not uncommon to find phones that have had their data wiped clean before an officer collects the phone as evidence.
Many smartphones can even have their data erased remotely by their owners. For example, an officer may collect a smartphone and place it into evidence, only to find out that the data was remotely destroyed after the phone was seized. Officers occasionally may turn off the phone to secure its digital evidence.
However, this tactic does not protect the digital evidence from being removed from an electronic device. To prevent data from being removed, it is best to place smartphones that will be used as evidence into airplane mode, which keeps their owners from remotely accessing digital evidence and removing it from the phone.
Another strategy police agencies can use is a Faraday bag, which is made of a type of metallic fabric. It is designed to prevent the remote removal of data from digital devices.
Computers Also Need Careful Handling to Avoid the Erasure of Digital Evidence
Collecting evidence from computers is also important in criminal investigations. Criminals may have systems in place that result in the automatic deletion of data if certain common keys are pressed on their computer; this strategy is a way to obstruct law enforcement. For example, an investigator may select a specific key to determine if the computer is locked or powered on before collecting that computer as evidence, which sometimes leads to the destruction of evidence on the computer.
As a result, law enforcement needs to be especially careful when a computer is secured for evidence. To avoid losing data and to determine if a computer is locked or powered on, moving the mouse or selecting the shift keys are two effective ways to determine the computer’s status without risking the loss of important digital evidence.
In collecting digital evidence from computers, it is common to leave the computer off if the computer is already off or to leave the computer on if it is already on. Whenever possible, it is best to have a computer forensic examiner collect electronic evidence from a computer.
In conclusion, digital evidence is a highly valuable tool in law enforcement. Proper training is important to help officers to recognize what constitutes digital evidence and collecting it without damage.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been a member of the Coast Guard since 1997. He also has local law enforcement experience in two local law enforcement agencies where he was a member of the agency’s Crime Suppression Squad and was the agency’s Officer of the Year. Currently, he serves as a Sworn Reserve Deputy at a sheriff’s office in Southwest Florida. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Coast Guard Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.