Digital evidence — such as emails, location data and cellphone videos — is increasingly essential to law enforcement investigations. But state and local police often don’t know which tech companies hold certain types of data, or even how to request it.
That’s why Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., is introducing bipartisan legislation that would create a new federal office to facilitate law enforcement’s access to data from tech companies.
Demings, a former Orlando police chief, says she knows firsthand how essential this data can be to solving everything from financial crimes to child endangerment, and she wants to make sure law enforcement at every level can access it.
“You can’t fight today’s battles using yesterday’s weapons, and the weapon of choice for criminals has changed,” Demings told me. “We need to make sure that we have a workforce that has the proper training and has proper support to be able to investigate those cases and solve those crimes.”
The Office of Digital Law Enforcement, which would reside at the Department of Justice, would train and support cops and investigators from across the country on how to handle evolving technology in investigations. The bill would also create a Center of Excellence for Digital Forensics, which would be a resource as a central hub for tech expertise and legal assistance.
This kind of federal clearinghouse could improve the law enforcement community’s icy relationship with Silicon Valley. Historically there has been a low level of trust between the two communities: Technology companies grappling with pressure to protect users’ privacy at times have resisted broad or invasive requests from law enforcement. That’s contributed to a perception among law enforcement officials that the tech industry makes it difficult to access evidence and isn’t willing to work with them.
The bill follows a Center for Strategic and International Studies report last year that found federal, state and local level encounter barriers to “effectively accessing, analyzing, and utilizing” digital evidence in one-third of cases that rely on such data. Jennifer Daskal, one of the report’s authors, said talking with law enforcement and tech companies about digital evidence “was like having two separate conversations.”
The report’s recommendation to create a new digital evidence office to work with law enforcement at all levels of government shaped the bill, which Reps. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., John Rutherford, R-Fla., and Brian Babin, R-Texas, are co-sponsoring. The bill would also create a new program that would guide DOJ grants to help local law enforcement handle digital evidence and stand up a new Technology Policy Advisory Board to coordinate between the tech industry and law enforcement.
Demings said her office has not yet been in touch with the tech companies about this, but she hopes they and consumers will be engaged in discussions about the bill going forward.
The bill’s timing is especially interesting, since law enforcement agencies around the world have been warning against Facebook’s plans to expand encryption across its messaging services. Investigators are concerned they’ll be cut off from accessing a key trove of data.
But Daskal and her co-authors argue that while the communities duke it out over encryption, a federal digital evidence office would make sure law enforcement has access to low-hanging fruit that’s more easily accessible. She said in many instances, investigators just need IP address and other basic identifying information.
“As that debate rages on, there are a range of things that can and should be done to tackle this problem and ensure law enforcement has ability to access evidence that it is legally authorized to access,” Daskal said.
Daskal said more training at the federal level could also ensure that law enforcement is properly weighing privacy concerns in its requests from tech companies. “Better-trained law enforcement have the information needed to make better tailored and thus more privacy protective requests,” she said.
Demings says she is optimistic a new office could help unite law enforcement and the tech industry in a common goal of keeping people safe online.
“This is a new, ever-changing world we’re all living in,” she said, despite “bumps and hiccups in the road.”