Accessibility to technologies has changed the playing field

Accessibility to technologies has changed the playing field
23 October, 2020 Guest Writer

Accessibility to technologies has changed the playing field

When writing about technology we always look at the balance act between how technology aids criminal activity, and how it is transforming police work and other active efforts to find and stop online child sexual abuse. In the NetClean Report 2019 we looked at how new technology such as Artificial Intelligence, cloud storage and encryption on devices is affecting modern police investigations. The result showed an increase in the use of cloud storage, encryption and smartphones, and identified encryption as the biggest challenge. 

Here Jim Cole, Supervisory Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations, Nashville, TN, comments on technological development and how it affects modern police work.

By Jim Cole, Supervisory Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations (USA), Special Agent in Charge Nashville, TN

The results in the NetClean Report 2019 mirrors my own understanding of the situation. The technologies mentioned are not new, but what has really changed over the past years is the accessibility to, for example, encryption and cloud storage.

Automatic cloud storage

Similarly, in the past cloud storage had to be actively sought out as an add-on. Now every device comes with automatic and easily accessible cloud storage, and there are several challenges to this. The first is that we don’t get access to cloud storage when we execute a residential search warrant. For that we need a second search warrant and another court process, which delays access.

Jim Cole, Supervisory Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations (USA),
Special Agent in Charge Nashville, TN

Another issue is legal challenges to accessing data stored outside of US borders. An example of this is when Kik was based in Canada. We could get subscriber information by drafting a US subpoena and going through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. However, to get communications or images from an account, we needed a Canadian search warrant. To get this, we would need to go through letters rogatory/MLAT (Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties) which is an incredibly long and drawn out process. This process could at best take nine months, but often up to three years. After that long the information is often gone, or the MLAT is rejected because legal requirements have changed during that time. It ends up being a futile waste of time and effort.

Darknet is the biggest challenge

I think one of the biggest challenges is still darknet and TOR, where child sexual abuse crime still goes largely undetected. Methods on darknet and encrypted communication means offenders can establish a type of trust. This was previously difficult to do, and it gives offenders opportunity to engage in really extreme behaviour.

“This is the conundrum that we are dealing with – technology is making our jobs more difficult and informing us at the same time. The law enforcement community needs to adopt to these challenges, and we need to be willing to try to learn new technology.”

Even though many police officers are aware of the problems with darknet, few are investigating it. One reason is that most law enforcement agencies around the world are only tasked to work on cases that fall within their own jurisdiction. It is often not possible to determine who’s operating on the darknet or where they are, and this produces a problem for traditional police work.

This is the conundrum that we are dealing with – technology is making our jobs more difficult and informing us at the same time. The law enforcement community needs to adopt to these challenges, and we need to be willing to try to learn new technology. We have to be willing to work cases that may not be in our own jurisdictions. We have to work better together, and we have to be willing to do things differently to what we have done before.