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Blockchain for Law Enforcement: 7 Practical Use Cases

  • 7 November 2018
  • Sam Mire

As the nature of crime in the world has expanded and evolved, so has the burden on law enforcement officers, who must now consider violent drug cartels, terrorism, cyber crime, and other relatively new threats under their jurisdiction. While the number of police officers projected to be employed by 2026 represents a 7% growth, the pay for a job as dangerous and taxing as a law enforcement officer remains modest, with the median salary being less than $63,000 per year.

It is, in fact, a very dangerous job, with the FBI estimating that 118 police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2016, and over 57,000 were the victims of assault while doing their jobs. The average age of a police officer killed during a felonious act was only 40 years old, driving home the risk that often-maligned police forces take when they head to work each day. With more than 21,000 police having been killed in the line of duty since 1791, it’s noble that some want to use technology to allow law enforcement officials to do their job as effectively and safely as possible.

Utilizing automation will allow many criminals to be detected and caught in ways that don’t require dangerous face-to-face interactions. By using blockchain technology to monitor, flag, and analyze transactions that may be directly connected to violent criminality, the risk of surveillance will become more affordable and less dangerous. There are also several administrative and bookkeeping roles that the technology can play — from preserving the chain of custody to interagency data sharing and more — that will free up funds to augment the more life-preserving resources that law enforcement officers require.


Spotting Crypto Crime

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Spotting Crypto Crime

Cryptocurrencies are often portrayed as a haven for the criminal element, and the fact that approximately $1.2 billion in Bitcoin was exchanged on the now-defunct Silk Road drug marketplace over roughly two and a half years does this perception no favors. But the issue cuts both ways; often, cryptocurrency investors are the victims of theft and fraud, which can be difficult to trace, prove, or prosecute. By the end of June 2018, a reported $1.7 billion in cryptocurrencies had been stolen year-to-date. That means that more than $4 billion in cryptocurrency could be stolen by year’s end.

Cryptocurrency has also become a means for hackers to acquire ransom payments without detection. In January 2017, hackers began targeting tens of thousands of users of the open source document-oriented database program MongoDB, insisting on ransom in return for restoring data that they had intentionally wiped out. And more strong-armed, old-school methods of crime have also found their way into the world of cryptocurrencies, as a man with $1.7 million in accrued crypto investments was held at gunpoint, with the robber unsuccessfully demanding the victim’s USB drive containing the funds.

Industry leaders in the cryptocurrency ethicality industry have made it their mission to supply law enforcement with the most cutting-edge tools and algorithms to trace coins used in a cross-section of questionable transactions back to the owner’s wallet. The nature of cryptocurrency means that even innocent traders can be wary of regulatory intervention. But ensuring that the likes of ISIS, cartels, armed robbers, and malevolent hackers aren’t using crypto as a means to launder money or steal takes precedence over any perceived threat from law enforcement. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Chainalysis – Watching cryptocurrencies for fraudulent activity. 
  • Elliptic – Pattern analysis to identify potential crypto crime.  

Securing the Chain of Custody for Evidence

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Chain of Custody

In December of 2006, a prosecutor in Brooklyn, NY called the local precinct to check on the status of evidence in one of his cases, a test of drugs that would be critical to proving that a defendant was guilty. Yet he was told, to his great dismay, that the drugs were nowhere to be found, and therefore could not be tested. Not only that, but drugs collected in the course of 42 other arrests occurring on the same day — October 20th, 2006 — were also missing; obviously, they couldn’t be tested, either. This would present Empire State Building-sized holes in 43 cases, all but guaranteeing that charges would be dismissed in each.

Mishandling, poor documentation, and corruption can all be causes of a critical breach within the chain of custody. In the Brooklyn case, investigators could not determine a year after the discovery whether the drugs in question were lost, stolen, or thrown away. This speaks to a very basic lack of evidentiary tracking systems and oversight, and the Brooklyn case is not unique. The O. J. Simpson trial is perhaps the most notorious case of poor chain of custody maintenance in American history.

Though it’s not yet possible to physically store a bloody glove on the blockchain, it is possible to document who has handled any evidence, in addition to important information regarding storage methods and other critical information. When it comes to evidence, tamper-proofing records of origination and chain of custody is imperative. Currently, the legacy evidence locker sign-in sheet means of storing evidence is decidedly not tamper-proof. Greater oversight over where, when, and how evidence is stored and handled would put the onus on its handlers to do so with care — or face the wrath of accountability that comes with potentially blowing a case.

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • CryptoSeal – Tamper proof, blockchain registered containers for evidence from Chronicled.
  • Leonovus  Blockchain evidence locker.
  • B-CoC  Cornell Library paper detailing what requirements a blockchain chain of custody should include for evidence.
  • China Ministry of Public Security Using blockchain for evidence chain of custody

Standardizing Distributed Crime Reports

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Distributed Crime Reports

Though most victims hold out hope that their crime will be avenged, the statistics tell us otherwise. Many crimes are often not even reported; in 2015, just 47% of violent crimes and 35% of property crimes were reported to police. This surprisingly low reporting rate may arise from discouragingly low clearance rate statistics. In the same year, 46% of violent crimes and 19% of property crimes reported to the police were “cleared,” meaning that a suspect was either arrested, charged, or referred for prosecution.

Finding a criminal can be like tracking down an anchovy in the ocean, but reality is reality, and most victims who hold their breath in the hope that their case will be solved have a 50-50 shot at best, and less than a 1 in 5 shot if they are victims of petty crime. Some crimes are worse than others in terms of clearance rate; in 2017, less than 14% of car thefts and burglaries were cleared, while nearly 62% of murders were cleared. And while fewer tickets are being written — a suggestion some might take to mean that crime-solving has become a greater focus — the difficulty of solving crimes remains immense, and victims should have a way of seeing how their case is progressing.

If an interoperable system existed by which victims could log onto a platform to view the progress of their case, whether it is the collection of security camera footage or important case notes, they could be better assured that the taxes they pay to support law enforcement yield results on a personal level. 


Tracing Criminality More Easily, Avoiding Third-Party Doctrine Challenges

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Tracing Criminality

According to the third-party doctrine, established by the Supreme Court as part of the 1979 Smith v. Maryland decision, “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” This decision has been a boon for law enforcement, not to mention highly controversial. But the 2018 SCOTUS ruling in the case of Carpenter v. United States found that mapping a phone’s location over the course of 127 days was overly intrusive, putting limits on the third-party doctrine as it pertains to cell providers.

Records from the blockchain will not require such legal battles to ensue, as its status is clearer. Not only does the immutable record of the blockchain provide a historical cache of records and documents by which law enforcement can analyze potential criminal activity, the public nature of the blockchain falls outside of potential third-party doctrine issues. Instead of having to expend resources engaging in issues of whether cell records, internet history, transactions, and more are admissible in an investigation, the blockchain’s public nature ensures that law enforcement has access to those who would use the technology to commit crimes. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Bitfury Bitfury’s Crystal blockchain is an early use case not only for blockchain analytics, but future systems for tracing criminality in other systems. 

Secure, Interoperable, Interagency Data Sharing

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Interagency Data

In 2008, the FBI launched the National Data Exchange, an $85 million data sharing warehouse, in an effort to coordinate the exchange of information on a national level for the benefit of all law enforcement agencies and departments. However, five years after the launch, only about 4,200 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement outposts — just 23% — were contributing data to the system. One of the primary reasons for this lag in participation is the cost of technological upgrades required to participate fully, as well as concerns about the security of such a database — after all, agencies are often wary of trusting one another, with politics, rivalries, and past grievances often remaining fresh. Still, over 214 million records were shared, with several cases being closed thanks to the database.

However, law enforcement data “fusion centers” have been described as lacking oversight, standards, and have been described generally as “organized chaos.” This clutter and the potential upside of a well-oiled national law enforcement database has led some to propose the blockchain as a solution. Not being controlled by any one party, being tamper-proof and interoperable, and allowing for sharing on a private or public network are all benefits that are fitting to the sensitivity and indispensable nature of law enforcement-related intel. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem

  • Booz Allen Hamilton & FDA  While not law enforcement, the FDA recently contracted with BAH to create a data sharing platform on the blockchain. Since BAH services the Department of Defense, similar applications my quietly roll out to military departments.
  • Deloitte  Deloitte’s government practice shared how blockchain could help with Intergovernmental Transactions. 

Decentralizing Emergency Alert/Response Infrastructure

924 children have been rescued specifically because of the AMBER Alert protocol. An additional 53 children have been intercepted because of mobile emergency alerts. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) are responsible for handling an estimated 240 million 9-1-1 calls each year, 80% or more of which are estimated to originate from mobile phones.

However, last year, 360 emergency calls in the Dallas area were placed on hold due to disruptions on the 9-1-1 operating service. One caller’s son died after she was unable to reach emergency personnel. Despite spending upwards of $2 billion on overhauling their emergency response systems, 9-1-1 operators in New York City described their job as “hell”, including an instance in which the system crashed nine times in one week. After a teen was unable to reach 9-1-1 services before being crushed to death in a car accident, an Ohio police spokesman described the system crash that caused the tragedy as “not something that…is terribly unusual.”

Blockchain is thought of as a means to create a unified platform for emergency responses across emergency response agencies and, on a broader spectrum, neighboring counties in case of widespread malfunctions. Whether in a singular or widespread emergency event, better coordination among first responders and their dispatchers is well worth looking further into. 

Companies Trying to Solve This Problem


Decentralizing Oversight

Blockchain for Law Enforcement - Decentralizing Oversight

There are approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, but only 200 citizen review boards exist to provide another measure of trust-building accountability. And the results of those boards are inconsistent, with Los Angeles’ civilian review board rejecting requests to fire an officer in most of the 229 cases heard since 2011.

These boards, flawed as they are, represent a step toward shared oversight of law enforcement, and the results suggest that greater participation by civilians will not produce radical results. Some have proposed extending participation further to lawyers, who could use a blockchain-based case database to monitor critical updates. And victims of crimes would be able to see how actively their case is being pursued and what relevant updates have been logged. Providing unique passkeys to these parties could create a more informed, trusting populace while also streamlining the law and justice processes to the tune of millions, or even more, saved.

About Sam Mire

Data journalist and market research analyst focused on emerging technology, trends, and ideas.

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