Evidence Big Data | Big Problems: Servers, Clouds, and Court

Evidence Big Data | Big Problems: Servers, Clouds, and Court

The problem that big data presents to law enforcement agencies is getting bigger by the hour, and it’s not going to go away. Our move into the 21st century has been one big technology discovery after another, be it in hardware, production, software, platforms, storage, you name it, it’s been enhanced at least six times over from the beginning of the 2000s to present day. Some agencies have adopted the modern trends well, and have thrived in the new circumstances presented. Some have attempted to write the rules for themselves, and have experienced a mixed bag of success. Still other agencies are not willing to budge on the issue of data and its collective storage, and while many agencies in that category have yet to have a problem, they all place their agency (and their personnel’s) reputation at risk, and one by one, they will face the pinnacle moment when all faith is lost in their evidence handling.

The Role Evidence Handling Plays

There’s no argument that the way an agency handles evidence, including collection, storage, dissemination, and disposition, plays a significant role in agency’s reputation. That reputation is held by Prosecutors, Courts, Public Defenders, and even Correctional facilities. The fact is, if your agency’s reputation is damaged when the mishandling of evidence at any stage occurs. From OJ Simpson’s murder case and the loss of chain of custody, to evidence room’s where theft has occurred, when evidence is manipulated, an agency’s reputation takes a gut shot that is difficult to recover from.

But in considering the past losses of evidence rooms, much of the examples involve one instance of error. Some involve intentional wrongdoing, and those examples ultimately affect one or two percent of an agency’s total evidence. There have been even fewer cases where the representative percentage reaches five percent. If we were playing baseball, suffice to say, we’d be batting in the World Series every year when it comes to evaluation of evidence handling.

However, what if there was another scenario in our evidence handling, that didn’t involve error or wrongdoing, that could hurt us even worse? Would you want to address that issue immediately?

External Hard Drives vs. Local Servers vs. The ‘Cloud’

Dash cameras, body worn cameras, audio interviews, and photographs have all in their own unique way pointed us into a corner of our agency operations that we’ve not ever had to consider heavily, and that is the storage of electronic data. Many agencies have historically kept these types of files on compact discs, and while this has worked for several scenarios, it has also been shown to have major flaws. From tampering, to natural disaster, to material degradation, discs lose their usefulness over the long run. It may be an efficient way to store a DUI, but it is not useful when dealing with a case that involves Arson, Manslaughter, Homicide, Rape, and a bevy of other higher grade felonies, where cases take time to prosecute. Discs are not your friends when it comes to time. And in our business, time is what we need.

Some agencies, in addressing their own problems with discs, or trying to “stay ahead of the power curve,” they’ve used external hard drives. Externals open some options for us. For one, they can be placed on network, so that multiple computers can access files on them. This way, your personnel can work from their office, and not have to relocate to work on their evidence. This also makes it so we don’t need to maintain physical copies of our digital evidence, because it’s placed on the external, and we can burn copies at will. However, externals fail. A five-minute web search shows us that everyone from consumers, to small business owners, to even large companies complain online the day an external they possessed that also maintained important files “died” for whatever reason, but the damage is done. And the data can’t be recovered.

We talked with an investigative division within an agency that on its own produces 1 terabyte of data a year in their caseload. Can you imagine what the costs to your agency would be if 1 terabyte of evidence was gone, never to be recovered due to an external hard drive dying? What would be the fallout? How great is your relationship with the prosecutor? How many favors will you have to cash in to minimize the effect this problem would cause? Again, is this the type of problem you want to have to address and manage? Is this the type of public image you want to define your agency?

Local Servers is the next step in the data storage pyramid. And they can hold a lot of data, no doubt about it. But, here’s just a few of the problems with servers. For one, about the time you agree to what size you need a server to be, and what space it will occupy, you’ll likely need to double that number about three months after you’ve installed it. Why, you ask. Because when you’re making this buying decision, you’re basing that decision of historical numbers. Even if those numbers are less than 30 days old, you can’t predict the future, and as more and more data comes in, you’ve got a bigger and bigger problem. Our reliance on technology to capture evidence is only increasing. And that means that our data needs are only going to get bigger with time, not level out. As you try to react to the server needs of your department, you may find out quickly that your agency’s budget is your choke point, but only because the cost of data needs using local servers will begin to outpace everything else in the department. Do you want to be the agency that can’t prosecute sex crimes in a timely fashion because you’re still awaiting a new fiscal year budget to purchase the local servers you need for data storage?

If that wasn’t enough of a nightmare, let’s consider an even worse proposition. Servers, like hard drives, can fail too. They are computer technology after all. But their failure rate is much lower than the typical hard drive, that’s why servers are used widely in many businesses today. However, what they are not able to avoid is natural, or man-made disaster. Your agency may not be in a location where natural disaster is major concern, and that’s great. But what about man-made disasters, like fire, or flooding, or a building failure, like a ceiling collapse? You have as equal of chance of those disasters as everyone else in the world, and while many agency buildings are well built, quite a few are older, and outdated, and it’s only a matter of time before that issue becomes front and center. Fire and flooding are your two biggest issues in all reality. Either can show up unannounced, and with no regard for you, your agency, or your evidence. True, these kinds of issues don’t affect reputation, but what about those truly negative types that would use the opportunity to rail on your agency for not having a “back-up” plan? How much influence can they wield? If they don’t have it today, do they have it six months from now? A year? When does the negativity become a problem you must legitimize through addressing it, as illogical as it is? It’s not fair, but considering public outcry has always been a part of this job, and always will be.

Cloud Technology is the latest gravitation in data storage requirements. The ‘Cloud’ as it’s commonly referred to set off alarm bells with everyone from tech journalists, to conspiracy theorists about what cloud storage is, and what dangers it can present in its initial launch. The fact is, cloud technology, including storage, is a way to backup your data, be it software applications, documents, digital evidence, and even history files of physical evidence that keeps it safe, secure, and accessible from anywhere, no matter the circumstances you’re facing.

Data storage on the cloud means that your files have the protection that external hard drives can’t offer, the storage capabilities that local servers offer, without the headache of managing and budgeting massive data operations purchases. Initially when cloud storage become a reality, there was concerns about security, the vulnerabilities that exist, and what that means for public agencies. The dangers that cloud storage present are not any different than storing your own data. If your computers, printers, and other devices maintain a connection to internet, access to any portion of your network is possible. However, what cloud storage provides is the ability to have a second barrier in place between hackers, your network, and your data. If hackers are truly motivated, they may find a way in through one, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to make it through two. Additionally, data on the cloud is parceled on a string over thousands of hard drives, wrapped in encryption. If a hacker even got into the inside of one, they’d only find letters and numbers that made no sense, and couldn’t be used in any meaningful way, nor could it be used to identify the file, the contents, or any identifying information. Cloud storage is impervious to things like fire and flooding, because data is stored in multiple locations, with back-ups available. Cloud storage also makes it possible to protect access to digital evidence. The problem faced in using an external or local server, is that it’s built in a way over a network where file folders with all contents are available to all personnel who can access a computer on your network. Trying to password protect this type of operation would take far too long to even be an option. We probably couldn’t even introduce the cloud as an option five years ago. But there are more and more agencies using it, and courts are accepting of the cloud as acceptable methods of storing digital evidence. How long will it be before it’s the standard?


Cloud technology is getting better and better as we speak, and it will become the future of computing, as it finds why to save on space on all computers and networks, which frees your personnel up to use software tools on large files, that don’t bog down network bandwidth, and promote more efficient use of agency resources, without having to inundate the agency in a technology soup of wires, racks, and cooling systems. We know change is inevitable, but we must prepare ourselves for that change. This change has landed, and it’s at the door. You’ll need to find a way to use the cloud to your agency’s best advantage. Do the research now so that you’re not behind when the time comes to open the door.

Be safe out there!

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