A New Police Challenge: Too Many Gigabytes

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Illustration by KamiPhuc via Flickr

The digital revolution has given law enforcement a valuable new tool in crime fighting. But it may also be slowing down their work.

A survey of 2,700 law enforcement personnel—the majority of them in the U.S.—found an average three-month backlog in investigations, caused partly by the lack of sophisticated tools to extract and interpret the reams of data from smart phones, laptops and other computer devices now available to them.

“The review of digital data in investigations is a time-consuming process,” according to the Cellebrite Annual Industry Trend Survey for Law Enforcement.

“Law enforcement agencies are averaging three-month backlogs on investigations,” said Cellebrite, an Israeli company which, according to its website, helps law enforcement and related services “master the complexities of a digital world.”

“[But] despite the backlogs, variety of digital sources, and the amount of digital data that typically needs to be reviewed in an investigation, the vast majority of law enforcement agencies are reviewing this information manually instead of using analytics solutions.”


Illustration courtesy Cellebrite

Many of the respondents reported they used “reader tools” to extract information from digital devices, which can require complex programming.

The online survey found that smartphones were the primary source for digital evidence, followed by computers and feature phones (those lacking smart-phone functionality). It noted that police investigators and cyber examiners were now viewing data from digital sources in cars, Smartwatches and FitBit devices, among others.

With investigators working an average of seven to 10 cases at any given time, the increase in data was swallowing up much of their time. Some 68 percent spent between one to 10 hours reviewing text messages alone per case, the survey found.

“To put it into perspective, converting a 128GB phone into an equivalent number of pages of paper results in over 33 million pages of paper,” the survey authors said. “if one were to stack all those papers up, the pile would be four times taller than the world’s tallest building (Burj Khalifa), and the stack would be over 11,000 feet tall.”

The survey found that two-thirds of police cyberlabs responding to the survey examined “well over” 100 mobile devices a year. A key segment of their time was examining locked mobile phones.

“Half of all labs require overtime to handle the backlog,” the survey said.

Nearly half the police respondents spent between 25 percent and 40 percent of their time investigating data held in the cloud.

Other digital sources used in investigations included digital photos, videos and closed circuit TV (used primarily by European agencies).

Download the full survey here.

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