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Police backlog of digital evidence and public-private partnerships

By Peter Small, Contributor

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to private companies to help them cope with the backlog of digital investigations, says Ryan Duquette, principal of Oakville-based Hexigent Consulting.

“It’s really challenging for law enforcement agencies to keep up,” says Duquette, whose firm provides cybersecurity and digital investigation services for legal firms, businesses and law enforcement.

“There’s a real need right now for public-private partnerships.”

Duquette, who was a police officer in a technological crimes unit in the mid-2000’s, says studies then showed that the average backlog for digital cases was six months in North America, and for some agencies, it was two years.

“From my understanding and based on conversations with many law enforcement investigators, things haven’t really improved since then,” he tells

That’s partly because of the growing storage capacity of cellphones and computers, with hard drives averaging two or three terabytes, he says.

Plus, people own more devices, Duquette adds.

He recalls that 10 years ago most people had one or two digital devices (a computer and perhaps a cellphone.)

“When I left (the police force) seven years later, it was not uncommon for people to have multiple systems, devices and portable storage drives. Because of the sheer capacity of these devices, it takes longer to investigate them,” Duquette says

Moreover, people today own other digital devices such as fitness trackers, cameras, and even automobile computer systems, he points out. “The digital aspect of our lives is constantly growing, and new technology means new sources of potential evidence, all of which has to be reviewed in criminal matters.”

One study shows that by 2020 the world will have close to 200 billion devices connected to the internet, an average of 6.6 per person, Duquette says.

He remembers a child pornography case several years ago in which police seized 1.2 petabytes (1,200 terabytes) of material, the equivalent of 20 million, four-drawer filing cabinets filled with documents. Duquette recalls that one of the main investigators said to him, ‘I could hire many more investigators and we would barely make a dent in this case.’

“One case like that can break the system,” he says.

On top of these challenges, law enforcement agencies face staffing and training issues, Duquette says. “It can be very costly to train somebody who doesn’t have the forensic skills to investigate these types of crimes.”

Many small law enforcement agencies can’t cope and are turning to larger organizations like the Ontario Provincial Police for help, he says.

Even in well-equipped forces, minor cases can go untouched for months, if not years, while major cases would utilize vital resources, he says.

Duquette says there was a constant backlog when he was a police officer. “You were completing cases as quickly as you could to get them out the door, but there were already 10 or more waiting for you,” he says.

“You would work on a major case such as a homicide, which could be very time-consuming, while others were not as quickly dealt with,” he says

Pressures to get through cases quicker have increased even more with the 2016 Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Jordan, placing strict time limits for criminal cases to go to trial, he says.

Duquette knows of criminal charges being dropped due to the delays in processing and analyzing digital evidence.

“One agency I talked to said, ‘We have computers we’re seizing but we don’t know what to do with them.' It can be pretty scary that there are, potentially, criminals walking free because some law enforcement agencies don’t have the capacity to deal with their cases,” he says.

That’s where Duquette says external consultants can ease the burden. Public-private partnerships are particularly common in some other countries, where private firms exclusively do this kind of digital police work, he says.

They can free up police officers who have specialized knowledge to do analysis on major cases while the consultants handle the minor ones, Duquette says.

Outside companies typically assist by copying hard drives, conducting keyword searches and looking for deleted content, he says.

They can also help reduce turnaround times on big cases by doing some of the preliminary work, Duquette says. They can then hand the case back to the police for analysis and reporting, he adds.

Duquette thinks one benefit of using private consultants could be an increase in plea bargains.

A study showed that most plea bargains are entered into in the first six months, he says. But if defendants aren’t presented with any significant evidence against them in that period, they are more likely to go to trial, Duquette says.

An outside firm can help police gather enough preliminary evidence to show defendants there is a strong case against them, he says. “It may not have to be the entire case, but if you could find something that could put this person behind the computer or show criminality, there may be an increase in plea bargains.”

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