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Local police turn to feds for crime-solving tech

State and local law enforcement agencies will increasingly turn to better-funded federal agencies to help them with technology-based investigations, according to some law enforcement experts.

Although crime solving technologies -- whether that be unlocking encrypted smartphones,  probing the dark web, or analyzing DNA evidence -- are becoming commonplace, they are often beyond the reach of smaller agencies.

The cost of maintaining those capabilities is one of law enforcement's biggest challenges, said David Denton, deputy assistant director, cyber, at Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations operations.

Speaking at the May 9 AFCEA Bethesda's Law Enforcement and Public Safety Technology Forum, Denton said today's criminals are adept at leveraging technology,  hiding behind the anonymity of the dark web, obscuring their identities on crime scene videos or using encryption to conceal criminal activity.

Solutions for solving tech-based offenses can be "out of reach" for small federal agencies and state and local law enforcement, he said.  Increasingly, those crimes will be solved by big federal law enforcement agencies, such as HSI which is the second largest criminal investigative agency behind the FBI.

While small law enforcement operations have relied on effective, free technology, such as a "scraper" that helped disrupt the notorious Backpage site that listed child traffickers' ads, those applications will probably lose their effectiveness as criminals advance technically, Denton told FCW.

The scraper used to find child ads on Backpage, Dento said, was developed by Thorn, a nonprofit organization that leverages technology against child exploitation. The group was originally formed in 2009 by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher to help law enforcement battle child exploitation.

"That technology costs money" to develop, Denton said, and groups may not be able to afford to provide it at no cost forever, particularly as technology rushes ahead and agile criminals continue to have a tech advantage over law enforcement.

Capabilities and technical complexity of encrypted smart phones and other mobile technology will continue to evolve, said Gurvais Grigg, assistant director of the FBI's laboratory division. Managing that constant data stream from those devices will challenge law enforcement in the coming years, he said.

The number of requests for help from local police in accessing encrypted smart phones is growing quickly. Tech solutions that provide that access are costly, and agencies with deeper pockets and research capabilities like HSI and the FBI will be crucial in helping smaller organizations manage the expense.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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