5. Memorandum submitted by the Foundation
for Information Policy Research (FIPR)
We were asked by the Committee to submit evidence
the need to decrypt computer files;
the length of time needed to obtain
and analyse data from mobile phones; and
problems in dealing with growing
masses of digital forensic material.
We have been shown submissions by Assistant
Commissioner Andy Hayman and by Peter Sommer. We should point
out that Peter Sommer is also a member of FIPR's Advisory Council
and has been consulted on this response.
We would like to make the following points.
1. Modern cryptography tends to break quickly
or not at alleither the data were encrypted using a bad
product or a good one, and in the latter case you either guess
the password or give up. Depending on the tools in use, it might
take a few hours to a few days to try a large database of possible
passwords on seized material; one tries out various dictionaries,
girls' names, names of Premiership footballers, etc. (There are
one or two products that still use medium-strength cryptography,
but they are becoming obsolete: and even in these cases, cryptanalysis
is easy to parallelise, in that a key which takes a month to break
on a PC can be broken in a day on 30 PCs if the matter is urgent.)
Thus cryptography per se does not justify an extended pre-charge
2. Obtaining data such as call logs and
location history from phone companies under the RIP Act should
be a fairly rapid process, as the information is stored on automated
systems and there are established procedures for law enforcement
agencies to work through single points of contact with the companies.
While there may occasionally be delays, there are now procedures
for expedited access when a matter is urgent. There is thus no
good reason why access to traffic and location data should justify
an extended pre-charge detention period.
3. We are concerned, though, that by concentrating
on low-level operational aspects such as performing cryptanalysis
and getting data for traffic analysis, the police may be missing
the larger strategic picture, as follows.
4. The amount of data available in trials,
both civil and criminal, is increasing much more rapidly than
the capabilities of police, prosecutors, defence lawyers, and
even lawyers in civil cases. Investigators are trying to drink
from a fire hose, and the volume is being turned up all the time.
5. For example, Operation Ore presented
the UK police with a list of 7,000+ people who had bought pornography
from a site in Texas that contained, inter alia, illegal
images of child abuse. It also contained material that was merely
tasteless. Much of Britain's computer forensic capability has
been tied up for the last three years in searching through confiscated
PCs, trying to determine which type of images their owners purchased.
Often evidence could not be found, and in some of these cases
suspects may have been bullied into accepting cautions for "incitement
to distribute" to get the cases off the books. The recent
headlines about teaching blacklists are just part of the fallout
from that practice.
6. As another example, I am currently an
expert witness in a civil matter in which the receiver of a failed
company obtained a search order against a former director and
seized ten PCs. Five months later, subsidiary litigation is underway
about searching this material and the protocols for access. Civil
litigation also results in huge volumes of data being obtained
as part of the discovery process. A minor contract dispute can
throw up 10,000 emails, while the US class action against tobacco
companies generated over 10 million pages of documents. If the
only way you can deal with that is to pay lawyers £200 an
hour to read them, then litigation will become even more the preserve
of the rich. One might draw a comparison with warfare, where the
costs (and capabilities) of platforms such as combat aircraft
have increased by orders of magnitude since World War 2.
7. This is not to decry the importance of
digital evidence and intelligence. Indeed, it is the very usefulness
of such material that has led police forces round the world to
seize material in ever-increasing quantities, with the result
that the existing analytic capacity is badly overstretched. Technological
progressthe data storage equivalent of Moore's lawensures
that there will be ever-larger quantities of material to be seized.
"Pervasive computing"the process whereby processors
and communications are embedded in ever more everyday devices,
from TVs to carswill ensure that ever more devices contain
digital records that might potentially incriminate or exculpate
a suspect. It is likely that within 5-10 years a search of a single
home or small business will yield the thousands of gigabytes of
data apparently encountered by the police in the wake of the July
8. New things can be done with digital evidence.
For example, one can "undelete" files and email on seized
computers, and perform rapid automatic searches for "known
suspect" email addresses, phone numbers and even pornographic
9. However, neither the tools available
to analyse this data, nor the UK police forces' capabilities in
particular, have kept up with technology use by suspects.
10. Today's tools are designed to analyse
a single hard drive at a time, using labour-intensive processes
that do not scale well. They also do not usually support the kinds
of analysis needed when a case involves large numbers of disk
drives, such as correlation analyses to see which PCs were exchanging
data with each other; recent academic research (Garfinkel) has
shown the feasibility of such analyses. The task now is to design,
build and deploy the tools.
11. FIPR has been concerned for years that
UK police forces tend to devote less money, effort and priority
to IT matters (such as computer crime and digital forensics) than
would be socially optimal. This has also been the consistent (privately
expressed) view of the most able practitioners within the system.
A number of FIPR members have been involved in remediation activities
ranging from police training to speaking at law-enforcement conferences.
12. In short, this is not a "terrorism"
problem, but a general problem.
13. The solution is unlikely to be found
in extended pre-charge detention, even for terrorist matters.
In computer-science terms, the problem is not latency but bandwidth.
In lay language: if the rate at which you seize PCs exceeds the
rate at which you can image, index, search and analyse the contents,
then the queue just keeps on getting longer. Extending time limits
is at best a measure of desperation that gives only a one-off
and very short period of respite. As data volumes double every
15 months, and as more and more devices acquire processors and
communications, the solution cannot be found there.
14. FIPR believes that the police need a
radical improvement in forensic capabilities: more experts, and
better tools. The tools also need to be usable more widely, so
that investigators are not stuck waiting for specialists. This
is not just a resource issue, but an issue of attitudes and priorities
at the policy level. IT must come out of the "ghetto";
a force that expects 90% of its officers to be able to drive and
30% to be qualified in firearms should not be stuck with two computer-literate
constables. Now that IT is part of the fabric of almost all our
lives, the number of computer-trained officers should logically
exceed the number trained in firearms and approach the proportion
able to drive.
15. It must also be realised that sometimes
information just will not be found, even when it is there. This
already happens with non-digital evidence; from time to time a
re-examination of old case material by a fresh mind or by new
methods results in a conviction where none had been possible before,
or even an acquittal on appeal of someone whose conviction was
unsatisfactory or even mistaken.
16. The inevitable failures of digital evidence
will include failures of new kinds. For example, complexity causes
new problems. Much computer science and software engineering research
over the past forty years has been directed towards developing
tools and techniques to cope with ever-more complicated programs
and data structures. An analogy we sometimes use is "climbing
the complexity mountain"with more and more effort
one can get a little higher up, but the mountain always wins in
the end. For example, it is often said that "one-third of
large software projects fail", and this seems as true now
as in the 1960s. So has there been no progress in software engineering?
On the contrarywe build much bigger and more expensive
failures nowadays! The big project failures of the 1980s or even
the 1990s might be quite manageable today. It is human nature
to try to push the limits and achieve what no-one has done before,
and the computer industry being young is less risk-averse than
17. Thus it should surprise no-one that
the complexity of evidence available in some investigations and
trials will exceed the analytic and management capabilities of
the tools and techniques that the police have at the time. The
existence of unmanageably complex cases cannot be accepted as
a justification for extending the detention term, or we will end
up with indefinite detention without trial.
18. Data retention is another issue that
Parliament and the courts will have to tackle: should the police
keep all data they have ever seen, as they have recently been
doing with DNA data? There may be a case for this in terror and
serious crime cases, but if data retention were to become universal
for normal crime then police capabilities would be overloaded
even worse than at present, and there would be serious conflicts
with data protection and human rights law.
19. There are also matters of court procedurein
fact, quite fundamental issues of what it means to have a fair
trial. As the quantity of material available to the prosecution
and defence grows from the megabytes through the gigabytes into
the terabytes and beyond, old-fashioned procedures for disclosure
and discovery will become ever more inefficient and contentious.
It will be increasingly easy for the prosecution to hide critical
evidence in such a mass of irrelevant garbage that the defence
are ambushed at trial. (I have been an expert witness in a civil
matter where this happened.) Court procedure, in both criminal
and civil sectors, has to be upgraded for the age of Google. This
will raise many complex and difficult questions, and will no doubt
have to be revisited every five to ten years as forensic and search
technology both advance. I expect that such issues are beyond
the remit of the committee's present inquiry, and suggest that
a separate inquiry might be a suitable way forward.
20. Fundamentally the question of how long
it's reasonable to keep people in jail from arrest to charge (and
from charge to trial) is a political one. So is the question of
what proportion of national resource is to be devoted to law enforcement
and the legal system. Whatever time limits are imposedfrom
the wonderfully brisk 110-day rule in Scotland to the much more
languid timescale considered normal in some foreign countriespolice
will work to these limits. Policemen, like everyone else, have
conflicting claims on their resources; and if they have more time,
they will take more time. They will also find cases in which (even
with hard work) they cannot analyse the available data within
the time limit or indeed at all. Arguments can always be made
that given more time case X might have been solved. A sceptic
will point out that the real limit is not usually the technology,
but the attention and stamina of the human investigators. The
point of diminishing returns is reached all too soon.
21. The computer industry's response to
the complexity inherent in large systems may provide an instructive
parallel. Successful project management requires a rather brutal
approach: the manager must focus hard, close down options, parallelise
the work where possible and ship a good product within the time
limit set by the customer. Investigators will have to learn these
skills, and find appropriate ways to develop and exercise them
within a framework that gives full access to the defence, and
the benefit of the doubt to the accused.
22. It is also worth remembering that how
long we keep people in jail is, at a deep level, a statement about
what sort of society we believe we are, and what sort of society
we collectively decidethrough our elected representativesto
23. In conclusion, FIPR does not believe
there is a sound technological argument for increasing the detention
time limits. There is a strong argument, however, for supporting
the police in pushing through the necessary cultural changeand
acquiring the necessary budgetsto get abreast of the opportunities
that digital evidence provides.
Professor Ross Anderson
27 January 2006