Lawmakers introduce bill to help police access digital evidence during investigations

Lawmakers introduce bill to help police access digital evidence during investigations
© Greg Nash

Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsPelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers Impeachment inquiry enters critical new phase Lawmakers turn attention to potential witnesses at Judiciary impeachment hearings MORE (D-Fla.) on Friday introduced bipartisan legislation to help police officers learn how to access digital evidence, including data and online messages, during investigations. 

The Technology in Criminal Justice Act, which is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would create a new office at the Department of Justice to educate state and local law enforcement agencies about how to sift through digital evidence — on phones and computers — in a way that does not flout the law. 

The legislation would also create a federal center to serve as a central clearinghouse providing training, tech expertise and legal assistance on gathering digital evidence. The so-called Center of Excellence for Digital Forensics would maintain a library of analytic and forensic tools to help police officers during criminal investigations, and it would offer advice on how to lawfully request any digital information. 

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"As a former law enforcement officer, I have seen first-hand the importance of digital evidence as we work to keep our communities safe and hold people accountable," Demings said in a statement. "Digital evidence has been crucial in cases ranging from financial crimes to child endangerment."

"Only with proper training can we ensure that communities are being kept safe and that officers know both the techniques and the most up-to-date practices to protect both the safety and the privacy of the communities they serve," she said, adding that all law enforcement agencies should have "the tools and training needed to follow the evidence, physical or digital, wherever it leads."

The Technology in Criminal Justice Act would mainly help train and inform local and state law enforcement agencies about the most effective ways to gather digital evidence, allowing them access to a much larger breadth of government-sanctioned resources and programs on the issue.

Demings's bill emerges just as the Justice Department has ramped up its ongoing battle with Silicon Valley over how much data law enforcement should be allowed to access from the tech giants to aid criminal investigations. 

The agency held a summit earlier this year about the potential dangers of encrypted technology, just as Facebook plans to incorporate encryption for all of its various platforms that are used by more than 2 billion people around the world. 

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Attorney General William Barr joined with then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan and his counterparts in the United Kingdom and Australia last month to call on Facebook to hold off on those plans until the company can satisfy their concerns and enable law enforcement to access the private communications of suspects.

The legislation introduced Friday would create a federal advisory board to coordinate between the tech industry and law enforcement agencies on "best practices" around gathering digital evidence.

“It is time that our state and local law enforcement finally receive the training and resources necessary to adapt to the ever-evolving digital technologies to help ensure public safety in a 21st century America," Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said in a statement.