Although blockchain innovation has garnered mixed reviews due to the volatility of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, it is important to separate the success of the blockchain technology, from the downsides of the Bitcoin application. The underlying blockchain distributed ledger technology (DLT) could prove to be the missing solution for managing digital assets, including digital evidence shared and validated between case stakeholders and agencies around the globe.

Evolving consumer technology continues to challenge investigations that need to validate the origin, integrity and authenticity of digital evidence. Blockchain delivers encrypted, immutable and secure digital record asset creation and management.

So, what exactly is blockchain technology?

A blockchain algorithm encodes data, referred to as a “block”, and permits updates to a historical record, in the form of a “chain”. This is sustained by a distributed ledger that is shared among its system’s participants. All blockchain system users become nodes of the distributed ledger that ensures integrity of data by leveraging all computers on the peer-to-peer network. The blockchain is structured this way in order to maintain the integrity of historical data, correct inconsistencies and detect tampering.

As a self-correcting storage system for digital records, blockchain has demonstrated data security that meets the standards of many modern-day laws. The validity of this innovative technology has prompted institutions in the US, and around the world, to amend or create laws that legitimize blockchain digital asset records in court and during governmental proceedings.

Transparency of how digital evidence is produced, accessed or modified (including attribution of stakeholders) would greatly enhance the reliability of the digital evidence chain-of-custody. Blockchain delivers this transparency by offering untrusted parties a method of accepted evidence authentication, whereby the digital transaction history is verifiable without a third-party intermediary.

For example, up to this point, in order to authenticate digital evidence, prosecutors and court administrators have had to rely upon third-party notary organizations to validate digital assets. Avoiding this form of “middle man” would significantly speed up case proceedings while lowering administrative costs.

Let’s take a look at the recent adoption of blockchain DLT in the US, China and the UK.

Digital evidence on the blockchain in the US

The state of Vermont (2016), Arizona (2017) and Ohio (2018) have introduced laws to accept the use of blockchain records in court when accompanied by an electronic signature. This bold acceptance of blockchain is attracting startups that focus on delivering value through financial technology to the government, law systems and businesses.

Vermont legislature published a report stating, “Providing legal recognition of blockchain technology may create a ‘first mover’ advantage with the potential to bring economic activity surrounding the development of blockchain technology to Vermont.” – source

Business documents in the form of smart contracts are also starting to be recognized in states such as Delaware in an effort to maintain secure corporate records in a user-friendly way. As 64% of Fortune 500 companies and over 1M entities are incorporated in Delaware, the acceptance of blockchain DLT sets an important precedent for corporate jurisdiction in the US.

You can find a full list of US blockchain legislation developments and updates here.

Blockchain evidence in China

China is officially digitizing its domestic judicial system. In 2018, the China Supreme People’s Court embraced blockchain technology for digital evidence storage and authentication when processing legal disputes through the digital court system. Additional verification in the form of digital signatures and timestamp records is also required for verification. The Hangzhou internet court is the first to recognize blockchain asset evidence while Beijing and Guangzhou are getting ready to do the same.

China’s internet court technology is designed to manage a number of civil case court procedures, from lawsuits to verdict announcements. Defendants and plaintiffs are verified using facial recognition and appear before a judge via online video streaming while voice-recognition technology records the whole event. The main advantage so far has been the time-saving efficiency of the entirely digital experience that transcends geographic boundaries at a low cost.

Blockchain evidence in the UK

Recently, the Head of Digital Architecture and Cybersecurity at the UK’s Ministry of Justice announced a pilot program that introduces a blockchain evidence system. With the goal of simplifying and streamlining court processes involving digital evidence, the pilot aims to solve the challenges of evidence sharing and identity management while retaining a foolproof audit trail.

Let’s explore 5 existing challenges that a blockchain solution could address.

  1. Sharing evidence between agencies

With almost 12,000 agencies listed in the US alone, bureaucratic divisions can challenge inter-agency cooperation as a result of data silos and non-standardized file management practices. Digital assets on a blockchain could be easily and securely shared between stakeholders.   

  1. Retaining digital evidence integrity

The immutability of digital evidence records is baked into the blockchain technology so tampering with the evidence could be virtually eradicated. This is especially important in an era of deep fake photos and videos that undermine public trust in the integrity of digital media as reliable evidence.

  1. Digital evidence storage

The adoption of officer-worn cameras in turn produces substantial amounts of real-time footage that could be stored in a blockchain system. Later, prosecutors could easily refer to a ledger ID of a video to prove authenticity of the evidence during trials. Digital evidence blockchain “lockers” could produce a “win win” scenario creating efficiency for police and procedural transparency for citizens.

  1. Smart document management

Smart documents can also become immutable as once they are created, they cannot be changed or tampered with. When smart document assets are consistently validated by every user’s node on the network, authenticity is retained.

  1. Physical evidence tracking

When a smartphone is being delivered to a forensics lab, examiners want to know how the device was interacted with and what the status of the asset is when it is returned. Blockchain records of the process could increase transparency for any kind of evidence that must retain an audit trail.

As real world objects travel, visibility in the form of digital certification or tokens could update the blockchain record, adding historical data as it moves along the investigation process.

Are there any downsides to using blockchain DLT?

Blockchain does have latency issues as any peer-to-peer (P2P) network can be distributed worldwide to a potential global user base that share the same encrypted database among themselves. This is essentially inefficient as the same data is redundantly stored on all user nodes.

Because of this technical constraint, scaling blockchain technology is still a challenge. To put this into perspective, the blockchain-powered cryptocurrency Bitcoin currently processes up to 5 transactions per second whereas VISA processes over 24,000 per second.

In Conclusion

It is challenging for existing digital evidence recording and storage technologies to outperform blockchain’s robust and secure offering. With this in mind, the DFIR community stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming turning point that will see blockchain technology speed up digital evidence procedures and redefine digital investigation processes. 

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