Digital evidence storage is rapidly becoming an existential concern for law enforcement agencies across the country. 90% of criminal cases feature digital evidence, whether from body-worn cameras, smartphones, computers, CCTV systems or other devices — and the size of these digital files grows exponentially. That’s not to mention the untold volume of physical evidence in storage, rapidly in need of digitization to make retrieval and archival a more seamless process.
For years, police departments have relied on on-premises Digital Evidence Management Systems (DEMS) to store and secure these files. As the limitations of these systems fail to keep up with growing needs, agencies are turning to cloud storage. However, some departments are slow to adopt the cloud, concerned that this solution will create new security gaps or administrative issues that will generate roadblocks in successfully prosecuting cases.
To address these concerns, we spoke with Matthew Carlson, Digital Evidence Storage Product Manager at Axon. We discussed the challenges departments face with on-premises storage and how departments can increase the security and integrity of stored evidence with cloud-based solutions. Read on to learn more.
How secure is on-premises storage?
On its face, on-premises storage appears to provide the most significant degree of security and control over evidence intake. In a perfect world, this would be true. Departments with the time and resources to leverage a fully on-premises DEMS could manually oversee access to digital records, physical storage of hard drives and configuration of user access profiles.
The reality of managing DEMS on-premises quickly reveals an illusion of security and control, with hidden costs and security gaps that aren’t readily apparent. On-premises storage solutions are often subject to numerous challenges, including the following:
Siloed and inconsistent storage and transfer procedures: “Oftentimes different departments within an agency have their own budgets and systems,” Matthew explains. This leads to an inconsistent approach to storing and accessing evidence, especially when multiple departments need to access the same evidence. Inconsistencies can lead to mistakes, which leadw to compromised evidence that can ruin cases.
On-premises storage also makes transferring large amounts of data more complex, often creating the need to duplicate important files, which confuses the chain of custody. “I work with a number of agencies that are moving away from on-premises systems,” Matthew says. “Many shared how they would have to burn multiple copies of all of their evidence and drive them to the prosecutor’s office.” The risk of alteration, mishandling or other compromising factors grows with each physical copy, but is necessary without a reliable way to transfer files digitally.
Risk of loss, theft, or damage: Maintaining physical, on-site storage also increases the likelihood that evidence gets misplaced, stolen, or damaged beyond repair. This can happen in several ways. A physical drive isn’t correctly reshelved after use and goes missing. An unauthorized person gains access and removes critical evidence. Or a natural disaster can devastate an entire repository, like a recent three-alarm fire that tore through an NYPD warehouse and destroyed a decade’s worth of evidence.
Losing an entire warehouse of evidence is a massive blow, but even misplacing a single file can ruin an entire case. “Several police departments have told me that if they go to court and a single piece of evidence is missing, there’s an extremely good chance that the judge will throw the case out,” Matthew explains. Minimizing the risk of loss is paramount to ensuring investigations meet satisfactory conclusions, and on-premises storage makes this much more difficult.
Unreliable costs: On-premises storage perhaps sufficed when agencies only handled paper documents, audio files, and the occasional video file, but the advent of body-cam footage has made it difficult for those solutions to scale with the accompanying increase in digital storage demands. And as departments need to store greater volumes of digital information, those demands will only continue to increase.
“We've seen about a 500% increase of third-party evidence, which is actually growing even faster than body cameras in a lot of agencies,” Matthew describes. “There’s more CCTV footage, more cell phone extractions, and more evidence being shared by community members that needs to be stored.”
Expanding on-premises storage to handle this new glut of digital information will be increasingly difficult to keep up with. Departments will need to procure larger hard drives, install additional hardware and ensure the entire network's security as it expands — and the costs for doing so will only continue to grow.
How secure is the cloud?
Many agencies have turned to cloud-based storage to surmount these challenges. Others may want to implement a cloud-based solution but are concerned with the potential security risks of transitioning and maintaining sensitive data like evidence within the cloud.
At a base level, cloud-based storage offers a high level of data security through implementation from the most prominent experts in the industry. “All of Axon’s storage and cloud technology is based on Microsoft Azure,” Matthew explains. “The security improvements Microsoft makes with their vast level of resources applies to Axon, which then applies to all of our customers.” A massive team of experts backs Azure’s state-of-the-art data security to protect against intrusions, theft, and other malicious attacks.
State, local, and federal agencies require further stringent security measures to protect sensitive data, such as evidence. Cloud-based solutions that store federal data must comply with FedRAMP, which enables federal agencies to rapidly adopt modern cloud technologies that are both secure and cost effective. Cloud service providers go through an extensive security accreditation process, and Axon FedCloud was recently authorized at FedRAMP High, allowing government agencies to store highly sensitive, non-classified information within Axon’s managed cloud infrastructure."
On top of the overall layer of security that cloud storage provides, agencies that transition to the cloud have access to constant, 24/7 monitoring and analytics tools to track system and data usage.
Matthew explains the importance of security monitoring within the cloud: “If your on-premises network has a security incident, you’re largely on your own when mitigating the damage. With the cloud, we have the best and brightest employees working around the clock to keep everything secure and available to your department.”
Cloud-based storage solutions offer a level of security resources previously thought inaccessible by departments relying on on-premises storage. Learn more about how Axon Evidence can improve your department’s security profile while breaking down data silos in evidence management.
The benefits of storing evidence in the cloud
In addition to increased security and monitoring capabilities, departments that store evidence within the cloud often see additional improvements to management workflows, such as:
Enhanced chain of custody tracking: Cloud environments offer robust identity access management tools to enable departments to manage granular access to specific directories or individual files. Plus, departments gain full insight into who is accessing what and when, creating full accountability for evidence storage and retrieval.
“The cloud tracks everything, from the first time a file is uploaded all the way through until it’s shared with the prosecution,” Matthew explains. “The ability to audit the chain of custody provides a lot of additional security and defensibility if it ever comes up in court.”
Less overhead: Cloud storage scales with use, and unlimited storage plans can simplify budgeting and provide a single, secure location where all data is managed. They also don’t need to invest in expensive server racks or keep track of physical hard drives — all of the data is managed in the cloud.
“There’s much less overhead,” Matthew says. “In a lot of agencies, they have evidence rooms full of hard drives and USB sticks. Officers have to go and make a request to retrieve a drive, then go pick it up. All of this time adds up and takes away vital time better spent investigating, not doing administrative IT work.”
Ease of search: Departments no longer have to rely on clumsy physical sorting methods or remember what was in a piece of evidence to track down its location. When departments store evidence in the cloud, information is tagged and sorted based on various criteria, including its actual content. Officers can then use powerful search abilities to pinpoint the exact file they’re looking for within minutes.
Modernize your data with Axon Evidence
As digital evidence continues to grow exponentially, it will be increasingly more difficult for departments to manage, store, and secure it with on-premises solutions. That’s why we created Axon Evidence, a proven, turnkey, cloud-based storage solution built to meet the demands of modern policing. Axon Evidence provides full encryption of evidence, seamless file sharing, audit trails, smart search functionality, and much more. Contact us today to learn more.