Blockchain in Policing: Go Beyond the Hype

Kalypton CEO Lars Dav­ies speaks to Poli­cing Insight about the hype sur­round­ing data pro­tec­tion and blockchain.

As Gart­ner observes, Block­chain is massively ove­rhyped but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored: “Block­chain tech­no­lo­gies are extremely hyped, evolving at dif­fer­ent tra­ject­or­ies, but should not be ignored. They offer the poten­tial for sub­stan­tial change in tech­no­logy devel­op­ment and deliv­ery as well as in how the eco­nomy, busi­ness and soci­ety oper­ates.” This claim is made in the ana­lyst firm’s ‘Hype Cycle for Block­chain Tech­no­lo­gies 2017’ report – pub­lished in July of this year. 

Block­chain buzz

Rick Muir, Dir­ector of the UK Police Found­a­tion, recently spoke to Poli­cing Insight about the buzz sur­round­ing block­chain and other dis­trib­uted ledger tech­no­lo­gies (DLT). While attend­ing the Block­chain Live con­fer­ence in Lon­don, he found that they were being presen­ted as a means of address­ing the anxi­et­ies of con­sumers, busi­nesses and pub­lic ser­vices over cyber-security and online pri­vacy. Yet, the hype sur­round­ing block­chain and ‘DLT’ shows that many people have no under­stand­ing of the under­ly­ing tech­no­lo­gies that make them work. 

The premise of Muir’s art­icle is that block­chain may bene­fit both poli­cing and pub­lic ser­vices, and as an organ­isa­tion it seems to be com­pletely con­vinced that this claim is true. Liz Crowhurst, for example, wrote in July 2017 a white­pa­per on ‘Reform­ing justice in the digital age’. The report was pub­lished in part­ner­ship with Cana­dian global inform­a­tion tech­no­logy con­sult­ing, sys­tems integ­ra­tion, out­sourcing, and solu­tions com­pany, CGI

In the report Crowhurst writes: “While cur­rently, there is a reli­ance on cent­ral­ised and decent­ral­ised data­bases that require a large cent­ral admin­is­trator and are expens­ive to run, a rel­at­ively new innov­a­tion, in the form of Block­chain tech­no­lo­gies, may have the poten­tial to over­haul the way justice agen­cies store and share inform­a­tion. Block­chains are a form of dis­trib­uted ledger tech­no­logy (which is an innov­at­ive type of secure data­base) that can be rep­lic­ated, shared and syn­chron­ised across mul­tiple locations.”

In the next para­graph on page 12 of the report she con­tin­ues: “Not only is it more secure than other ways of stor­ing and shar­ing inform­a­tion (mainly because a breach would require mul­tiple – rather than a single – point of fail­ure within the net­work), but the fact that Block­chains can auto­mat­ic­ally recon­cile updates means the reli­ance on lower-skilled admin­is­trat­ive work­ers is reduced. In addi­tion, des­pite lower costs, it also offers much greater oppor­tun­ity for the per­son­al­isa­tion of services. 

As Melanie Swan, Founder of the Insti­tute for Block­chain Stud­ies argues: “Gov­ern­ments could shift from being the forced one-size-fits-all ‘greater good’ model at present to one that can be tailored to the needs of indi­vidu­als. Ima­gine a world of gov­ernance ser­vices as indi­vidu­al­ised as Star­bucks cof­fee orders.”

Blockchain’s emer­gence

How­ever, Block­chain and crypto­cur­ren­cies such as bit­coin emerged at a time of increased dis­trust in insti­tu­tions around the fin­an­cial crisis. With Block­chain and DLT, the prob­lem is that we’ve stopped trust­ing insti­tu­tions and now we’ve star­ted to trust abso­lute strangers. At the same time, people have begun to place more trust in their net­works. This is artic­u­lated by Rachael Bots­man’s speech at the TED Sum­mit. This made a favour­able envir­on­ment for the notion of shared trust and Block­chain was con­sidered, until recently, the only way to achieve that. 

No place in policing

While it’s true that gov­ern­ments around the world and even the European Union, as well as other insti­tu­tions, are keen to explore Block­chain and DLT, there is the pos­sib­il­ity that Block­chain has no use in poli­cing or crim­inal justice. It also has its iron­ies. For example, the ori­gins of the block­chain are quite shady – hav­ing emerged from the dark web where many miscre­ants lurk. 

Block­chain has, in my view, no place in poli­cing and crim­inal justice because it shares the data as well as a mis­un­der­stood concept of trust in that data. Shar­ing data is not always a prob­lem, as long as that data that is shared does not breach pri­vacy or con­fid­en­ti­al­ity. Take, for example, e‑voting. We might be happy with elec­tion res­ults for each con­stitu­ency to be writ­ten to a Block­chain, to then be shared widely as it is inher­ently pub­lic data. But what about the way that each indi­vidual voted? Isn’t that inher­ently private? 

With Block­chain there is a lack of pri­vacy, and with the help of cook­ies users’ activ­it­ies can be traced. This means that any anonym­ity that many Block­chain pro­ponents claim about the tech­no­logy, just isn’t there. Even if data on a Block­chain can be obfus­cated for cer­tain view­ers, people can still gain use­ful inform­a­tion simply by mon­it­or­ing the traffic to and from the Blockchain.

Even if research­ers find a way to obscure the actual data, activ­ity pat­terns can be reveal­ing. For example, let us say that police force A knows that a cer­tain part of the block­chain holds records per­tain­ing to a deceased politi­cian. Police force A can observe that forces B and C are look­ing at the same part of the block­chain. A journ­al­ist with sources at any of those police forces might gain sim­ilar knowledge.

Blockchain’s model of trust is often mis­un­der­stood. The ‘trust’ that block­chain can provide is not trust in the accur­acy of a record, or indeed that a stored record is an accur­ate record of a trans­ac­tion, fact, or whatever. Block­chain, instead, simply provides a level of trust that a record, once added to the block­chain, will not be revoked at a later data. It does not val­id­ate the accur­acy of a record. This presents major prob­lems when it comes to record­ing evidence.

Evid­ence preservation

Blockchain’s poorly under­stood trust model raises con­cerns about the pre­ser­va­tion of digital evid­ence. In this case data pro­tec­tion only applies from the point that the data was cap­tured which is some time after it was cre­ated. It there­fore has the poten­tial to fall foul of the hearsay rule. And, of course, the pro­cess by which this data can be shared is not easy or obvi­ous as there is no chain of cus­tody from the cre­ation of the record to the cre­ation of the block and until it is added to the block­chain. If a solu­tion can be cre­ated to the shar­ing of digital evid­ence, then that solu­tion can read­ily be applied to the shar­ing of non-evidential data also.

The ques­tion also arises of what hap­pens when the evid­ence is shown to be incor­rect. This is not a the­or­et­ical ques­tion but one that is very real. Just because some­thing has been presen­ted as evid­ence does not mean that it is cor­rect. If it is not cor­rect then the record should be cor­rec­ted or deleted. And what about inform­a­tion that should not have been recor­ded? Incor­rect records can have a det­ri­mental impact on the lives of the inno­cent, let alone those who have never been given the chance to prove their inno­cence or dis­prove an accus­a­tion, but who have ‘evid­ence’ recor­ded against their names.

I believe that the optimal solu­tion to the issue of shar­ing evid­en­tial or non-evidential data lies in a pro­cess that cre­ates tamper evid­ence as the record in ques­tion is being cre­ated. This elim­in­ates the hearsay issue com­pre­hens­ively. It makes it pos­sible to expunge the record should cir­cum­stances dic­tate as the record itself is not immut­able. The data can be held privately and then shared by the owner of the data under well-defined oper­at­ing pro­ced­ures. Its tamper evid­ence can be demon­strated by any­one who is sub­sequently given a copy of, or access to, that data.

The net res­ult of this pro­posed archi­tec­ture is: 

  • The ease of data shar­ing where required and under the con­trol of the owner of that data or under war­rant where appropriate, 
  • The gain­ing of the pri­vacy of the data until that point, 
  • The abil­ity to show and make avail­able tamper to all view­ers, where that tamper evid­ence was cre­ated con­tem­por­an­eously with the record elim­in­at­ing any tem­poral gap

Per­miss­sioned Blockchain

This is cru­cial because even in the case of a per­mis­sioned block­chain, the issues of pri­vacy and trust are not com­pletely addressed. Would a police force want an arrest record or some digital evid­ence to be view­able by any other police force? In the case that one police force had a breach, every police force could suf­fer. This is because all police forces would have a full node con­tain­ing records to all forces par­ti­cip­at­ing in an inform­a­tion shar­ing net­work. There­fore, the data belong­ing to all forces would be access­ible given a breach at one participant. 

Ima­gine that 20 banks oper­ate in a mar­ket. All banks have the full block­chain for all trans­ac­tions, when only the two parties to the trans­ac­tion should have records of them by right. Shar­ing data more widely might aid com­pet­it­ors or enable illegal mar­ket fix­ing activ­it­ies. In poli­cing and crim­inal justice terms, a lack of secur­ity and pri­vacy could lead to vital digital evid­ence fail­ing in the wrong hands – jeop­ard­ising an invest­ig­a­tion or a trial. 

GDPR and data controls

So, would a police force want an arrest record or some digital evid­ence to be view­able by any other police force? The pre­sump­tion must be that the police forces would not want that to hap­pen auto­mat­ic­ally, and there­fore the pre­sump­tion should be that, that data is private to that force. Where there is value in shar­ing data on fraud­sters who oper­ate across geo­graphic bound­ar­ies, this should be a con­scious and informed decision to share rather than some­thing that hap­pens because the under­ly­ing tech­no­logy requires it.

There is also the pos­sib­il­ity that any police forces and any crim­inal justice organ­isa­tions using Block­chain may not be able to achieve com­pli­ance to the forth­com­ing EU’s Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tions (GDPR). Here’s a sum­mary of the key parts of the reg­u­la­tions, which illus­trate why this may be case-based on the lim­it­a­tions of Block­chain and other DLTs:

Recital 26 

… Per­sonal data which have under­gone pseud­onymisa­tion, which could be attrib­uted to a nat­ural per­son by the use of addi­tional inform­a­tion should be con­sidered to be inform­a­tion on an iden­ti­fi­able person. …’ 

Recital 28 

… The expli­cit intro­duc­tion of ‘pseud­onymisa­tion’ in this Reg­u­la­tion is not inten­ded to pre­clude any other meas­ures of data protection.’ 

Recital 39 

… Every reas­on­able step should be taken to ensure that per­sonal data which are inac­cur­ate are rec­ti­fied or deleted. … 

Once data is writ­ten to block­chain, it is immut­able. So, per­sonal data can­not then be rec­ti­fied or deleted. So, it can neither be removed nor altered. It is as if the data has been writ­ten to a WORM drive and it suf­fers the same prob­lem. The data is there, per­haps to be observed by all, even if the per­son of interest has been acquit­ted with no case to answer and the records to be expunged. 

Improper records on a block­chain can only be removed with drastic sur­gery to it. So, how will police forces and crim­inal justice organ­isa­tions delete records once someone is found inno­cent, or once a con­vic­tion has been spent, or if those records should never have been kept in the first place? What about the incor­rect records that led to false con­vic­tions that were later over­turned? Muir is right to sug­gest that Block­chain tech­no­logy should not be breath­lessly as the solu­tion to all our prob­lems. For law enforce­ment, I’d say from my exper­i­ence the Block­chain and other DLTs can often be more prob­lem­atic than the hype will ever reveal.

Secur­ity leak

The truth is that Blockchain’s secur­ity is often far from water­tight. I would there­fore advise police forces and crim­inal justice organ­isa­tions to go bey­ond the hype to pro­tect them­selves from unin­ten­ded con­sequences. You may just find that the inher­ent com­plex­it­ies and weak­ness of Block­chain and other DLTs just mean that the under­ly­ing tech­no­logy is not right for you. How­ever, my col­leagues and I at Kalypton believe that there are some solu­tions to many of these issues. 

Solv­ing the issues

We believe that these prob­lems lie in fun­da­mental design prob­lems with Block­chain and all DLT solu­tions that require all data to be shared as well as the trust in the data. Our approach has been to ensure that the data is kept private to the entity that owns it but that the trust is shared widely. This is achieved by sep­ar­at­ing the data from the audit trail per­tain­ing to the data. We call this Dis­trib­uted Trust in Private Ledgers as dis­tinct from the Dis­trib­uted Ledger Tech­no­logy of Block­chain. How­ever, our model of trust is dif­fer­ent to that of block­chain and DLTs. The model takes its basis from the legal require­ments to val­id­ate the con­tents of records and means that you can trust the con­tents of the records them­selves, that they are as they were recor­ded. It means that you know that a record exists, that its chain of cus­tody can be veri­fied. It means that you can delete or amend the record as and when you need to do so, and that the dele­tion or amend­ment is cap­tured and audited, together with the reason for that action.

The tech­no­logy can be used in con­junc­tion with DLT how­ever. So, return­ing to the e‑voting use case, the elect­oral officer for each con­stitu­ency might be the only per­son who has a record of each vote without know­ing the real-world iden­tity of each voter. He simply has a unique ref­er­ence num­ber for each voter to ensure that there is no duplic­ate vot­ing. This is private data, but the sum totals of votes cast for each can­did­ate is pub­lic data that can be writ­ten to the Block­chain for immut­ab­il­ity and wide­spread sharing. 

In these days of fake news, the Block­chain can become the pub­lic­a­tion of record that every­one can rely on. Noth­ing more and noth­ing less. Unlike block­chain solu­tions, our Tereon plat­form deliv­ers bene­fits without a require­ment for a reg­u­lat­ory sand­box or legal changes. This allows organ­isa­tions to achieve legal and reg­u­lat­ory com­pli­ance by enabling them to escape the Block­chain hype with the devel­op­ment of a deep under­stand­ing of what tech­no­logy can deliver and really achieve. 

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