Blockchain as Best Practice: The Benefits of the Criminal Justice System Implementing Blockchain Technology

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Blockchain as Best Practice: The Benefits of the Criminal Justice System Implementing Blockchain Technology

By Merritt Francis

Blockchain technology was created in 2008 by an anonymous group or person, the creator(s) of Bitcoin, “Satoshi Nakamoto.”[1]  Blockchain is a set of technologies that creates an encrypted, distributed/ decentralized ledger.  A “decentralized” ledger means there is no central authority.  Rather, the information is shared and distributed to thousands of computers (“nodes”) on a peer-to-peer network, which are located around the world.[2]

The decentralized ledger could, for example, maintain an accurate system of payments and receipts for the cryptocurrency associated with the blockchain.   Central authorities, such as a bank maintaining a ledger of all its users’ transactions, are lucrative targets for cybercriminals.[3]  Because a blockchain does not exist in one place, it offers two distinct advantages over centralized authorities: broader access, and greater security.[4]

Blockchains are comprised of “blocks,” which are digitally recorded data that are linked together in chronological order into one “chain.”  Once the “block” of data is chained to the other existing data on the blockchain, the data cannot be altered without altering all the subsequent blocks of data, which would require collusion from a majority of the network’s computers located around the world.[5]  Put differently—it is nearly impossible to alter data once it is encrypted onto a blockchain.  As a result, blockchain technology can be utilized as a tamper-evident and tamper-resistant way to structure, store, and secure data.

The implementation of blockchain technology into our everyday lives is inevitable. And, there are infinite benefits the legal field will realize once the private and public sectors utilize blockchain technology.  As discussed below, our criminal justice system would greatly benefit from utilizing blockchain technology.

The most identifiable benefit of blockchain technology is its real-time, immutable record-keeping ability.  Foreign judicial systems have already implemented blockchain technology as a tool for surveilling parolees.[6]  In Foshan, China, law enforcement officials created a community correction program to track the location of convicted offenders in real-time.[7]  Parolees are required to wear electronic bracelets fitted with a tracking encryption program at all times.[8]  Because the system uses blockchain technology to track the results, the data gathered is completely resistant to tampering and corruption.[9]

The United States’ judicial systems, on the other hand, use manual check-ins and over-burdened case workers to keep track of its paroled criminals.  Implementing blockchain technology will simplify the entire parole process, while also making it a more trust-worthy system in the process.

The immutable, real-time record-keeping will also be key in issuing warrants and maintaining criminal histories.[10]  Courts issue search and arrest warrants to multiple different agencies, such as law-enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and probation and parole officers.  Once a warrant is issued, numerous criminal-justice partners need “read” and “write” access to the warrant.[11]  Law-enforcement officers are often required to contact the issuing court to validate the warrant, while other law-enforcement officers “pack” a warrant with additional information about the defendant.[12]  The number of participants and handoffs involved in issuing and executing warrants makes it an excellent area to employ blockchain technology.

The same goes for maintaining an accurate record of an individual’s criminal history.  Prosecutors, courts, and criminal-history repositories are all responsible with updating criminal charges.  Approximately 20,000 people in the United States are falsely accused, convicted, and incarcerated each year.[13]  Today, many criminal-justice partners use manual data entry, ongoing audits, and quality-control efforts to maintain their respective databases.  But, with blockchain technology, the courts, prosecutors, and law-enforcement officers could all make changes to the initial Blockchain arrest record, flowing throughout the adjudication process, tying charges to ultimate dispositions.  Every time an amendment is made, the blockchain records the party who made the amendment.  And, individuals can only make amendments when they have been delegated such authority.

Blockchain technology will also significantly benefit chain of custody in criminal cases.  Current evidence management systems are susceptible to theft, tampering and, at its worst, manipulation of evidence within the evidence management system.[14]  But, there would be drastic improvements to a chain of custody’s integrity if evidence was recorded on blockchain technology.   When submitting evidence into police custody, officers would be required to report the state of the evidence as it was being submitted.  Then, any person removing the evidence would have to confirm the evidence was in the same state as the blockchain reflects.  Further, any person receiving the evidence in a chain of custody would immediately be able to compare the “state” of the evidence as it was recorded in the system with the “state” last recorded on the blockchain.  If the evidence appears to have been tampered with, the receiver can refuse to accept the evidence and report the problem immediately, instead of receiving it while lacking knowledge as to the evidence’s condition when it was first taken into custody.  In a court-setting, an individual accused of a crime would be able to compare evidence collected at the scene to the evidence’s recorded “state” on the blockchain.[15]

Implementing blockchain technology in criminal law would significantly increase the efficiency and integrity of our current criminal law system.  Moreover, the technology is readily available, as developers are creating privatized blockchains for companies and agencies looking to benefit from the increased efficiency and integrity.

[1] Grace Kay, The many alleged identities of Bitcoin’s mysterious creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, Business Insider (Nov. 28, 2021), https://www.businessinsider.com/bitcoin-history-cryptocurrency-satoshi-nakamoto-2017-12#:~:text=The%20many%20alleged%20identities%20of%20Bitcoin’s%20mysterious%20creator%2C%20Satoshi%20Nakamoto&text=The%20identity%20of%20Bitcoin’s%20creator,become%20a%20top%20digital%20currency.

[2] Di Graski & Pail Embley, When Might Blockchain Appear in Your Court?, Nat. Cen. for St. C. (Nov. 14, 2019), https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/14913/blockchaininthecourts.pdf.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] John Salmon & Gordon Myers, Blockchain and Associated Legal Issues for Emerging Markets, Note 63, Int’l. Fin. Corp. (Jan. 2019), https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/14913/blockchaininthecourts.pdf.

[6]  Sophia Scott, Blockchain Behind Bars: The Case for Cryptocurrency in Criminal Justice, Harv. Tech. Rev. (Aug. 28, 2021), https://harvardtechnologyreview.com/2021/08/28/blockchain-behind-bars-the-case-for-cryptocurrency-in-criminal-justice-2/.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Graski, supra note 2.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13]  Derick Anderes et al, The Use of Blockchain within Evidence Management System, https://f.hubspotusercontent10.net/hubfs/5260862/Ebooks%20and%20Whitepapers/Blockchain%20of%20Evidence%20FINAL%20DRAFT-3.pdf.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

Image Source: https://www.smh.com.au/business/for-security-agencies-blockchain-goes-from-suspect-to-potential-solution-20171203-gzxq2j.html