Privacy SOS

Department of Justice to fund research into detecting encrypted traffic, artificial intelligence in law enforcement

The Department of Justice’s research arm, the National Institute for Justice, has announced $2 million in funding for “research to apply advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies to support law enforcement in preventing, responding to, and investigating gang violence, human and drug trafficking, migrant smuggling, opioid trafficking, and/or child pornography.”

The grant solicitation describes what NIJ is looking for in each category of research, placing emphasis on data mining (to make sense of the huge quantities of data US government agencies monitor and collect on a daily basis) and encrypted traffic analysis:

Crimes such as gang violence, migrant smuggling, and human and opioid trafficking generate volumes of data resulting from the use of various communications and social media technologies by gang members, traffickers, smugglers; and financial transactions related to illicit activities. Additional data sources include news media reports of crimes, epidemiological data, and criminal justice administrative records, among other sources. With this solicitation, NIJ seeks proposals for R&D projects that bring advances in AI technologies to bear on the analysis of these data, in order to provide investigative leads to enable law enforcement agencies in the United States to prevent and better respond to gang violence and victimization, as well as to disrupt migrant smuggling networks, and to disrupt human and opioid trafficking networks.

Encryption poses a major challenge to law enforcement in its efforts to combat child pornography. According to the 2016 United States Department of Justice’s National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction, “[r]eadily available, easy-to-use, often built-in encryption thwarts the collection and analysis of critical evidence in child sexual exploitation cases. Even with proper legal process, law enforcement often is unable to obtain the evidence on an encrypted device, allowing an offender to escape justice.” With this solicitation, NIJ seeks proposals for R&D projects that examine the potential for developing technologies that can distinguish a contraband file through its encrypted container — without breaking encryption — with a sufficient degree of certainty to support probable cause for a court order to unlock the device, based on the encryption pattern of a particular file type.

Of course, any technologies developed with NIJ funding in response to these solicitations could later be used to further investigations related to First Amendment protected political expression or other non-criminal activities. A technology developed to help law enforcement analyze data in drug trafficking cases can just as easily be deployed against Black Lives Matter, while tech enabling law enforcement to identify types of encrypted communications could be used to detect child pornography or whistleblower communications.

The NIJ solicitation suggests that applicants consider working with a law enforcement agency as a partner in their research. The goal of the project is not only to solicit new research, but to “introduce[e] the rapidly evolving artificial intelligence research community to criminal justice challenges,” and to “support development of innovative, new AI-based tools for criminal justice agencies – particularly at the State and local level.”

Applications are due to NIJ on April 28, 2018.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.