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Risks of Evidentiary Software

Over at Lawfare, Susan Landau has an excellent essay on the risks posed by software used to collect evidence (a Breathalyzer is probably the most obvious example).

Bugs and vulnerabilities can lead to inaccurate evidence, but the proprietary nature of software makes it hard for defendants to examine it.

The software engineers proposed a three-part test. First, the court should have access to the “Known Error Log,” which should be part of any professionally developed software project. Next the court should consider whether the evidence being presented could be materially affected by a software error. Ladkin and his co-authors noted that a chain of emails back and forth are unlikely to have such an error, but the time that a software tool logs when an application was used could easily be incorrect. Finally, the reliability experts recommended seeing whether the code adheres to an industry standard used in an non-computerized version of the task (e.g., bookkeepers always record every transaction, and thus so should bookkeeping software).

[…]

Inanimate objects have long served as evidence in courts of law: the door handle with a fingerprint, the glove found at a murder scene, the Breathalyzer result that shows a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. But the last of those examples is substantively different from the other two. Data from a Breathalyzer is not the physical entity itself, but rather a software calculation of the level of alcohol in the breath of a potentially drunk driver. As long as the breath sample has been preserved, one can always go back and retest it on a different device.

What happens if the software makes an error and there is no sample to check or if the software itself produces the evidence? At the time of our writing the article on the use of software as evidence, there was no overriding requirement that law enforcement provide a defendant with the code so that they might examine it themselves.

[…]

Given the high rate of bugs in complex software systems, my colleagues and I concluded that when computer programs produce the evidence, courts cannot assume that the evidentiary software is reliable. Instead the prosecution must make the code available for an “adversarial audit” by the defendant’s experts. And to avoid problems in which the government doesn’t have the code, government procurement contracts must include delivery of source code­ — code that is more-or-less readable by people — ­for every version of the code or device.

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