Legal-technological cross-disciplinary collaboration: Blockchain-applied Judicial Alliance for Digital Era enhances credibility of digital evidence

Apple Lin, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Justice minister Ching-Hsiang Tsai. Credit: DIGITIMES

While the rapid progress of technology has made people's lives more comfortable, it has also led to increasingly sophisticated crimes. As the guardian of the rule of law, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has continued to embrace digital transformation in recent years, harnessing the power of technology to strengthen its crime detection capabilities. The blockchain-applied Judicial Alliance for Digital Era (b-JADE) was launched in mid-2022, leveraging the National Center for High-Performance Computing's (NCHC) IT infrastructure to bestow digital evidence with a higher level of credibility while reducing litigation costs.

Minister of justice Ching-Hsiang Tsai warned that the advent of digital technologies will inevitably bring new challenges to Taiwan's law enforcement and justice systems. He further explained that there are currently three different types of criminal evidence - traditional, digital, and cloud evidence. Digital evidence is characterized by the fact that it can be easily tampered with or recovered, which makes verifying its integrity a serious problem. Currently, there are two challenges in verifying the integrity of digital evidence. Firstly, digital evidence is easy to tamper with or forge. Even after an examination by the authority, its authenticity cannot be readily determined. Secondly, the process of verifying digital evidence is time-consuming and requires a significant amount of court time. Particularly for complex cases, such a process can take even longer.

Responding to the National Conference on Judicial Reform, the decentralized nature of blockchain lends more credibility to evidence

b-JADE is a concrete response to the resolutions of the plenary session of the National Conference on Judicial Reform regarding evidence custody. It aims to create a more comprehensive and thorough system of evidence custody and post-conviction evidence preservation. Currently, the Department of Prosecutorial Affairs of MOJ is acting as the secretarial unit for b-JADE to collaborate with other agencies in establishing a digital evidence custody system. b-JADE ensures the credibility of evidence by maintaining a tight and unbroken chain of custody, with blockchain technology playing a key role in this process.

During Tsai's tenure as the director general of MOJ's Investigation Bureau in 2019, the cases of cryptocurrency money laundering saw a steady increase. The bureau was then instructed to further investigate such criminal acts and find ways to seize digital evidence. It was quickly noted that the underlying technology of cryptocurrency is blockchain. Tsai therefore realized that the judicial system could also leverage the decentralized, non-alterable, and perpetual nature of blockchain technology to verify whether digital evidence has been tampered with to meet the courts' requirements for authenticity.

b-JADE, whose underpinning technology is blockchain technology, was established by five different founding members: the Judicial Yuan, MOJ, the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office, the National Policy Agency of the Ministry of the Interior, and the Investigation Bureau. Tsai stressed that these five founding institutions cover the entire process of handling evidence - from its collection by judicial police officers, to authentication, verification, and final presentation in court. Aside from complying with existing procedures regarding the chain of custody, each institution must also deposit digital evidence in b-JADE. This evidence is then simultaneously registered and jointly verified by five blockchain nodes.

Unlike other public and private blockchains, b-JADE adopts a system architecture of a consortium blockchain, boasting five main features. All participants are members of b-JADE, who can benefit from the semi-centralized structure, openness of information, consensus governance, as well as optimal efficiency and cost of evidence management. These five features immensely enhance both the credibility and management efficiency of evidence. Tsai also pointed out that NCHC played a key role in establishing b-JADE, and provided many recommendations in the course of its establishment.

The first step when establishing b-JADE was to reach a consensus among its members. Afterward, with the assistance of the Science and Technology Law Institute, the members are conferred the b-JADE label, providing them with the mandate and capabilities in formulating the digital standards collaboratively. The next step was to leverage the expertise and experience of NCHC to build a suitable IT infrastructure. Tsai said that currently, there are five members utilizing b-JADE, and as the operational mechanism matures, the number will increase in the future. Therefore, the underlying IT infrastructure must be robust and flexible enough.

Leveraging the expertise and experience of NCHC to build a highly resilient b-JADE

In the past, NCHC had successfully implemented the Blockchain for Smart Campuses Pilot Program of Taichung City, personnel reward and punishment decree of the Directorate-General of Personnel Administration of the Executive Yuan, anti-forgery and storage of electronic documents of the Department of Information Technology of the Judicial Yuan, and the electronics research logbook and the blockchain integrated system for the National Applied Research Laboratories (NARLabs). Therefore, NCHC's expertise and experience are well recognized by the members of b-JADE. Throughout the process of promoting b-JADE, the NCHC team also fully demonstrated its years of experience in cross-industrial and cross-departmental cooperation. The initial proof of concept (POC) was conducted by establishing two mock nodes for the Investigation Bureau and MOJ, and connecting to a mock outsourced node from NCHC. After a successful test run, the framework was expanded, and the full b-JADE was established.

In addition to technological expertise and experience in implementing IT systems, there was another consideration for collaborating with NCHC, that is, if b-JADE were funded and maintained entirely by one government agency, its control would undoubtedly reside in the agency only. Therefore, a system architecture of a consortium blockchain was selected. In this system, individual agencies can set up blockchain nodes, with each agency bearing the cost of maintaining them individually. Subsequently, considering the setup and maintenance costs, the agencies may make use of NCHC's infrastructure and outsource the nodes. This can increase the number of participating members and thus enhance the system's credibility, which will meet the goal of establishing high credibility for b-JADE.

As for the future, short, medium, and long-term goals for b-JADE has been formulated. The short-term goals are to establish an infrastructure plan, assess the urgent need for digital evidence verification in judicial practice, conduct a pilot evaluation, as well as launching the b-JADE personnel certification and conducting blockchain education and training. The medium-term goal is to promote digital data applications. Finally, the long-term goal is to perform integration with physical evidence.

In addition to enhancing the credibility and management efficiency of evidence, b-JADE could be applied in other ways as well, such as protecting the creative works of the Ministry of Culture or supporting the enforcement of the Trade Secrets Act. Furthermore, it could become more important after the implementation of the Citizen Judges Act, where the courts could order the verification of digital evidence and digital dossiers. In the future, the b-JADE team will proactively assess the need for blockchain technology implementation, and develop complementary legal and technical solutions to achieve a greater judicial multiplier effect in the existing legal system and evidence management.

Tsai concluded by reiterating that MOJ is the guardian of the rule of law and that its system and practices must be up-to-date. As such, he pushed for a "technologized" MOJ at the beginning of his term. With the proliferation of cryptocurrency money laundering and cybercrime in recent years, MOJ must keep up with the changing times by amending the legislation. b-JADE is a concrete exhibition of this effort. Tsai believes that the cooperation between two highly competent institutions, i.e., MOJ and NCHC, will lead to a win-win situation for both legal and technological dimensions, ultimately better protecting internet security and privacy of the people in the digital age.