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National Dragnet Is a Click Away...

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  • brian.ions
    Here s an interesting article in today s Post on the impact of computer database networks on investigations and crime fighting... ... National Dragnet Is a
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 6, 2008
      Here's an interesting article in today's Post on the impact of computer
      database networks on investigations and crime fighting...
      ----

      National Dragnet Is a Click Away
      Authorities to Gain Fast and Expansive Access to Records

      By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Ellen Nakashima
      Washington Post Staff Writers
      Thursday, March 6, 2008; A01

      Several thousand law enforcement agencies are creating the foundation of
      a domestic intelligence system through computer networks that analyze
      vast amounts of police information to fight crime and root out terror
      plots.

      As federal authorities struggled to meet information-sharing mandates
      after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police agencies from Alaska
      and California to the Washington region poured millions of criminal and
      investigative records into shared digital repositories called data
      warehouses, giving investigators and analysts new power to discern links
      among people, patterns of behavior and other hidden clues.

      Those network efforts will begin expanding further this month, as some
      local and state agencies connect to a fledgling Justice Department
      system called the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx. Federal authorities
      hope N-DEx will become what one called a "one-stop shop" enabling
      federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to
      automatically examine the enormous caches of local and state records for
      the first time.

      Although Americans have become accustomed to seeing dazzling examples of
      fictional crime-busting gear on television and in movies, law
      enforcement's search for clues has in reality involved a mundane mix of
      disjointed computers, legwork and luck.

      These new systems are transforming that process. "It's going from the
      horse-and-buggy days to the space age, that's what it's like," said Sgt.
      Chuck Violette of the Tucson police department, one of almost 1,600 law
      enforcement agencies that uses a commercial data-mining system called
      Coplink.

      With Coplink, police investigators can pinpoint suspects by searching on
      scraps of information such as nicknames, height, weight, color of hair
      and the placement of a tattoo. They can find hidden relationships among
      suspects and instantly map links among people, places and events.
      Searches that might have taken weeks or months -- or which might not
      have been attempted, because of the amount of paper and analysis
      involved -- are now done in seconds.

      On one recent day, Tucson detective Cynthia Butierez demonstrated that
      power in an office littered with paper and boxes of equipment. Using a
      regular desktop computer and Web browser, she logged onto Coplink to
      search for clues about a fraud suspect. She entered a name the suspect
      used on a bogus check. A second later, a list of real names came up,
      along with five incident reports.

      She told the system to also search data warehouses built by Coplink in
      San Diego and Orange County, Calif. -- which have agreements to share
      with Tucson -- and came up with the name of a particular suspect, his
      age and a possible address. She asked the software to find the suspect's
      links to other people and incidents, and then to create a visual chart
      displaying the findings. Up popped a display with the suspect at the
      center and cartoon-like images of houses, buildings and people arrayed
      around him. A final click on one of the houses brought up the address of
      an apartment and several new names, leads she could follow.

      "The power behind what we have discovered, what we can do with Coplink,
      is immense," Tucson police Chief Richard Miranda said. "The kinds of
      things you saw in the movies then, we're actually doing now."
      Intelligence-Led Policing

      The expanding police systems illustrate the prominent roles that private
      companies play in homeland security and counterterrorism efforts. They
      also underscore how the use of new data -- and data surveillance --
      technology to fight crime and terrorism is evolving faster than the
      public's understanding or the laws intended to check government power
      and protect civil liberties, authorities said.

      Three decades ago, Congress imposed limits on domestic intelligence
      activity after revelations that the FBI, Army, local police and others
      had misused their authority for years to build troves of personal
      dossiers and monitor political activists and other law-abiding
      Americans.

      Since those reforms, police and federal authorities have observed a wall
      between law enforcement information-gathering, relating to crimes and
      prosecutions, and more open-ended intelligence that relates to national
      security and counterterrorism. That wall is fast eroding following the
      passage of laws expanding surveillance authorities, the push for
      information-sharing networks, and the expectation that local and state
      police will play larger roles as national security sentinels.

      Law enforcement and federal security authorities said these
      developments, along with a new willingness by police to share
      information, hold out the promise of fulfilling post-Sept. 11, 2001,
      mandates to connect the dots and root out signs of threats before
      attacks can occur.

      "A guy that's got a flat tire outside a nuclear facility in one location
      means nothing," said Thomas E. Bush III, the FBI's assistant director of
      the criminal justice information services division. "Run the guy and
      he's had a flat tire outside of five nuclear facilities and you have a
      clue."

      In a paper called "Intelligence-Led Policing: The New Intelligence
      Architecture," law enforcement authorities working with the Justice
      Department said officers " 'on the beat' are an excellent resource for
      gathering information on all kinds of potential threats and
      vulnerabilities."

      "Despite the many definitions of 'intelligence' that have been
      promulgated over the years, the simplest and clearest of these is
      'information plus analysis equals intelligence,' " the paper said.

      Efforts by federal authorities to create national networks have had
      mixed success.

      The federal government has long successfully operated programs such as
      the Regional Information Sharing System, which enables law enforcement
      agencies to communicate, and the National Crime Information Center, an
      index of criminal justice information that police across the country can
      access. Though successful, those systems offer a relatively limited look
      at existing records.

      A Department of Homeland Security project to expand sharing
      substantially, called the Information Network, has been bedeviled by
      cost overruns, poor planning and ambivalence on the part of local and
      state authorities, according to the Government Accountability Office.
      Almost every state has established organizations known as intelligence
      fusion centers to collect, analyze and share information about possible
      leads. But many of those centers are underfunded and undermanned, and
      some of the analysts are not properly trained, the GAO said last year.

      Federal authorities have high hopes for the N-DEx system, which is to
      begin phasing in as early as this month. They envision a time when
      N-DEx, developed by Raytheon for $85 million, will enable 200,000 state
      and local investigators, as well as federal counterterrorism
      investigators, to search across millions of police reports, in some
      15,000 state and local agencies, with a few clicks of a computer mouse.
      Those reports will include names of suspects, associates, victims,
      persons of interest, witnesses and any other person named in an
      incident, arrest, booking, parole or probation report.

      The system will be accessible to federal law-enforcement agencies, such
      as the FBI, and state fusion centers. Intelligence analysts at the
      National Counterterrorism Center and FBI's Foreign Terrorist Tracking
      Center likely will have access to the system as well.

      "The goal is to create a one-stop shop for criminal justice
      information," the FBI's Bush said.

      In the meantime, local and state authorities have charged ahead with
      their own networks, sometimes called "nodes," and begun stitching them
      together through legal agreements and electronic links.

      At least 1,550 jurisdictions across the country use Coplink systems,
      through some three dozen nodes. That's a huge increase from 2002, when
      Coplink was first available commercially.

      At least 400 other agencies are sharing information and doing link
      analysis through the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or Linx, a
      Navy Criminal Investigative Service project built by Northrop Grumman
      using commercial technology. Linx users include more than 100 police
      forces in the District, Virginia and Maryland.

      Hundreds of other police agencies across the country are using different
      information-sharing systems with varying capabilities. Officials in Ohio
      have created a data warehouse containing the police records of nearly
      800 jurisdictions, while leaving it to local departments to provide
      analytical tools.
      Same Data, New Results

      Authorities are aware that all of this is unsettling to people worried
      about privacy and civil liberties. Mark D. Rasch, a former federal
      prosecutor who is now a security consultant for FTI Consulting, said
      that the mining of police information by intelligence agencies could
      lead to improper targeting of U.S. citizens even when they've done
      nothing wrong.

      Some officials avoid using the term intelligence because of those
      sensitivities. Others are open about their aim to use information and
      technology in new ways.

      One widely used Coplink product is called Intel Lead. It enables
      agencies to enter new information, tips or observations into the data
      warehouses, which can then be accessed by people with proper authority.
      Another service under development, called "predictor," would use data
      and software to make educated guesses about what could happen.

      "Intel Lead is particularly applicable to the needs of statewide
      criminal intelligence and antiterrorism fusion centers as well as
      federal agencies who need to bridge the intelligence gap," said a news
      release by Knowledge Computing, the company that makes Coplink.

      Robert Griffin, the chief executive of Knowledge Computing, said Coplink
      yields clues and patterns they otherwise would not see. "It's de facto
      intelligence that's actionable," Griffin said.

      Managers of Linx are eager to distinguish their system from the
      commercial Coplink and its more extensive capabilities. They acknowledge
      their system includes data-analysis capabilities, and it will feed
      information to counterterrorism and intelligence authorities. In fact,
      the system is designed to serve as a bridge between law enforcement and
      intelligence.

      But they said Linx is not an intelligence system under federal laws,
      because it relies on records police have always kept. "It does not
      create intelligence," said Michael Dorsey, the Naval Criminal
      Investigative Service special agent in charge. "It creates knowledge."

      To allay the public's fears, many police agencies segregate information
      collected in the process of enforcing the law from intelligence gathered
      on gangs, drug dealers and the like. Projects receiving federal funding
      must do so.

      Nearly every state and local jurisdiction has its own guides for these
      new systems, rules that include restrictions intended to protect against
      police intrusiveness, authorities said. The systems also automatically
      keep track of how police use them.

      N-DEx, too, will have restrictions aimed at preventing the abuse of the
      data it gathers. FBI officials said that agencies seeking access to
      N-DEx would be vetted, and that only authorized individuals would have
      access. Audit trails on whoever touches a piece of data would be kept.
      And no investigator would be allowed to take action -- make an arrest,
      for instance -- based on another agency's data without first checking
      with that agency.

      But even some advocates of information-sharing technology worry that
      without proper oversight and enforceable restrictions the new networks
      pose a threat to basic American values by giving police too much power
      over information. Timothy Sample, a former intelligence official who
      runs the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, is among those who
      think computerized information-sharing is critical to national security
      but fraught with risks.

      "As a nation, our laws have not kept up," said Sample, whose group
      serves as a professional association of intelligence officials in the
      government and intelligence contracting executives in the private
      sector.

      Thomas McNamara, chief of the federal Information Sharing Environment
      office, said a top goal of federal officials is persuading regional
      systems to adopt most of the federal rules, both for privacy and to
      build a sense of confidence among law enforcement authorities who might
      be reluctant to share widely because of security concerns.

      "Part of the challenge is to leverage these cutting-edge tools so we can
      securely and appropriately share that information which supports efforts
      to protect our communities from future terrorist attacks," McNamara
      said. "Equally important is that we do so in a manner that fully
      protects the information privacy and legal rights of all Americans."

      Miranda, the Tucson police chief, said there's no overstating the
      utility of Coplink for his force. But he too acknowledges that such
      power raises new questions about how to keep it in check and ensure that
      the trust people place in law enforcement is not misplaced.

      "I don't want the people in my community to feel we're behind every
      little tree and surveilling them," he said. "If there's any kind of
      inkling that we're misusing our power and our technology, that trust
      will be destroyed."

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