National Dragnet Is a Click Away
Thursday, March 6, 2008
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."
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.