Data sharing among local, state, and federal law enforcement grows

Published 10 March 2008

The 9/11 attacks demonstrated the need for more information and intelligence sharing among law enforcement services a the local, state, and federal levels; more and more intelligence sharing systems are being put in place by private companies to help law enforcement cope with — and meaningfully and effectively use — the vast new sources of data now open to them; privacy advocates worry

Several thousand law enforcement agencies are creating the foundation of a domestic intelligence system through computer networks which analyze vast amounts of police information to fight crime and root out terror plots. The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Ellen Nakashima write that as federal authorities struggled to meet information-sharing mandates after the 9/11 attacks, police agencies across the United States 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.

O’Harrow and Nakashima point out that Americans have become accustomed to seeing dazzling examples of fictional crime-busting gear on television and in movies, but 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, developed by Tucson, Arizona-based Knowledge Computing. 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. “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