No techno fix for crime or terrorism cops
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada The Tamil Tigers were early adopters of the Web, and use their deep knowledge of search engines to help drown out their critics. al-Qaeda sleeper cells set up online chat rooms to keep in touch. Drug dealers were among the first and most exuberant users of cell phones and pagers.
Law enforcement also uses increasingly networked tools to combat criminal activities, but they can’t just google their way through a single mass database searching for patterns of criminal acvitity.
"Even within the United Kingdom there are a number of databases," says Detective Inspector Terry Pearce, a member of the anti-terrorism squad of the Metropolitan Police. “You could check three and you could think: ‘That’s exhausted it.’ Whereas you haven’t exhausted it and it might come on the fourth of fifth.”
The problem is further compounded by national borders: “Bridges are being built at the moment with the different European countries to try and cut down on the number of databases that you would have to check to satisfy yourself that have searched every database for that particular individual, or for that particular piece of information.”
But DI Pearce says a single database, or even a single entry point to all of that intelligence data out there, isn’t going to happen any day soon.
“It’s something that is being considered at the moment, but you never are going to have utopia,” he said in an interview following his presentation at crime and terrorism conference organized by the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick.
Dr. David Charters, the centre’s director, recently completed a study of information flow involving law enforcement and public safety officials in Canada’s four Atlantic provinces: New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland / Labrador.
“There are a whole range of issues, including acess,” he says. “Who do you share with? How widely do you share? What do you share? Can you do that and maintain security?”
He said his research also uncovered serious technical barriers to information and intelligence exchange. “It’s pervasive throughout government,” he said.
Peter Gill, a leading British scholar and author on intelligence and security issues, said even if it was technically possible to link all of these islands of information together into one Great Big Database, it would be pointless.
“GIGO still applies,” he says. “Garbage in, garbage out. It’s still the dominant rule of computer systems.”
Gill says the further the information is from its source, the more likely it’s simply wrong.
“It would be unmanageable,” DI Pearce agrees, and also notes concerns about security leaks and the age-old problem of jurisdictional jealousy: “People would still hold their best intelligence back, which is the biggest fear.”
Meantime, most of those in the crime and terrorism fighting business, can’t rely on the old, re-active way of doing business: “A bomb had gone off, there was a hole in the ground. You then had to do an investigation to find out who did it.”
All that changed since September 11th.
“We’ve got to take a proactive approach, rather than wait for it to happen.”
DI Pearce says technology can help, and points to the widely advertised, toll free, anti-terrorism telephone line that generates dozens of tips each week. “That’s been a great success,” he says.
The conference attracted delegates from more than a dozen countries, including US, Romania, China, Haiti, Panama and the UK, among others.
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