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Home Office hands over £50m for police mobile devices

Day of the networked copper dawns

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The Home Office has finalised plans to distribute £50m in extra funding to UK police so that they can purchase 10,000 mobile, networked devices for use by plods in the field.

"We are investing in new technology to make crime fighting more effective and to save officers’ time,” said Tony McNulty, minister for cops and spooks.

“Officers who have access to databases, such as the Police National Computer ... while out on patrol, will spend less time returning to the station and more time on the frontline," added Richard Earland, CIO at the National Policing Improvement Authority. The NPIA is the body which maintains the PNC, and also the UK's biometric and DNA databases.

The Home Office invited police forces to submit bids for funding to the NPIA, with the Authority remaining "technically agnostic". The only requirement was that all the different regional plans had to conform to security standards set by the Communication Electronics Security Group (CESG) - the defensive side of the UK's secretive spook listening agency, GCHQ.

In some cases, groups of forces combined to put in common applications, but the funding will be used to purchase a range of different solutions. Some forces intend to use Blackberries, others are employing different PDAs. There are also in-car terminals planned, some of them dismountable. Data connections will include both the dedicated Home Office TETRA wireless network, and commercial solutions such as GPRS, 3G etc.

Equipment of this kind has been in service with some forces for a while. For instance, British Transport Police (BTP) officers have had GPRS-equipped handhelds since 2006, giving them access to data from the PNC, electoral roll, intelligence data etc. They even carry "slim printers", allowing BTP cops to issue legally-mandated forms to people after a stop-and-search.

Similarly, Lincolnshire scene-of-crime-officers (SOCOs, British forensics personnel) already have the ability to send in fingerprints using laptops equipped with portable scanners and 3G datacards. According to Tony O'Keefe, project manager for the collaborative bid put in by five East Midlands forces, similar digital fingerprinting kit will soon roll out elsewhere in the UK. O'Keefe doesn't see ordinary coppers - as opposed to forensics personnel - having this capability soon, however, but notes that it wouldn't be hard to do.

No data will be held in any of the new devices, with memory being emptied as soon as an officer logs off. Access security will be by password, and there are other passwords after the initial logon to get into the different applications - PNC or whatever. O'Keefe says that modern policemen have to remember even more passwords than the rest of us as a result. He's very enthusiastic about the new kit, saying that for a rural force like Lincolnshire it will save a lot of travel time and wearisome reading-out of information across voice channels.

Asked about the way ahead for the sixteen police forces who didn't get any of the £50m pie, an NPIA spokesperson confirmed to the Reg that more funding would be forthcoming for such equipment in future. ®

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