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New York cops testing Big Brother crime-data Android app

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Watch out, crooks! The New York Police Department is trying out a new weapon in the war on crime – namely, putting its own intelligence in the hands of patrol officers.

As The New York Times reports, the NYPD has issued around 400 specialized Android smartphones to officers as part of a pilot program begun last summer.

The phones – somewhat inaptly named, since they can't actually make phone calls – give beat cops instant access to a variety of law enforcement databases, arming them with an array of information that you probably thought they had already.

Example? Let's suppose an officer detains a suspicious character. You'd imagine that the suspect's past criminal record would be useful information to have, no? Sorry – with the traditional radio-based system, that kind of data just isn't available.

"Our dispatcher will tell us if they have a warrant or not but it's a simple yes or no answer," Officer Tom Donaldson told the NYT. "I don't know if the guy is wanted for murder or for not paying a parking summons. We rarely know."

All of that changes with the NYPD's new smartphone app. For the first time, patrol officers have wireless access to suspects' criminal histories, mug shots, Department of Motor Vehicles records, and more.

In one case, Officer Donaldson said, an officer was able to call up a memo explaining that a particular suspect was known to police to carry crack cocaine "in his left sock."

The app can even cross-reference evidence databases – letting officers know whether an individual has been a victim of a crime, for example, or has been in a car accident.

"They can't tell me a lie because I know everything," Officer Donaldson said.

And that's just the information that's available on one person. When officers enter a street address, a veritable cornucopia of data becomes available.

For a single apartment building, the app will tell officers which residents have criminal records, which have open warrants, which are on parole, which are registered gun owners, and which have been involved in domestic violence calls – all with photos, when available.

It will tell them how many arrests have taken place in the building recently, for which crimes, and on which floors. It will even tell them the locations of any surveillance cameras in the area, whether they are located in the building itself or at a business across the street.

"You can see that in this one 14-story building there are thousands and thousands of records," Officer Donaldson said.

Officers already had access to some of this information via laptops mounted in their patrol cars. But those devices get their connectivity from New York City's government-dedicated wireless network, which can be slow and spotty compared to modern, public mobile data networks.

What's more, the in-car systems can't cross-reference multiple databases, the way the smartphone app does. Officers must login and query each database separately.

The NYPD isn't the only police department looking to modernize its information infrastructure. In June 2012, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr announced a similar project aimed at creating a mobile version of the SFPD's Crime Data Warehouse, in partnership with HP and app development studio ArcTouch.

But while such systems show great promise for law enforcement, they also bring new worries. Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the NYT that she was concerned that the NYPD's new app might "become a vehicle to round up the usual suspects, to harass people."

Here at El Reg we had another thought: Just what happens when one of these devices is lost or stolen? Or, what might one cost to buy? ®

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