Keeping Bobbies ahead of the bunch
European Police Congress For two days this week, the Congress Centre in downtown Berlin was one of the safest places on earth. The GDR-style building was packed with policemen, army officers, and private and public security experts.
Uniform-wearers from various countries loitered in the lobby, talking about their problems with informers and sharing anecdotes, while chain-smoking men in trenchcoats (honestly) wandered from stall to stall, taking detailed notes. Involuntarily, one felt intimidated by the sheer number of potential protectors.
The European Police Congress is mainly a trade fair, sponsored by T Systems, EADS, and SAP, among others. Police from various countries, including Albania and Sudan, had a look at the latest in security equipment.
The overarching theme of this year's gathering of "the international security community" was counter-terrorism - something the normal copper on the street luckily has little experience with. They were more interested in gadgets like a new thermal imager, which allows law enforcers to detect people in the dark or in camouflage.
Locked and loaded
The infrared camera has a digital zoom function, perfect for "long-range night time surveillance", as the manufacturers put it.
Another hot topic was how to secure police weapons against unauthorised use – if, in the future, a criminal steals a policeman's gun, it should be virtually impossible for him to use it.
A German producer of digital security systems for firearms has launched a blocking device that is inserted into the barrel and can only be removed with a pin and/or fingerprint authentication. The biometric interface can be worn around the wrist, and transmits the authentication signal via radiowave propagation.
But thermal imaging and guns apart, the law enforcement world has many similarities with the corporate world.
Apparently, the key recent innovations have more to do with the background IT systems, than with the mobile equipment. Using digital radio transmission, police on the street can have direct access to databases. The West Yorkshire police now uses Blackberry handheld computers in a pilot scheme, and alternative devices are becoming more and more common.
The advantages are clear: a picture from a suspect, taken by a CCTV camera, for example, can be sent to all PCs participating in the manhunt, number plates can be cross-checked to identify suspects.
But, in the real world, the integration into an information network is a double-edged sword. Not only do policemen in action have problems filtering the available data, apparently they sometimes start using it in unwanted ways, especially in crisis situations.
During a panel session, one officer complained that a warning about a certain individual often leads to misinterpretation of the situation on the spot, and can then result in overreactions. And if information indicates that a certain area is dangerous, some officers apparently prefer to take their time. The tricky problem for operational headquarters becomes how to give officers on duty exactly the right amount of information - not too much, and not too little.
IO, IO, IO
The probable solution is different levels of access. Every member of staff logs on to the same system, but gets a different user surface. Security strategists in Berlin stressed that this "role concept" will be vital.
One can gauge how the police's future in the digital world might look like by a visit to the web presence of the Federal police force in Baden-Württemberg. The "knowledge portal" combines e-learning programmes with specialist portals ("Operations, Transport, Crime").
Access is restricted to serving members of staff, who get their own personalised website – which actually does look a bit like MySpace. In practice, Police 2.0 means that policemen working on "inquiry projects" can be grouped "dynamically", without them being in the same place, or even the same unit. Information from various sources is then sent to them according to their profile.
For the police, information superiority is becoming more and more decisive. But, with the dissemination of ICT, knowing more than the criminals has become difficult. In Berlin, when the BlackBerry sales promoter stressed that is virtually impossible to eavesdrop the communication, one disappointed-sounding police officer asked: "Does that mean your customers already have that?"
Well, probably yes. ®