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Balancing collaborative information sharing with the maintenance of privacy

Memex : 10 December, 2009  (Technical Article)
Stephen Serrao of Memex examines the benefits of cross-agency automated information sharing and retrieval systems whilst respecting rights to privacy of information
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For decades, police and other government agencies have documented their interactions with citizens - whether they take the form of helping a stranded motorist, offering first aid or responding to a crime - as a matter of procedure. Historically, this documentation was performed on paper. The main purpose of this record-keeping was just that, record-keeping. A secondary and often overlooked use for all of this information has been to detect and identify aberrant behaviour or anomalies that may support planned or ongoing criminal activity.

Traditionally, police have been lawfully permitted to collect data and share such information with other law enforcement officials while being judicious about revealing details that could jeopardise a criminal investigation.

It wasn't until the computerisation of police record keeping, however, that privacy concerns among civil libertary advocates and privacy groups arose to a much greater extent. Law enforcement officials can now search and retrieve information much easier and faster with CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) systems and RMS (Record Management Systems) systems supported by powerful, sophisticated software. The speed and accuracy with which police can now search repositories of information on criminals, suspects and victims, however, is disagreeable to some groups because they fear innocent people may, inadvertently or through unprofessional police practice, become objects of suspicion.

Yet as has been demonstrated time and time again in the post-9/11 world, information sharing between law enforcement officials provides the ability to detect patterns. The more information that police officers have to discern patterns of activity, the more likely they are to interdict, prevent and solve crimes that occur in their jurisdictions. From my perspective, there is nothing but positives that can come out of sharing and accessing information across jurisdictional boundaries.

The FBI's new National Data Exchange (N-DEX) criminal justice information-sharing program is facilitating this detection by enabling police jurisdictions across the country to share incident-based data with each other - information to which they would not normally have access.

In other words, the proactive detection of criminal activity is achievable by using sophisticated software searching for the proverbial needle in the information haystack. Law enforcement now has a "big magnet" which can literally pull that needle right out of the haystack.

Privacy and civil rights groups, for their part, want to restrict and control how much of that data police are saving, storing and searching because they fear overzealous officers, investigators and the FBI will abuse this access and make suspects of innocent people.

But the privacy rights and civil liberties of individuals are much less likely to be violated with the automation of information. Here's why.

Through automation, information can be searched in a way that mitigates personal bias. In some circles, police work is deemed successful because of the relationships between law enforcement officials in different areas. But officer-to-officer relationships can introduce personal biases, which can infringe on privacy rights.

The objective access to data, however - coupled with a valid, logical and competent police investigation - is the best practice for solving crimes. Investigations should never come down to personal relationships.

There are systems in place all over private industry that make evaluations and judgments based on objective examination of personal data (eg credit reporting bureaus) and that should be standard police practice too. The data speaks for itself. With automation, proper training and other safeguards in place, fewer abuses will occur.

In all of this, law enforcement officials have never suggested that information should be shared outside of the law enforcement community with private entities, or in violation of any existing privacy statutes.

That's where abuses can be introduced because of the profit motive. The only exception would be the limited sharing of critical information with private organizations responsible for safeguarding infrastructure, such as tunnels or buildings - and only when the standard of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity has been met.

The detection of crime and the protection of civil liberties need not be in conflict. The automation of law enforcement record-keeping and use of sophisticated technology will help police organizations prevent crimes while respecting individual rights.

Captain Stephen Serrao is a former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism Bureau Chief, and now helps shape the direction of intelligence management software as Director of Product Management, Americas Region for Memex, a worldwide provider of intelligence management, data integration, search and analysis solutions.
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