National Dragnet Is a Click Away
Authorities to Gain Fast and Expansive Access to Records
By Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Several thousand law enforcement agencies are creating the foundation of a
domestic intelligence system through computer networks that analyze vast amounts
of police information to fight crime and root out terror plots.
As federal authorities struggled to meet information-sharing mandates after
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police agencies from Alaska and California
to the Washington region poured millions of criminal and investigative records
into shared digital repositories called data warehouses, giving investigators
and analysts new power to discern links among people, patterns of behavior and
other hidden clues.
Those network efforts will begin expanding further this month, as some local
and state agencies connect to a fledgling Justice Department system called the
National Data Exchange, or N-DEx. Federal authorities hope N-DEx will become
what one called a "one-stop shop" enabling federal law enforcement,
counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to automatically examine the enormous
caches of local and state records for the first time.
Although Americans have become accustomed to seeing dazzling examples of fictional
crime-busting gear on television and in movies, law enforcement’s search for
clues has in reality involved a mundane mix of disjointed computers, legwork
These new systems are transforming that process. "It’s going from the
horse-and-buggy days to the space age, that’s what it’s like," said Sgt.
Chuck Violette of the Tucson police department, one of almost 1,600 law enforcement
agencies that uses a commercial data-mining system called Coplink.
With Coplink, police investigators can pinpoint suspects by searching on scraps
of information such as nicknames, height, weight, color of hair and the placement
of a tattoo. They can find hidden relationships among suspects and instantly
map links among people, places and events. Searches that might have taken weeks
or months — or which might not have been attempted, because of the amount of
paper and analysis involved — are now done in seconds.
On one recent day, Tucson detective Cynthia Butierez demonstrated that power
in an office littered with paper and boxes of equipment. Using a regular desktop
computer and Web browser, she logged onto Coplink to search for clues about
a fraud suspect. She entered a name the suspect used on a bogus check. A second
later, a list of real names came up, along with five incident reports.
She told the system to also search data warehouses built by Coplink in San
Diego and Orange County, Calif. — which have agreements to share with Tucson
— and came up with the name of a particular suspect, his age and a possible
address. She asked the software to find the suspect’s links to other people
and incidents, and then to create a visual chart displaying the findings. Up
popped a display with the suspect at the center and cartoon-like images of houses,
buildings and people arrayed around him. A final click on one of the houses
brought up the address of an apartment and several new names, leads she could
"The power behind what we have discovered, what we can do with Coplink,
is immense," Tucson police Chief Richard Miranda said. "The kinds
of things you saw in the movies then, we’re actually doing now."
The expanding police systems illustrate the prominent roles that private companies
play in homeland security and counterterrorism efforts. They also underscore
how the use of new data — and data surveillance — technology to fight crime
and terrorism is evolving faster than the public’s understanding or the laws
intended to check government power and protect civil liberties, authorities
Three decades ago, Congress imposed limits on domestic intelligence activity
after revelations that the FBI, Army, local police and others had misused their
authority for years to build troves of personal dossiers and monitor political
activists and other law-abiding Americans.
Since those reforms, police and federal authorities have observed a wall between
law enforcement information-gathering, relating to crimes and prosecutions,
and more open-ended intelligence that relates to national security and counterterrorism.
That wall is fast eroding following the passage of laws expanding surveillance
authorities, the push for information-sharing networks, and the expectation
that local and state police will play larger roles as national security sentinels.
Law enforcement and federal security authorities said these developments, along
with a new willingness by police to share information, hold out the promise
of fulfilling post-Sept. 11, 2001, mandates to connect the dots and root out
signs of threats before attacks can occur.
"A guy that’s got a flat tire outside a nuclear facility in one location
means nothing," said Thomas E. Bush III, the FBI’s assistant director of
the criminal justice information services division. "Run the guy and he’s
had a flat tire outside of five nuclear facilities and you have a clue."
In a paper called "Intelligence-Led Policing: The New Intelligence Architecture,"
law enforcement authorities working with the Justice Department said officers
" ‘on the beat’ are an excellent resource for gathering information on
all kinds of potential threats and vulnerabilities."
"Despite the many definitions of ‘intelligence’ that have been promulgated
over the years, the simplest and clearest of these is ‘information plus analysis
equals intelligence,’ " the paper said.
Efforts by federal authorities to create national networks have had mixed success.
The federal government has long successfully operated programs such as the
Regional Information Sharing System, which enables law enforcement agencies
to communicate, and the National Crime Information Center, an index of criminal
justice information that police across the country can access. Though successful,
those systems offer a relatively limited look at existing records.
A Department of Homeland Security project to expand sharing substantially,
called the Information Network, has been bedeviled by cost overruns, poor planning
and ambivalence on the part of local and state authorities, according to the
Government Accountability Office. Almost every state has established organizations
known as intelligence fusion centers to collect, analyze and share information
about possible leads. But many of those centers are underfunded and undermanned,
and some of the analysts are not properly trained, the GAO said last year.
Federal authorities have high hopes for the N-DEx system, which is to begin
phasing in as early as this month. They envision a time when N-DEx, developed
by Raytheon for $85 million, will enable 200,000 state and local investigators,
as well as federal counterterrorism investigators, to search across millions
of police reports, in some 15,000 state and local agencies, with a few clicks
of a computer mouse. Those reports will include names of suspects, associates,
victims, persons of interest, witnesses and any other person named in an incident,
arrest, booking, parole or probation report.
The system will be accessible to federal law-enforcement agencies, such as
the FBI, and state fusion centers. Intelligence analysts at the National Counterterrorism
Center and FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Center likely will have access to
the system as well.
"The goal is to create a one-stop shop for criminal justice information,"
the FBI’s Bush said.
In the meantime, local and state authorities have charged ahead with their
own networks, sometimes called "nodes," and begun stitching them together
through legal agreements and electronic links.
At least 1,550 jurisdictions across the country use Coplink systems, through
some three dozen nodes. That’s a huge increase from 2002, when Coplink was first
At least 400 other agencies are sharing information and doing link analysis
through the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or Linx, a Navy Criminal Investigative
Service project built by Northrop Grumman using commercial technology. Linx
users include more than 100 police forces in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
Hundreds of other police agencies across the country are using different information-sharing
systems with varying capabilities. Officials in Ohio have created a data warehouse
containing the police records of nearly 800 jurisdictions, while leaving it
to local departments to provide analytical tools.
Same Data, New Results
Authorities are aware that all of this is unsettling to people worried about
privacy and civil liberties. Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who
is now a security consultant for FTI Consulting, said that the mining of police
information by intelligence agencies could lead to improper targeting of U.S.
citizens even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
Some officials avoid using the term intelligence because of those sensitivities.
Others are open about their aim to use information and technology in new ways.
One widely used Coplink product is called Intel Lead. It enables agencies to
enter new information, tips or observations into the data warehouses, which
can then be accessed by people with proper authority. Another service under
development, called "predictor," would use data and software to make
educated guesses about what could happen.
"Intel Lead is particularly applicable to the needs of statewide criminal
intelligence and antiterrorism fusion centers as well as federal agencies who
need to bridge the intelligence gap," said a news release by Knowledge
Computing, the company that makes Coplink.
Robert Griffin, the chief executive of Knowledge Computing, said Coplink yields
clues and patterns they otherwise would not see. "It’s de facto intelligence
that’s actionable," Griffin said.
Managers of Linx are eager to distinguish their system from the commercial
Coplink and its more extensive capabilities. They acknowledge their system includes
data-analysis capabilities, and it will feed information to counterterrorism
and intelligence authorities. In fact, the system is designed to serve as a
bridge between law enforcement and intelligence.
But they said Linx is not an intelligence system under federal laws, because
it relies on records police have always kept. "It does not create intelligence,"
said Michael Dorsey, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent
in charge. "It creates knowledge."
To allay the public’s fears, many police agencies segregate information collected
in the process of enforcing the law from intelligence gathered on gangs, drug
dealers and the like. Projects receiving federal funding must do so.
Nearly every state and local jurisdiction has its own guides for these new
systems, rules that include restrictions intended to protect against police
intrusiveness, authorities said. The systems also automatically keep track of
how police use them.
N-DEx, too, will have restrictions aimed at preventing the abuse of the data
it gathers. FBI officials said that agencies seeking access to N-DEx would be
vetted, and that only authorized individuals would have access. Audit trails
on whoever touches a piece of data would be kept. And no investigator would
be allowed to take action — make an arrest, for instance — based on another
agency’s data without first checking with that agency.
But even some advocates of information-sharing technology worry that without
proper oversight and enforceable restrictions the new networks pose a threat
to basic American values by giving police too much power over information. Timothy
Sample, a former intelligence official who runs the Intelligence and National
Security Alliance, is among those who think computerized information-sharing
is critical to national security but fraught with risks.
"As a nation, our laws have not kept up," said Sample, whose group
serves as a professional association of intelligence officials in the government
and intelligence contracting executives in the private sector.
Thomas McNamara, chief of the federal Information Sharing Environment office,
said a top goal of federal officials is persuading regional systems to adopt
most of the federal rules, both for privacy and to build a sense of confidence
among law enforcement authorities who might be reluctant to share widely because
of security concerns.
"Part of the challenge is to leverage these cutting-edge tools so we can
securely and appropriately share that information which supports efforts to
protect our communities from future terrorist attacks," McNamara said.
"Equally important is that we do so in a manner that fully protects the
information privacy and legal rights of all Americans."
Miranda, the Tucson police chief, said there’s no overstating the utility of
Coplink for his force. But he too acknowledges that such power raises new questions
about how to keep it in check and ensure that the trust people place in law
enforcement is not misplaced.
"I don’t want the people in my community to feel we’re behind every little
tree and surveilling them," he said. "If there’s any kind of inkling
that we’re misusing our power and our technology, that trust will be destroyed."
Source URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/05/AR2008030503656.html