Computer technology has progressed at a fast pace over the last 10 years. Technological advancements have brought the price of powerful portable computers easily within the reach of most budgets. The notebook computer used to write this article has more computing power than the computers that helped put the first man on the moon. According to a recent survey, 37 percent of all homes in the United States now have a computer, and law enforcement agencies are rapidly becoming computerized as well.
In the past, law enforcement agencies were slow to use technology. This was primarily due to limited government budgets and the lack of a clear-cut need to make changes to existing manual systems. Now, many law enforcement agencies have computerized, and the rest are rapidly moving in that direction. Notebook computers have found their way into squad cars and have proven a great tool for writing reports. Computers are also valuable tools in the cataloging of evidence found at crime scenes and raid sites. They also make easy work of managing law enforcement evidence rooms. In some departments, computers are used to facilitate communications via e-mail, and the most progressive law enforcement agencies have created Internet Web sites to promote public relations. This is not yet the norm, and many law enforcement executives are considering for the first time how the Internet might be used by their agencies.
E-mail and other Internet features can certainly maximize the efficiency of law enforcement agencies. But some departments are hung up on whether or not potential problems outweigh potential benefits. After all, the Internet was never intended to be secure, and the perception remains that a lowlife or pervert is hiding under every "cyber rock."
True, caution should not be thrown to the wind. As with anything else that is new, proper planning and research is essential for success.
With the possible exception of an agencywide computer network, Internet e-mail is the fastest, easiest and most cost-effective means of sharing law enforcement communications. The click of a mouse can broadcast e-mail messages to one or more individuals within an agency, or even to individuals in other law enforcement agencies. If the information is sensitive, it doesn't take much extra effort to encrypt the sensitive information and attach it to an e-mail message. As long as the recipient of the message knows the password and has the ability to receive e-mail attachments, a high degree of law enforcement security can be maintained.
File encryption has proven a mixed blessing for law enforcement agencies over the last several years. In some cases, the crooks have used encryption to block law enforcement access to their communications and computer files. As a result, dealing with encrypted files has become a serious cause of hair pulling by law enforcement computer specialists. However, not everything about encryption is bad. The same technology can be used by law enforcement agencies to keep law enforcement secrets away from the criminal element. It has worked well for the military and corporations. It should work just as well for law enforcement agencies.
Military-strength file encryption software is available for government and corporate computer users from a variety of commercial sources. With e-mail attachments, the recipient doesn't even have to have a copy of the encryption program, because the sender can send the encrypted attachment as a small program run by the recipient. The only thing needed to decipher the attachment is the correct password and the ability of the recipient to receive binary attachments via e-mail. By using Internet e-mail in this fashion, law enforcement officials can easily and securely communicate using state-of-the-art technology.
Cops On The Web
Web pages are starting to become more popular in law enforcement circles. They can be used to share crime prevention information and other law enforcement communications with the public. Furthermore, the mere existence of a simple law enforcement Web site sends a clear signal to the public that the agency is modern and technologically aware. Most law enforcement computer evidence specialists have the necessary tools to create Web pages, and the cost of maintaining a site is just a few dollars a month. Some Internet service providers (ISPs) even provide free Web space as part of their services for e-mail clients. Cost should no longer be an issue for law enforcement agencies, and the time is right.
ISP or AOL?
Before intelligent decisions can be made regarding the merits of using law enforcement e-mail and Internet public relations, some areas of confusion need to be clarified. Many computer users don't fully understand the differences between ISPs and online computer services such as CompuServe and America Online. The differences are quite distinct and each have advantages and disadvantages.
An ISP essentially provides a connection or link to the Internet. The computer user normally connects to the ISP using a modem over a local or toll-free phone line. Some of these providers are small, one-man businesses that may or may not have good physical security at their computer sites. Some operate without any reliable level of computer security and leave security issues up to the user. However, ISPs usually offer the best price and, in some cities can even be obtained free of charge.
A security tour of the ISPs computer facility is normally the recommended first step for a law enforcement agency. If the facility doubles as the headquarters for the local thugs, it might be wise to move on to the next provider. But again, most Internet security concerns can be eliminated through the use of rock-solid file encryption. Many times a local ISP will also make a Web site available free of charge to law enforcement agencies that have purchased e-mail services. Such Web pages are easily created by using any one of the popular word processing programs that have HTML export capabilities. More sophisticated programs are available for under $100.
Online services are essentially huge computer networks of diverse computer users. These networks are self-contained, but also provide Internet connectivity. As with ISPs, these services are also accessed by computer users through the use of modems connected to local or toll-free, long-distance telephone lines. However, because of the nature of these large networks, there is a substantial security layer between the end user and the Internet. Online services are owned and managed by huge corporations that are security-oriented. This can be a real plus if physical security of the computer network is a concern.
Online service companies like CompuServe and America Online can be compared with television cable service providers. Cable companies provide direct access to local television channels as well as their own special channels and featured promotions like HBO and Showtime. In a similar fashion, online services give you access to the Internet along with specialized forums and other member services. Law enforcement forums on CompuServe include the Police Forum, Safetynet Forum and the Time Warner Crime Forum, to mention just a few. However, just like a cable service, add-ons can run up the cost, depending on the forum involved and the duration of access time involved.
Although a higher degree of security is provided with an online service, protection remains a concern. Any e-mail messages routed over the Internet from an online service are insecure, and file attachments can be a problem with this type of e-mail. As a result, file encryption may not be a viable safeguard unless the e-mail is routed to another user who happens to use the same online service. Also, online services do not normally provide law enforcement agencies with the ability to have their own Web sites.
Law enforcement agencies have to keep their unique needs in mind when choosing an Internet option. There are many good ISPs to choose from and there are some excellent online service providers. They all provide worldwide e-mail capabilities with varying degrees of computer security and user features. Defining the technology needs of the law enforcement agency is a good first step in the decision-making process. Also, use the expertise of the agency's computer crime unit. Usually, such computer crime specialists are experienced and well-trained on these issues. If they don't have the answers, they will have access to other computer specialists who do.
Michael R. Anderson, who retired from the IRS's Criminal Investigation Division in 1996, is internationally recognized in the fields of forensic computer science and artificial intelligence. Anderson pioneered the development of federal and international training courses that have evolved into the standards used by law enforcement agencies worldwide in the processing of computer evidence.
He also authored software applications used by law enforcement agencies in 16 countries to process evidence and to aid in the prevention of computer theft. He continues to provide software free of charge to law enforcement and the military. He is currently a consultant. Contact him at P.O. Box 929 Gresham, OR 97030.