Police use it to identify missing children. Emergency responders search it for equipment to prepare for terrorist attacks. Detectives mine it for investigative resources. Law enforcement officials of all ranks depend on it to trade sensitive information with colleagues across the United States and Canada.

The resource they share is LEO (Law Enforcement Online), a secure intranet sponsored by the FBI. In operation since 1996, LEO is currently broadening its reach as the FBI implements new security software to create a virtual private network (VPN).

Until recently, authorized users could access LEO free of charge, but only by installing special software on their computers and dialing a toll-free number. As the FBI rolls out the VPN, registered users will be able to access LEO from any computer connected to the Web. Software from V-One Corp. of Germantown, Md., will ensure that the flow of information reaches only authorized users.

Potentially, the VPN could expand the conversation about LEO to law enforcement officials worldwide. It will also make the system available to mobile users with portable computers and wireless modems, said James Summerford, a supervisory agent and LEO program manager with the FBI in Washington, D.C.

The FBI operates LEO through a joint partnership with the Center for Advanced Support in Technology for Law Enforcement at Louisiana State University and Science Applications International Corp. in McLean, Va. As of last October, LEO had more than 26,000 users, of which 70 percent were state and local law enforcement officials. Services provided within the secure environment of LEO include e-mail, newsgroups, chat rooms, special interest groups, an online library of law enforcement publications and distance-learning modules.

Locating Missing Children

At the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), LEO offers a way to share information that is too sensitive to place on the organizations public Web site. The text and photographs posted on NCMECs Web site represent only those missing-children cases for which the organization has obtained releases and met other legal

criteria, said Bud Gaylord, director of NCMECs case analysis and support division in Alexandria, Va.

But NCMEC usually has between 5,000 and 5,400 active cases in its database, and the organization wants to make information about all of them available to police. "Weve never had a venue before where we could [share information] that was closed within the law enforcement community," said Gaylord.

NCMEC also uses LEO to distribute information about the training courses and free resources it provides. In addition, the FBIs system provides the backbone for the

Lost Child Alert Technology Resource, a new program to help state and local law enforcement agencies exchange information about abducted children and endangered runaways.

Under an initial $5 million grant from Congress, NCMEC plans this year to distribute 2,000 computers -- along with scanners, monitors, color printers and software -- to law enforcement agencies. Police will use the systems to create posters of children missing from their jurisdictions and upload them to a special area within LEO. "Then agencies can just reach out and grab those and bring them down," said Gaylord.

NCMEC already creates posters for police departments, but the process isnt always smooth. "The problem has been trying to get good-quality photographs to us quickly," said Gaylord. The quality of computer and imaging equipment varies from one agency to another, and the ability to make posters might depend on the expertise of a single person in an agency. Distributing equipment and providing communications over LEO may help standardize some of that, he said.

Better Information, Better Protection

For officials who guard their communities against explosives, chemical weapons and other terrorist threats, LEO is a valuable tool, said Tom Kinnally, administrator at the National Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO) in Washington, D.C. The NDPO provides a

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer