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 single point of contact where state and local first responders can find information they need from a variety of federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense and the FBI.
Although NDPO has a public Web site, it also maintains a series of pages within LEO for its registered members, who include fire and emergency medical services (EMS) officials, as well as police. "The type of information that first responders feel needs to be kept more secure is shared on that site," Kinnally said.
Within LEO, NDPO provides secure e-mail and chat forums. The organization also uses LEO to post its monthly newsletter and special bulletins provided by its federal partners. Those bulletins helped spread the word during a rash of incidents in 1999, when people were setting off noxious smoke bombs in movie theaters around the country, said William Terry Jr., a battalion chief with the Prince Georges County, Md., Fire Department who acts as NDPOs liason with fire and EMS services. Because NDPO sent an alert, responders in Kansas City knew what they were facing when a similar attack occurred in their territory, said Terry. Information spread over LEO has also helped state and local responders deal more effectively with anthrax hoaxes, he added.
Managers at Terrys own fire department obtain NDPOs newsletters and alerts through LEO and disseminate the information to 750 career personnel and 1,000 volunteers. Recently, the departments hazardous materials leader used advice found on LEO to help shop for protective garments. Terry said he also uses LEO to send his department information he picks up while visiting other fire departments in his role as NDPO liaison.
One newsgroup within the NDPOs portion of LEO serves as a trading post for training equipment. "Its sort of eBay without any money changing hands," said Andrew Bringuel, who is in charge of information sharing and community outreach at NDPO. Communities seeking certain equipment and others with surpluses use the site to arrange exchanges.
Along with swapping equipment, state and local officials use LEO to swap insights about using the Internet in police work. Although many members of the law enforcement community attend computer classes, "theres nobody out there helping them learn to use the computer as an investigative tool," said Edward Steenberg, a retired deputy chief whose career included 35 years with the St. Paul, Minn., Police Department.
Steenberg addresses the Internet knowledge gap with a weekly column he publishes and archives on LEO. Drawing on an ever-growing list of more than 2,000 Web sites, he points officers and investigators toward sources of information that can help them do their jobs.
For example, said Steenberg, an officer in a rural county applying to a judge for a search warrant might be looking for supporting information. "I can give you a couple of Internet sites where you can download a picture of that area, so if you submit it with your affidavit, it will show not only the buildings, but all the fence lines [and] the local roads."
Steenbergs list of resources grows as readers e-mail him with new suggestions.
The security LEO provides isnt essential in the case of every column Steenberg writes, but for some its essential. For example, to help bomb squad technicians contact one another, he provides a list of Web sites maintained by their local organizations. "Im not sure those technicians would want that information out there [on the Internet]," he said.
He also points law enforcement officials toward Web sites where they can get a handle on criminal activities. After the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, police wanted to examine the sites where the teen-age gunmen learned to build bombs and convert semi-automatic weapons into automatics. "Id be very uncomfortable if other persons were going through this file and picking up that information," he said. Some sensitive Web sites in his resource list tell how to beat a speeding ticket or a charge of driving while intoxicated; others help officers understand whats going on within certain street gangs and militant political groups.
Above and Beyond
Steenberg said he looks forward to the VPN because it will allow exchanges with law enforcement agencies outside the United States and Canada. But the FBI is still figuring out what role overseas members might play in the LEO community. "There are a lot of policy, budget and technical issues were trying to work out to determine what kinds of services we can offer," said Summerford.
The cost of extending LEO to overseas users will be offset in part because its less expensive to provide service over the Internet than through a toll-free number. Over time, said Summerford, "Well cut back on the kinds of service we provide on the 800 number [as we begin to rely] more heavily on the VPN." But LEO will continue to support the toll-free number as well, he added.
Along with ensuring privacy for sensitive communications, the toll-free number has made LEO available to agencies in remote locations where there are no ISPs. Summerford cited the example of a sheriffs office in northern Maine. "The only way they could get access was through the 800 number," he said. Also, a user traveling on business can plug a laptop into a hotel rooms data port to access LEO through the toll-free number.
With two routes available for tapping into the network, LEO provides a valuable law enforcement tool "whether youre at home, in the office or on the road," said Summerford.