Category Archives: 2.0 Technology

Danger! Zombies ahead… and other security issues

INL@Work Cyber Security ResearcherWeb-based traffic signs seem like the perfect solution for agencies that have speed enforcement problems. With the ability to change the sign’s message online — as well as receive alerts and data from the sign — no longer do supervisors need to send precious units to the signs to perform these functions manually.

But in January 2009, signs in Austin (Texas) were hacked. Displaying messages like “Caution! Zombies Ahead!!!”  they slowed traffic and made for some debate about “harmless fun” (reminiscent of the MIT hacks) vs. vandalism as a threat to public safety.

The signs were not connected to the internet, so hackers had to be there physically to break the locks and the passwords on the controller computers inside. Nevertheless, technology advancements mean that law enforcement administrators need to remember: information security isn’t just about sensitive employee and crime-related data.

Why are these stories important? They reflect that the more law enforcement agencies rely on information technology to make police work more efficient, the more threats they will face from both outside and inside. Whether student pranksters (as was speculated in Austin), foreign operatives (as was speculated in Iowa), or ill informed employees, these threats can take many different forms.

For example, remote-controlled robots are increasingly being deployed in bomb and hostage situations, as in Milwaukee in December. However, as early as last year, cybercrime and security expert Marc Goodman warned of vulnerabilities in battlefield robots, which could easily translate into vulnerabilities for police robotics as well.

The point is not to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about deploying new technologies. Rather, as Goodman puts it: “While electronic warfare is a relatively old domain, the presence of battlefield (and perhaps police robots) means there is a whole additional set of technologies which need to be fully understood and protected prior to deployment in real world scenarios.”

The same can be said of social media, “the cloud,” or even computer-controlled traffic signs. Nothing is completely secure; the human factor trumps all. However, the public- and officer-safety, force-multiplying, and investigative benefits of each kind of technology are too great to avoid them entirely.

What kind of security research have you done on technology you considered or deployed? How have you prepared your employees for best security practices?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Idaho National Laboratory

5 free resources for high tech crimes investigators

high tech crime investigators resourcesLast week I wrote about the need to become better informed on high tech crimes, the better to help victims of identity theft, cyberstalking, and other complex crimes. Fortunately, free resources exist.


Designed for agencies that can’t afford a subscription to Lexis-Nexis’ Accurint or ChoicePoint, TLO is rapidly becoming a strong competitor for both services, and is a viable alternative for small or medium-sized agencies with no budget. That’s because Accurint’s designer is behind it, and boasts a team of law enforcement, prosecutors, programmers, scientists, and executives — many of whom have worked together for decades.

Take time to poke around the site and register for the service — you won’t be disappointed.

National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C)

The NW3C provides quite a few resources, including free training, free investigative assistance, and even financial support for some cases. The catches: first, a case must have a tie to financial crime (though nearly all high tech crime cases do). And second, the agency must be a member.

However, once the agency is signed up — again for free — the NW3C provides a wealth of assistance. It runs information through all major databases and provides free software — along with the training to use it — such as TUX4N6 for on-site previews, PerpHound for mapping GPS or cell tower coordinates, and others.

In addition, the NW3C has a partnership with the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to sponsor the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), a good resource to which to direct citizens when you can’t take the report or don’t have the resources to investigate yourself.

NCIC Off-Line Search

The National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Off-Line Search is, because of the power of NCIC’s online searches, vastly underutilized. However, it could “could assist an investigator in locating an item of property, determine the proximity of an individual to a crime scene, substantiate or discredit an alibi, or trace the route of a person of interest.” It exists, in other words, to provide leads and obtain information not generally available through an online query.

The Off-Line Search has been used to help identify and capture Timothy McVeigh, recover stolen vehicles and kidnapping victims, and solve murders. It is accessible via email, phone or NLETS.

Though not originally designed for law enforcement, provides instant updates anytime a suspect or convict is arrested anywhere else in the nation. This is a tool that’s valuable for information sharing — if the name you’re tracking shows up in your email, you have only to contact the arresting agency to take your investigation one step further.

The Hi-Tech Resources Listserv

Lots of listservs, forums and other resources exist for high tech crimes investigators. Some are available after you become a member of the sponsoring organization. Others are free, but are focused on areas like digital forensics.

The Hi-Tech Resources Listserv, however, was founded as a way to share search warrant, corporate liaison contact, and investigative information. Originally a resource for investigators in northern and central California, the Yahoo! list has rapidly expanded to include more than 1,000 members in states as far east as New Jersey.

Resources include regularly updated law enforcement liaison information for internet and cell service providers, cell service provider data retention records, sample search warrants and subpoenas, and information related to specific crimes including high-tech stalking, child exploitation and identity theft.

Listowner Kipp Loving, a detective in central California, tells me that instructors from SEARCH and the NW3C encourage their trainees nationwide to join the list. To join, you need to be prepared to provide the following information:

  • Full name with agency name
  • Contact information (phone or e-mail, preferably work address and not a Yahoo email)

This information is kept confidential and the list is limited to law enforcement. Be prepared to have your affiliation verified before you join!

What free tools are your favorites, and why?

Image: KOMUnews via Flickr

Illinois Agency Issues Video Game to Teach Kids

IEMA video game

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Ari Herzog, a social media marketer who serves on the Newburyport (Mass.) city council. A longtime Cops 2.0 reader, Ari is a proponent of open government — government agencies using technology to make the public part of what they do. Today’s post is about how one of them is doing just that.

You must credit the Illinois Emergency Management Agency for thinking out of the box and continually striving to educate students about disaster preparedness.

From activity books to PSA writing challenges, IEMA wants every youth in the state from pre-schoolers to college students to know what to do when disaster strikes. Seeking a gap in their educational approaches with middle school students, the Illinois Terrorism Task Force commissioned the creation of a video game to help kids learn about effective response strategies. The first simulation, “The Day the Earth Shook,” was released November 15 and focuses on earthquake zones in the southern part of the state.

The game was developed by the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and the Center for Public Safety and Justice of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“We knew that we needed to do something that we would be fun, but they’re too old for coloring books and activity books at that age,” said Patti Thompson, communications manager for IEMA in an article published by Government Technology. “So it just seemed like the video game route was something new to do, a new direction to go.”

I think it’s an awesome idea. The world may be watching Facebook applications and Twitter innovations, but video games are just as popular.

Tech for good… and harm

Automatic Vehicle Location and sector mappingFormer Cops 2.0 partner Scott White, who retired from law enforcement last year, has a couple of interesting blog posts up at his blog, Scott’s Morning Brew. They’re about “de-policing,” or a phenomenon in which police are rendered — or rather, render themselves — virtually powerless by their fear of being sued or disciplined or, yes, killed.

What caught my eye was his mention of how high tech can be used to improve officer safety and community relations… or to damage officers’ relationships with their administrators:

Several years ago, I was approached by some of the administration in my police department about putting GPS locators in the police cars.  The idea had several layers to it.

  1. They see where a car was and dispatch the closest unit to an incident
  2. If an officer was in trouble they could find the car and send help to the officer.
  3. If an officer was “out of zone” they could use it as a tool to make sure officers were staying where they are supposed to.

While the first two reasons were valid.  Any “big brother” style monitoring of police officers is going to be met with resistance.  And this was.  At the time, the usability of GPS tied to the computers in the cars was ridiculous at best.  Simply because of the nature of the communications protocols.  But the administration pushed for it and USB antenna’s were purchased.  Officer’s were told they “must plug them in” when in the car and on duty.

Officers who did so were met with calls from their supervisors when they left their assigned areas to go eat, or use the restroom or whatever.  So they started not plugging them in.

I recently heard that some steps had been taken to ensure they were being utilized.  There is no doubt in my mind the steps taken hinged on threats from the administration of disciplinary action if they weren’t utilized.

So the little pieces of equipment were getting “damaged” by other equipment in the car.  They plug into the USB ports on the computers in the cars and USB ports wear out.  They are held in place by FRICTION.  The flimsy little wires going to the antennas were being pinched by other pieces of equipment, severing them.

What is my point?  First, if you as a police officer are doing your job the right way, why do you care that a supervisor is watching?  Second.  If your police officers are doing their job the right way, what do you as a supervisor care if they go to a “cop friendly” restaurant or a clean facility to use the restroom?  I don’t want spit in my food anymore than the next guy.

If the officers are spending that much time and energy to render the equipment inoperable…  how much time is spent actually crime fighting?

When administrators have nothing better to do that sit around and watch police car videos, looking for something the officer is doing wrong, what job is being overlooked?  Which one of your administrative tasks is being neglected while you try to relive your glory days watching cops do their thing and to what end?

It’s hard to reconcile these words with the articles at sites like and, which are about how police administrators can improve their relationships with officers as well as the public. But this isn’t the first time I’ve read something like this, either. In fact, this PoliceOne article backs up Scott’s observations.

How prevalent is this problem? Hard to know. I’d like to think that in an era of such severe budget cuts, admins are focusing on better things, like helping their officers to stay alive.

Then again, at least one friend in a hard-hit agency talks about what a war zone his city has become — and how political his agency. It’s as if the cops, stuck in survival mode, have adopted an “every man for himself” ethic rather than banding together. In that kind of environment, it would be easy for a budget-conscious chief to micromanage, especially if it led to being able to lay off “underperforming” officers.

There is a lot of talk in police executive circles about numbers: Compstat, problem-oriented policing, and so on. But these will only work if the administration is willing to go all the way — to refuse to allow criminals and their supporters to game the system. To use the tools the way they were intended: as a supplement to crime data; for instance, how do officer locations (based on GPS) square with the hotspots?

Policing appears to have reached something of a crossroads. On one road are the numerous tools that could stand to make the job more professional, efficient, and effective. On the other are people to whom such change is a threat. Which road is your agency walking? What will it take to change direction?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Simon Blackley

Gov2Social: Agencies’ new one stop shop

Microsoft Bright Side of Government Gov2Social

Gov2Social has a clean directory interface

Researching social media use by other police departments – but don’t have the time to troll through the Twitter lists or Facebook pages? Check out Gov2Social, the new service from Microsoft’s Bright Side of Government. As Bright Side’s Kristin Bockius writes:

First, Gov2Social is a social media directory for state and local governments. Why is this important? I’ve mentioned a couple of scenarios above but more importantly we’re seeing a growing level of interest and adoption among state and local governments of Web 2.0 tools that support open and transparent government initiatives. However, we found a significant gap in how state and local governments and their citizens could connect online in a one-stop shop manner. With Gov2Social, state and local governments can share best practices, connect with peers, and learn how to implement social networking services – all of which help advance the usage of Gov 2.0 tools.

Gov2Social is not a complicated site, not by any stretch. The interface is clean and simple and uncluttered, as any directory should be; you can run a keyword search like “police,” or a name search like “California.” So how would a law enforcement user put it to work?

First, become a part of it. Several law enforcement agencies have already inputted their information. The more agencies are listed here, the more valuable the site will be to others researching law enforcement social media implementation – especially the more tools are listed.

Second, however, use it to connect with local and state politicians. Generally, I’m not a great fan of how politicians use social media; they tend to broadcast, and the information they put out is dry. (You’re at another fundraising event? Glad to hear…) It doesn’t make one want to try to engage.

I see Gov2Social as the beginnings of a challenge to that. By making it easier to find elected officials – who wants to spend time guessing Twitter usernames? – the site will make it easier for us to talk to them. How does that affect law enforcement?

  • It could connect directly with key politicians and other government agencies, such as emergency management. Even agencies that don’t want to follow individuals on Twitter can make use of a network of government accounts.
  • It could encourage its publics to connect with local politicians regarding public safety issues. Use Gov2Social to find the appropriate channels, then write a blog post or reference @username in a tweet.
  • Take the above idea to the next level and design an entire strategy to get a problem solved, especially if it’s something that requires more funding than is budgeted. Being a squeaky wheel, and getting your publics behind you in the social spaces (think YouTube videos, Flickr photos, blogs, and other forms of crowdsourcing), might just do the trick.

Gov2Social just launched, so you won’t find the numbers of government officials and agencies there – yet – to put the above ideas in motion. But do submit a listing, do bookmark it, and do talk about it so it has the chance to grow to its potential.

It’s an encyclopedia! It’s a FAQ! It’s… a wiki?

Wikis in police work

Wikis can be used for public or internal messaging

From the Hawaiian word for “fast,” the wiki is perhaps best exemplified in Wikipedia… but is not limited to the long, sprawling, and not always accurate encyclopedic entries found there.

At least one law enforcement agency is using it as a way of both public and internal messaging, in the kind of model that might just make a team approach to social media easier for administrators to consider.

Public outreach

Readers who have visited “About You” will recognize John Fulton’s name from the comments. Administrative sergeant with the St. Clair County (Illinois) Sheriff’s Office, Fulton has been handling social media efforts including the agency blog.

The department website’s wiki takes Frequently Asked Questions a step further, not in terms of content, but in terms of platform. Found at, the wiki is maintained by both Fulton and one of the patrol sergeants, his predecessor at the administrative desk.

A mix of conventional FAQ-type information and longer articles from the news or the blog, the wiki took about a month to build “on and off,” says Fulton. Now running, it takes very little time to maintain.

Internal messaging

What has been more useful, Fulton says, is the agency’s internal wiki, which he uses to post general orders. “We decided to use a wiki because the first time general orders come out, someone always complains about something that’s wrong,” he explains. “Then emails and paper have to be passed around for approvals.”

The wiki, however, gives all the supervisors and commanders the chance to make changes as they see fit. “There’s a revision history, so if they come back and say ‘I didn’t mean to post that,’ it’s clear that they did,” Fulton says.

Officers do not have access, but can see all orders via PDF and then ask their supervisors questions if need be. It’s possible to track that they reviewed the PDF—and recently, they’ve even been able to incorporate quizzes so that officers can show they are paying attention.

These measures are important because of the reliance on a technology which has been criticized for its “too many cooks” collaborative ideal.  Still, as Wikipedia itself notes:

The Wikipedia model allows anyone to edit, and relies on a large number of well-intentioned editors to overcome issues raised by a smaller number of problematic editors. It is inherent in Wikipedia’s editing model that poor information can be added, but over time quality is anticipated to improve in a form of group learning as editors reach consensus, so that substandard edits will very rapidly be removed. This assumption is still being tested, and its limitations and reliability are not yet a settled matter.

St. Clair’s model, then, makes sense because it preserves and supports the chain of command. Patrol officers are notorious for complaining about policy that doesn’t fit their reality on the streets, but staying on top of their edits could end up taking more time. They should, however, be able to approach their supervisors to make changes.

The technical stuff

“For a small department with no IT department, we have to be able to do what we can with off-the-shelf and free stuff,” Fulton says. “If we had to buy a system, we wouldn’t have it.”

One thing that has been useful, however, is Fulton’s relationship with the county IT administrator, who not only built the internal wiki but also created the quizzes and a couple of other department tools. “He liked the challenge of meeting our needs,” says Fulton.

Although he can’t estimate how much time the wiki saves, Fulton says he definitely spends less time working on general orders. That frees him to work on other administrative tasks, including other elements of the St. Clair SO’s social strategy.

In what ways could your agency benefit from wikis?

Image: blogefl vi Flickr