Busted by Satellite
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Jun 24 19:45:00 GMT 2004

How do you bust a crime ring in small-town Texas? With a temporary office linked to a mobile satellite.

The details are sketchy in this AP/USA Today story about a Texas law enforcement van that uses a high-speed wireless satellite for busting perverts. According to the article, the van can be used to zero in on men who set up chat rooms to lure underage girls for sex. Seven men were just indicted in Huntsville after being caught in a sting operation, thanks to the “cybercrime van. “

The facts seemed a little off, so I called the Texas Attorney General's office to find out more about this magic van. I spoke to the Attorney General's Jerry Strickland, and he gave me the real story.

First of all, it's not a van; it's a trailer that contains a small satellite dish used to access the Internet. Basically, investigators can use the satellite to set up a remote office anywhere in the great state of Texas. Typically, they'll haul the trailer to a motel, and use a room there as a base of operations for an investigation or bust. The satellite gives the team high-speed Internet access and a connection to the databases and applications stored on the mainframe computers back at headquarters.

Strickland said the mobile satellite gives Texas law enforcement the ability to quickly set up and conduct sophisticated sting operations anywhere in the giant-sized state without having to build a bunch of "brick and mortar" offices. In essence, the cops are moving the office nest to the scene of the crime, making it much easier to round up and arrest a large number of suspects. If not for the mobile satellite, says Strickland, simple logistics would have prevented law enforcement from arresting the seven men all at once. "We might have gotten two," otherwise, he says.

The satellite-in-a-box isn't limited to catching pedophiles. It can be used to facilitate the investigation of any type of crime requiring a close-to-the-scene operation.

The mobile satellite system is a good example of the boomerang effect of sophisticated technology – something developed by the government (in this case, satellites used for military operations) is spun off to consumer applications (such as Internet satellite systems for recreational vehicles) and then bounces back as a low-cost system for government use (this time, for state law enforcement). As opposed to an “arms-war” type of product evolution (think of the way speeders and cops with laser speed detectors have to continually escalate their technology in an attempt to foil one another), the government feedback cycle uses taxpayer-funded research and market competition to yield better technology and lower prices for everyone.