Wireless Crime Fighting
By Niall McKay, Mon Feb 10 12:45:00 GMT 2003

Wireless technology is as important to crime fighting today as a magnifying glass was to Sherlock Holmes.


Late in 2001, American military forces thought they had caught Osama Bin Laden. The Central Intelligence Agency had tracked the terror chief's satellite phone signal to a region near Tora Bora, in the Afghanistan mountains, but when they went to nab him the found they had Abdallah Tabarak, Bin Laden's personal bodyguard, instead. Seems he was given the phone and told to take off in the opposite direction.

It wasn't the first time that US authorities thought they had foiled the world's most wanted man and it wasn't the first time he had outsmarted them. In August 1998, the Clinton administration gave the green light to launch a missile strike against a remote mountainside in Afghanistan in the hope of killing Bin Laden, but he had already left the area. This highlights one of pitfall of using technological means to catch the bad guy - if he's smart enough, then it's likely that he will turn around and lead you on a wild goose chase.

Dawn of Tech Police

Despite this, we are entering a new age of policing - one where wireless technology will play a central role. In the past, police work involved interviewing the public, searching a suspect's house, and even putting them under surveillance, trying to discover with whom they were in touch, what they had, and where they traveled. In many cases, such techniques would reveal little these days. It would be far more useful to look at surveillance videos, search the suspect's e-mail and computer hard disk and most importantly, get access to their cellular records, which would reveal where they were and with whom they were in contact.

Certainly, wireless is already becoming pervasive in the business of crime-fighting. Police forces are a great deal more tech-savvy than they were in the past, and are using wireless technology so that they can get quick and easy access to information in the field. Likewise, the US criminal justice system is using wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to keep track of convicts, parolees, and to place non-violent offenders under house arrest.

Meanwhile, so far, the US authorities have been unlucky and have on a number of occasions missed catching bin Laden by a hair. What's interesting, however, is how they knew he was using that phone in the first place. It emerged during a trial of the Kenyan Embassy bombings that bin Laden rented a satellite phone from a company in New York and had used it to direct his operations and businesses for some years. Following that, he was presumably a little more careful, but still US and British authorities were able to track him down-- probably through a global spy system known as Echelon.

The system includes massive databases that temporarily store millions of phone conversations, emails, and satellite and cell phone conversations. Keyword searches are then carried out, though reportedly the system is not good at picking out relevant information because the amount of data involved and the poor quality of computer-based voice recognition systems. But it's rather good at picking out specific voiceprints, which are after all as unique as fingerprints. According to a recent article in the London Guardian, British and US intelligence agencies believe that Bin Laden is still alive because of voice analysis of a telephone conversation between him and Mullah Omar last September which was intercepted by US spy satellites.

Certainly, these are some of the most technologically advanced systems developed by organizations such as the National Security Agency in the US and GCHQ in the UK.

Other systems of tracking people wirelessly are already coming into use around the world. In the US, for example, the Federal Communications Commission's E911 initiative mandated that all cell phones must contain technology that enables the devices to be traced to within fifty meters. The reason for implementing E911, the FCC argued, was that it would enable the emergency service know where the call had originated.

"There are in the region of 7000 911 public-service answering points in the US," says Seamus McAteer, principal with the Zelos Group, a San Francisco-based consultancy. "Only about 20 percent of them have been upgraded so that their telecom switches give XY coordinates as well as caller ID."

This partly due to the expense of upgrading the systems. Indeed, many emergency and police forces in the US are feeling the burden of trying dig extra cash out of already over-stressed budgets to upgrade their equipment.

In Sacramento, California, the chief of police managed to get enough money to upgrade the Sacramento Police Department (SACPD) to wireless networks through a combination of public money and private fundraising.

"There are legal restrictions about getting certain information over the police radio bands," says Sergeant Justin Risley, public information officer with the SACPD. "So we were limited as to what information we could check from the police cruiser. "

In all 190 police cars are being fitted out with wireless Internet Protocol networking equipment and onboard computer systems.

"This means that it will now be possible for our officers to access not only the police and department of motor vehicle computer databases, but also systems such as Lead's Parolee database," says Sergeant Risley. "I know that this may come as a shock to you, but often we have to deal with people we are not completely honest with us, so it is useful to be able to check the information there and then."

Indeed, according to Risley, SACPD cars will be fitted out with equipment that will enable them to view live video camera feeds from police helicopters. "This will enable officers to make much better decisions during a chase or help superior officers make informed decisions about a hostage situation."

Like many police departments, SACPD hopes to get rid of the massive amount of paperwork their work entails and move to a paperless system, next giving officers wireless PDAs to help accomplish this task. Furthermore, the systems will eventually be integrated with electronic tagging systems used by the judicial and prison services.

However, it's not just criminals that are getting RFID tags. Applied Digital Solutions, of Palm Beach, Florida, provides a RFID tag it calls VeriChip. It's about the size of a grain of rice and is implanted in the upper arm and transmits a unique identification number. The company hopes that the chip, which recently received FDA approval, will be used for a variety of applications.

The company is developing secure-access applications fro the security, defense and homeland security sectors, although VeriChip also hopes to sell the its technology to banks and private financial institutions so that it could be used, for example, for customer verification at ATM machines or bank branches. But even though it's probably going to be more secure than a signature or even an PIN number, it's a little Orwellian. Currently, the company has a bus traveling around major cities in the US chipping anybody who cares to pay the $9 a month subscription fee. Why use it? Many people who are afraid that they or their loved ones will get lost or kidnapped are using them.

What About Privacy?

While there is little doubt that various type of wireless technology will transform crime-fighting there is also great scope for abuse. In the aftermath of September 11 the US public seems less vigilant about handing extra powers to law enforcement.

In a report entitled "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society," the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the increased usage of computers, cameras, wireless communications and GPS chips is feeding a surveillance monster that is growing silently and is turning the US into a surveillance society.

"With regards to wireless and particularly location-based tracking systems, the problem is that the law is much less developed than it is in regards to other types of privacy," says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "For example, few people object to the emergency services knowing where to find a 911 call. However, the same technology initiative can be used to track vehicles and individuals. Will people be still comfortable with the technology when insurance companies start to subpoena that information in their investigations?"

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Niall McKay is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo Japan. He can be reached at www.niall.org.