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Monday, December 19, 2005

Digital crime investigation: the Real Time Crime Center and the continuing war on uncontrolled space

Some people are calling the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) the NYPD's "biggest technological leap ever." According to NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, "[It puts] a wealth of data at our fingertips and vastly speeds up the ability to make connections, increasing the likelihood that we catch the criminals before they strike again." And, "[w]ith 15 workstations at their disposal, the 26 investigators and analysts working there around the clock can access the past five years' worth of city crime records, 31 million FBI crime records, and over 33 billion public records."

As PC Magazine online reports,
Prior to the RTCC, detectives on an investigation were chiefly responsible for gathering records and analyzing possible linkages and trends on their own. The RTCC automates much of the work by giving them the ability to refer to multiple databases instantaneously. They can search for key characteristics of crime suspects' nicknames, tattoos, weapons used—and cross-reference them to area crime reports, 911 calls, and other information. Results of searches can be overlaid on a satellite image map.

"We must continue to implement innovative strategies in order to drive crime down even further," said NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg at the press conference announcing the launch. "More and more, these efforts are involving the sophisticated use of information to identify and stop emerging crime spikes before they become dangerous crime trends."

For now the RTCC is dedicated to homicides and shootings, but it will expand its functionality as warranted [emphasis mine].
According to another article on PCMag.com, thanks to RTCC, "[o]nce a suspect has been identified, officers can rapidly scour billions of public records, finding a suspect's possible residences and relationships, which, in turn, can lead to more searchable locations." MySpace users ought to consider seriously the intention of the police to search personal relationships in public databases, because, as the recent wave of FaceBook-related investigations shows us, they do not plan to ignore information suspects provide about themselves willingly online.

At the risk of quoting too effusively, consider this summary:
[Police] can review transcriptions of the 911 calls related to the crime and a location-based analysis of the crime scene. MapXtreme Java 4.7.1 and MapInfo Pro provide satellite images of the scene that can be overlaid with notes of criminal complaints in the area and the locations of anyone recently arrested or on parole in the area. And each crime's unique bits of evidence—a perp's weapon or tattoo—can be cross-referenced against reports with similar characteristics. If a particular pattern of criminal activity already exists or the crime signals the start of a new pattern, the pattern-tracker application lets officers update the database instantaneously.
Some think that this kind of database could lead to possible infringements of civil liberties, but when it comes to technology, I think the critics are mostly missing the point. While any system like this is sure to lead to violations of civil liberties, that's not the reason authorities have built it. They have developed it precisely so they can improve their efficiency within the current framework of civil rights. The hope is that the new technology will greatly increase the ability of the police to wage war on the poor without resorting to extralegal violations of rights.

This is not to say that the police won't violate our rights, or that technology heralds a new era of respect between oppressor and oppressed. Obviously as long as there are police, they will continue to break the law, often violently. But the promise of technology from the perspective of the police is not the power it gives them to abuse us in rogue fashion. No, it's the legitimacy and force multiplier that it bestows on them that they find so attractive.

Take, for instance, the deployment of a portable fingerprint reader by the Mesa PD in Arizona.
Starting this month, drunken-driving suspects arrested in the annual police holiday crackdown are being fingerprinted using a portable machine that is the size of a suitcase and costs about $45,000. The process, a first in Arizona, takes about 15 minutes.
The device offers police a couple of advantages. First, it is more efficient:

"The idea here is identify the person right at arrest and eliminate the court appearance, and there is no question about identification hearings," Officer Brad Withrow said. "It is locking that person with that arrest."

Second, it constrains our ability to escape the system which, regardless of whether a crime was actually committed or not, does not have our best interest in mind.
Withrow, who spearheaded the project, said getting the prints right away can make a difference because some drunken-driving suspects will provide a false name or license to avoid prosecution.

Recently, a Mexican national who used 10 aliases in separate drunken-driving cases, including some in Mesa, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, Withrow said.
The space for resistance is reduced. As Mesa City Prosecutor John Pombier says,

"The quicker you get the fingerprint in the system, the quicker you know who (you) have, and from a justice standpoint that is the real value. We don't want people taking advantage of the system. We want to hook up the right conviction to the right people and the right charges."

A similar system has been in use in Scotland, where police justified the new technology based on its capacity to establish identities even though only around one percent of those arrested gave false names. As in the United States, civil liberties advocates have overlooked the real issue:
John Scott, chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, said: "I think that we should always be concerned that if the authorities have access to this kind of technology, then there is scope for misuse.

"It will lead to more people being randomly stopped and questioned, because the police will think they are able to identify people easily and quickly through fingerprints."
Of course, abuse is likely, but the point is not its misuse, but rather its use, which will quite legally close a loophole through which many illegal immigrants and others quite rightly escape in their justifiable desire to subvert or avoid state control. If civil libertarians hope to do anything more than merely temper the increasing capacity of elites to regulate every aspect of our lives, they will have to begin more broadly questioning technology itself.

"Everyone's brainwave signal is a bit different even when they think about the same thing. They're unique just like fingerprints," said Julie Thorpe, a researcher at Carleton University in Ottawa. Thorpe is working on a project that she hopes will "do away with key cards, pin numbers and a litany of other security tools that allow people to retrieve bank money, access computer data or enter restricted buildings" by creating "the first biometric security device to read your mind to authenticate users."

Similarly, Techweb.com reports that Vue Technology and Symbol Technologies Inc. plan to work together to develop "item-level" RFID tagging. The advantages derived from the technology are many, but, importantly, "[t]agging individual items, along with cases and pallets, could become the deterrent to counterfeiters and thieves the retail industry needs, according to AMR Research." Theft is an important means of wealth redistribution. Among other important uses, workers supplement their paltry incomes through theft and those in need procure necessary items that way. The underground economy - an important and often more affordable alternate distribution system - depends on theft as well. Again, we see the deliberate application of technology to restrict and administer those ever-dimishing aspects of life that remain unregulated by the state and capital.

Tracking is vital for modern societies, and getting citizens to voluntarily participate is vastly preferable to imposing it on them. The spread of GPS systems in vehicles illustrates the way that both methods inter-relate.
Clem Driscoll, an analyst with C.J. Driscoll & Associates, a marketing consulting and research firm specializing in GPS and wireless products and services, thinks the market is ripe with opportunity.

"Factory-installed GPS navigation systems are now available on over half the vehicle models sold in the North America. Over a million new vehicles sold this year are equipped with navigation systems," Driscoll said. "This has created greater consumer awareness of GPS navigation and its benefits. Also, an increasing number of auto manufacturers are featuring vehicle navigation in TV ads."
The above illustrates the way manufacturers have imposed the technology on American car buyers. However, much of the American public is not averse to being tracked:
Karen Drake, PR Manager for TomTom, said, "Consumers in general are becoming more aware of the advantages of personal GPS and on-demand navigation. They are looking for easy ways to have information readily available whether while driving their own car, a rental car or even cruising on a motorcycle. Grab and go GPS devices provide consumers with the convenience to accommodate their busy travel schedules, and in general provide improved technology vs. built-in navigation systems."
Indeed, the technology has proliferated, as the Northwest Herald reported: "Factory sales of GPS units, both the handheld and automobile kind, are projected to grow to 738,000 this year from 162,000 units in 2001. The average price, meanwhile, has dropped to $473 from $888 during that span."

Still, despite the overwhelming enthusiasm with which Americans, corporations and governments welcome GPS technology, some do dissent. In his International Herald Tribune article, "Dear Santa, no nav system for me, please,"Ted Conover writes, "The problem, to me, is that navigation by GPS changes the nature of car travel: It makes it seem all about numbers (distance to destination, time to destination) when I'm trying to preserve a sense that travel is also about something else."

But those who critique only the aesthetics of GPS - even when they decry the mechanization of the driving experience - miss the real point: technology wages a war on our ability to control the fundamental aspects of own lives, and then uses the resulting disempowerment as a justification for the imposition of even more technological regulation.
All of the companies seem to agree that ease of use is a priority for them. Dave Marsh, director of Navigation Products for Cobra Electronics, agrees. "The number one feature is ease of use. Consumers are busy today; they don't have time to read a manual, set up a complicated system, or follow special instructions to use a mass market product. Our product development effort has centered on making the most easy to use product in the category -- something that is off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box, and into-your-car," Marsh said.
Or, as one consumer put it recently, "I'll probably never buy another car without [GPS]. It would feel weird driving without it now.''

Perhaps that's truer than she knows.


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