Serrao: Web 2.0 works better for connecting people than assessing threats

Are new social-networking tools suitable for law enforcement?

Alan Joch recently wrote an article in Federal Computer Week titled “Intelligence community wrestles with Web 2.0 tools for information sharing.” In it, he asks whether Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and wikis, have the potential to improve data sharing for law enforcement intelligence analysis.

Such technologies connect diverse groups and potentially large numbers of participants who might not otherwise work together. Blogs and wikis are relatively quick and easy to launch and require minimal training for participants. They excel at presenting new, quickly unfolding information, which would be an important advancement if it aids information discoverability.

But wikis and blogs alone can’t adequately solve the discoverability dilemma. There are several key concerns worth discussing based on my experience as an intelligence commander and my role designing data-sharing systems for law enforcement agencies and fusion centers. Ultimately, law enforcement agencies still need to rely on data-sharing technologies and search platforms.

Why? First, Web 2.0 tools can’t be counted on for the completeness and reliability of constantly changing information. Unfinished intelligence might be published before analysts significantly evaluate it, which is an important step in validating and publishing actionable intelligence. Furthermore, participation would most likely include only a subset of the intelligence community and might diminish over time.

Also, intelligence data-sharing activities must comply with regulations about how an agency stores its intelligence reports, who can see them and how often they must be reviewed. Modern intelligence software has specific workflows, permissions and automation to ensure that law enforcement officers adhere to those regulations. When it comes to compliance, Web 2.0 tools lack those specific refinements and crucial automation. As privacy concerns grow, the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups are watching for examples of noncompliance.

Web 2.0 tools seem to work best for connecting people and ideas, not data. But connecting people isn’t necessarily the answer for information sharing in law enforcement. Many experts believe police need to move beyond the practice of relying on personal relationships to make progress on investigations.

Lastly, the sheer amount of data that could hold relevant clues is too large for any one person to digest, so although Web 2.0 interactions might help, they don’t draw on the untapped potential of data we don’t even know we have.

For example, when an analyst is searching for records of a gang member sporting a particular tattoo, he or she must run that query against data warehouses to find long-forgotten, free-text narratives contained in intelligence and/or incident reports. Discovering relationships takes processing power and capabilities to find useful information buried deep in a comment field in far-flung law enforcement databases. Searching such unstructured free-text data requires specialized software, but it solves a major problem of finding leads when you don’t know where to look.

Although Web 2.0 might give law enforcement officials useful new ideas and establish social connections that didn’t exist before, a specialized information-sharing platform is still law enforcement’s best intelligence tool to assess threats and fight crime.

About the Author

Stephen G. Serrao is a former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism Bureau Chief. He now serves as director of Law Enforcement Solutions on the Memex Solutions Team at SAS.

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