Software sorts out suspect phone data
- By William Matthews
- Jun 10, 2002
The image that emerges on the computer screen looks as if it might be an exploding blowfish or a piece of wild and fanciful wire art. In fact, it is a computer diagram of 10,126 telephone calls made during 21 months by members of a drug smuggling organization operating in New York state and overseas.
In a matter of minutes, a laptop loaded with PatternTracer software has sketched the weird design and, in the process, revealed hidden patterns of interlinked phone calls.
One suspect calls another, who invariably calls a third. The software, developed by i2 Inc., picks out that pattern from a blizzard of other phone calls. Even when the suspects regularly change wireless phones to avoid detection, the pattern is apparent to the PatternTracer software.
The analysis technique itself is not new. Crime investigators have been doing it for years — but when done by humans, it's time consuming and prone to errors. For an investigator who is handed a 120-page phone call log, "it's a nightmare," said Todd Drake, i2's national sales manager.
PatternTracer, which was released this spring, took three years to develop, Drake said. Company mathematicians devised a proprietary algorithm to locate calling patterns in telephone records.
Manually searching thousands of phone records for calling patterns can take days or even weeks, he said.
But if the phone data can be digitized — and increasingly, when ordered to turn logs over to law enforcement agencies, phone companies supply them on CD-ROM — analysis is almost immediate.
After the computer draws a visual depiction of the phone records, calling patterns begin to emerge.
Computer examination of calling patterns is one of several types of automated analyses that have become available for law enforcement, said Roy Ratley, manager of the Law Enforcement Analysis Facility, a branch of the National Institute of Justice's National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Rome, N.Y.
Text extraction is another. That process involves scanning text documents into digital form and subjecting them to analysis similar to that used to find patterns in phone calls, he said.
Phone call tracing shows promise for fraud, money laundering and other cases that involve substantial use of telephones, Ratley said. "But how many crimes are committed by phone?" he asked.
A lot, according to Drake, and the number is growing.
It takes about a week of training for investigators to learn to use PatternTracer, Drake said. It's not necessary to be a computer specialist. Simply being a computer-literate, experienced investigator is enough, he said.
The phone call analysis software works with i2's Analyst's Notebook, software that helps map investigations and reveal links between people, groups, financial transactions, addresses and activities.
When data from Analyst's Notebook is superimposed on the phone calling charts, the results can be telling. In the New York case, for example, investigators saw why one phone calling pattern abruptly ended — the date the phone calls stopped was also the date the caller had been jailed.
They saw that the start of another pattern corresponded with the arrival of a suspect in the United States from a trip overseas.
The use of computer analysis technology like PatternTracer "has absolutely taken off," Drake said.
The FBI, for example, is paying i2 $2 million for Analyst's Notebook as part of its sweeping, $380 million Trilogy information technology upgrade.
Database analysis for discovering criminal patterns is already common, and programs are being developed to do "free-text analysis," in which software will comb through text, video and audio data to extract patterns, Drake said.
Such software will make it much easier to search for evidence of crimes by examining Web activity, e-mail messages, instant messages and even printed material scanned into digital form, he said.
I2 Inc.'s PatternTracer uses an algorithm to find patterns in telephone records.
Investigators can set parameters for identifying calls as suspicious. Then the software highlights any calls that fall within those parameters and displays them in charts, showing the times, dates and durations of the calls, the phone numbers the calls come from and went to and, if known, the names of the customers with those numbers.
Typically, PatternTracer does not discover that a crime is being committed, said Todd Drake, i2's national sales manager. "Most of the time, the police know what is going on," and PatternTracer provides the data they need to understand the scope of the criminal operation, make arrests and win convictions, Drake said. "Sometimes it will bring out other players."