COMMENTARY

Changing the game: First DNA, now info sharing

In the past two decades, one of the most significant developments in solving violent crimes has been DNA evidence. Where once investigators were hamstrung by more primitive forms of physical evidence and less-than-reliable eyewitness accounts, today DNA evidence provides a more scientific and verifiable means of linking specific perpetrators to their crimes.

Of course, there have always been concerns about whether law enforcement’s use of DNA evidence violates suspects’ rights. But in practice, it has actually proven invaluable in confirming the innocence of the wrongly accused. In short, DNA testing helps protect the liberty of the innocent while sealing the fate of the guilty.

Today, a new technology is providing similar benefits to law enforcement -- and meeting with similar public resistance. But this time, the technology revolves around the sharing of data, information and intelligence between agencies and jurisdictions.

Such initiatives give law enforcement officials access to large volumes of data, thereby improving their ability to conduct analyses and detect patterns of criminal activity. The more information that police officers have to discern such patterns, the more likely they are to interdict, prevent and solve crimes that occur in multiple jurisdictions. These are all positives that result from sharing and accessing information across jurisdictional boundaries.

The FBI’s new National Data Exchange program for sharing criminal justice information is facilitating that detection by enabling police jurisdictions nationwide to share incident-based data with one another -- information to which they would normally not have automated access.

However, data- and information-sharing have not met with universal acclaim. Privacy and civil rights groups want to place limits on how much data police save, store and search. They worry that access to the information will be abused, with the result that innocent people will be made into suspects.

There are certainly validity and precedent to those concerns. Yet the fact is that privacy rights and individuals’ civil liberties are much less likely to be violated when information is automated, as it is with the new systems.

Automated systems can protect civil liberties by being set up to search in a way that mitigates the bias of the person performing the search. Rather than relying on a personal relationship with a counterpart in another jurisdiction that determines who or what an investigator looks at, an officer using an automated search seeks objective data and facts. When they are coupled with a valid, logical and competent police investigation, the human element is removed, and the result is the best practice for solving crimes.

It’s no different from substituting DNA evidence for eyewitness accounts. Speculation and opinion are replaced with hard, verifiable facts – a methodology that is far more likely to return accurate results.

With proper controls in place to make sure information sharing adheres to the relevant regulations, it is poised to do for informational evidence what DNA testing has done for physical evidence.

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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