Criminals hunted down by... software?

In Australia, the feds are using off-the-shelf software to help them bust the bad guys

Software tools are becoming an increasingly important link in criminal investigations. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is combining its core system with off-the-shelf products that can sniff out underworld connections.

When the Australian Federal Police asked their computer system to find Australia's 'baddest' people -- those involved in the most investigations -- one name on the list surprised officers.

Although the person wasn't unknown, investigators were shocked at just how many cases the underworld figure had connections with, AFP director of information management David Rofe told ZDNet Australia.

Until recently it was not possible to ask such a straightforward question of the agency's criminal database.

The AFP's core business system, Police Real-time Online Management Information System -- Promis -- "is built on Oracle and Visual Basic and it normalises heavily, which makes it hard for end users to do ad hoc queries," said Rofe, who headed the agency's IT department for four years.

"We're just implementing an ad hoc report generator from Brio. It lets you ask questions like 'tell me the person involved in the most number of cases in the AFP' or put simply, 'who is the baddest person in Australia?'" "We have people involved in up to 250 cases, particularly those in syndicated crime. We asked for the top ten bad people. One of the names surprised us."

Any AFP member can use Promis, but the levels of data available are controlled, Rofe said. "It has a rigorous, complex security architecture. What you can see using the tool is determined by the access level."

Promis went live three years ago. It is unrelated to the US Federal Attorney General system of a similar name.

The AFP also uses Analyst's Notebook, which charts the links between different entities. Two known criminals may not have been seen meeting together, but a relationship can be discovered by compiling information such as phone calls, addresses and links to other parties and places.

"You tend to create a spider web very quickly. The product will go up to about ten degrees of separation, but if we were both known criminals and we both rang the picture theatre, the theatre would become a false node."

The AFP has used Analyst's Notebook for more than two years as both a standalone product and a plug-in to Promis.

Australian-made commercial software MapInfo is another among the agency's stable of software tools. The product is used to map occurrences of crime alongside the addresses of known criminals. Its usefulness is obvious as many criminals work close to home, Rofe said. The AFP has a team of three currently developing a thesaurus tool to help investigators plough through their database for key words and their abbreviated and slang counterparts.

"We have 200GB of data, 60GB is classical Oracle data and 140GB is text. We need tools to get through that text. [The software being developed will] give users the capacity to search for 'heroin' and to come up with synonyms, abbreviations and slang. It's proving to be a problem, but we're cracking it. It's an attempt to impose order on highly unstructured data."

Another Australian commercial tool, NetMap, had an important role in investigating one of Australia's most infamous cases -- the so-called 'backpacker murders'.

NetMap is used to discover relationships between data, but without necessarily posing a question beforehand. The product was used in finding the now convicted murderer Ivan Milat, according to NetMap chief executive Richard McLean.

"Police used several databases, such as gun and vehicle registrations, even gym membership. NetMap produced a list of 32 names, which included Milat's," McLean said.

Police in different Australian states have been using the software for as many as five years. The US government uses NetMap for money laundering detection. The software is also currently being considered by two South East Asian countries for national financial fraud detection. McLean declined to specify the countries at this stage.

Not surprisingly, the insurance industry is also a NetMap market.

"People making a claim may ask their brothers or sisters and their husbands and wives and other relations and friends to make claims and to take a share in each. NetMap may find a relationship between them and show a fraud ring, even the ring leader, on the screen," McLean said. The technology behind NetMap was created by Australian scientist Dr John Galloway about ten years ago, however "NetMap's time has come", McLean believes.

"In the last year there has been a major proliferation of databases. You can find amazing things on the Internet."

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