Policing the future

21st century technology is giving police and homeland security officials more information than ever before. How do they filter it, process it, and act on it without infringing civil liberties?

Network World has a profile on the Society of Police Futurists International, a nonprofit group formed in 1991 that serves as a sort of think tank about the future of law enforcement. The society has joined with the FBI to form a subgroup focused on homeland security and technology issues. Not surpisingly, says the article, "The advance of technology has put policing at a crossroads." Tom Cowper, second vice president of PFI and a police executive says, "The biggest issue going forward is information and our ability or inability to deal with the vast amounts of information available and that will be increasingly available to law enforcement."

Dealt with in an effective manner, information becomes a tool for not just solving crime, but preventing it.

Cowper offers an example: The World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control are using "information fusion" tools to help identify potential epidemics, such as bird flu, in their earliest stages. He defines information fusion tools as "IT tools that allow you to mine, sort, collate and handle information to make sense of it." Collaboration software and decision support tools fall under this category.

But it's also possible that authorities can become so bogged down in the oceans of data now available that gleaning pertinent information amid the ones and zeros becomes impossible.

It would seem a no-brainer that law enforcement officials take advantage of such information fusion tools to catch the bad guys. But in the act of policing, the rights of individuals must remain intact, and many believe that granting law enforcement access to all the information it might want to do its job is a direct violation of those rights.

"Law enforcement is one of the few realms that's really behind the curve in its ability to handle information, and a lot of that stems from civil liberty issues," Cowper says. "The potential to infringe upon people's rights is certainly there. Law enforcement has to use information in an Information Age way; we can do our jobs and be successes and still protect free citizens."