Robert O’Harrow Jr. and Ellen Nakashima
March 6, 2008
Several thousand law enforcement agencies are creating the foundation of a domestic intelligence system through computer networks that analyze vast amounts of police information to fight crime and root out terror plots.
As federal authorities struggled to meet information-sharing mandates after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police agencies from Alaska and California to the Washington region poured millions of criminal and investigative records into shared digital repositories called data warehouses, giving investigators and analysts new power to discern links among people, patterns of behavior and other hidden clues.
Those network efforts will begin expanding further this month, as some local and state agencies connect to a fledgling Justice Department system called the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx. Federal authorities hope N-DEx will become what one called a “one-stop shop” enabling federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to automatically examine the enormous caches of local and state records for the first time.
Although Americans have become accustomed to seeing dazzling examples of fictional crime-busting gear on television and in movies, law enforcement’s search for clues has in reality involved a mundane mix of disjointed computers, legwork and luck.
These new systems are transforming that process. “It’s going from the horse-and-buggy days to the space age, that’s what it’s like,” said Sgt. Chuck Violette of the Tucson police department, one of almost 1,600 law enforcement agencies that uses a commercial data-mining system called Coplink.
With Coplink, police investigators can pinpoint suspects by searching on scraps of information such as nicknames, height, weight, color of hair and the placement of a tattoo. They can find hidden relationships among suspects and instantly map links among people, places and events. Searches that might have taken weeks or months — or which might not have been attempted, because of the amount of paper and analysis involved — are now done in seconds.