Tech Fails Safety Agencies If Net, Resources Are Lacking

For all the talk at Microsoft's Worldwide Public Safety Symposium about technology advancements that can help law enforcement and public safety agencies, the new products can't help in scenarios when the Internet isn't accessible or where resources are especially scarce, some attendees and speakers have pointed out.

During the annual get-together at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Washington, the company is highlighting two technologies that it has developed and offered free to law enforcement agents around the world.

The company is updating its Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (Cofee), a set of software loaded onto a USB key that agents use to record important data from computers at crime sites. Version 2 will work on Vista, Windows 7 and Windows Mobile, said Richard Boscovich, senior attorney in Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit. Microsoft has given Interpol licensing rights to the tool so that it can continue to develop the tool in partnership with the University College of Dublin, he said.

Microsoft is also updating its Child Exploitation Tracking System, with version 2.2 expected to appear in a few months, said Mark McIntyre, director of government security programs at Microsoft. CETS lets law enforcement agents compare information from a case with data, such as IP addresses, Web sites, chat rooms, e-mail addresses and nicknames, from other investigations that might reference the same people.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, also said that the company is working with Interpol to figure out a way to take CETS to a hosted environment so that agencies can share data across borders.

But it's notable that even though CETS is a free product, it's not widely used, said Giuliano Zaccardelli, director of the strategic planning directorate for Interpol. He blames technology limitations, particularly in developing nations. "Most of the Third World doesn't have a database. They don't have a computer. So how can they connect with us," he said. "Last year I was buying solar panels for countries in Africa so they could get electricity to run a computer."

Microsoft is trying to figure out how to bring CETS to countries that have low bandwidth or other limitations, said McIntyre. Those countries might be able to partner with neighboring countries that could have more resources, he said. "We're trying to find ways to be flexible to expand use of this tool in the case of budget or other constraints," he said.

But such constraints don't only affect poor countries. In his keynote presentation, Ballmer emphasized that moving apps to the cloud is the future for public safety. But in addition to potential policy and legal issues that could prevent agencies from storing sensitive data on a hosted service, such an application may not be useful during a natural disaster, for instance, when Internet access and mobile-phone systems are unavailable.

"You want to make sure your number 2 pencils are sharp," said Phil Grieb, emergency management coordinator for the fire department in the city of Redmond, where Microsoft is based. By that he meant that while new technologies can help in emergencies, it's critical to have low-tech fallback processes in place in case the new products are inaccessible.

For instance, a couple of years ago a wind storm in Redmond cut power to most cell sites in the area for more than a week. Those sites only had backup power that lasted about a day. Redmond keeps close ties with local ham radio enthusiasts who volunteer to help out with critical communications in such situations.

While many of the presenters at the conference were excited about the products that Microsoft is developing for law enforcement, some people are wary of such partnerships between the public and private sectors. But given constrained budgets of most public safety organizations, those who are wary need to get over it, Zaccardelli said.

He urged greater collaboration with the private sector. "If we don't strategically partner with the private sector and get over the inhibitions of the private sector trying to run our organizations and take us over," law enforcement won't be able to leverage the latest technologies, he said.

Privacy advocates have also expressed concern about Cofee, worried that Microsoft is helping law enforcement access potentially private information. In addition, late last year, Cofee leaked out to the Web, raising questions about the potential for criminals to figure out ways to work around it.

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