Police get on the cyber beat
JULY 22, 2003
PULLED over by the Highway Patrol, errant motorists could soon have their registration and licence details run through an on-board computer while a dashboard-mounted video camera records their every move.
Walking down the street, foot patrol officers - their location tracked by GPS - could plug suspects names into handheld PCs, then take them down to the station to be electronically fingerprinted and scan their images through a database of wanted criminals.
More distant possibilities include licence plate and facial identification.
Some of those scenarios are already happening on Australian streets. Others are likely very soon as state police forces bulk up technology to fight crime.
Operational technology - ranging from in-car data terminals to satellite-linked covert surveillance cameras - is on the shopping list of forces nationwide, as they try to get more officers away from desks and on the beat.
In-vehicle computer screens are vital to the new systems helping officers. Already deployed with NSW, South Australian and Queensland Police, the screens will go into Victorian police and ambulance vehicles from 2005.
Typical data terminals give police access to licence checks, registration searches, criminal record checks and email.
NSW and Queensland - which run their terminals on the soon-to-close Telstra DataTAC network - will upgrade the screens to a new GPRS-based network. Queensland is also considering replacing terminals with a more modern technology.
SA is also likely to upgrade, with mobile data terminal replacement listed in the service's forward procurement plan for 2003-2006.
NSW will start upgrading its 500 in-car data screens to run on the GPRS mobile data network and extend the reach of the terminals. It is hoping to integrate the screens with another bit of must-have law enforcement agency technology - a new in-car video system.
Funded in the recent state budget, the service is likely to go shopping for the cameras shortly. The project will see police cars fitted with cameras - likely digital - to monitor traffic stops and arrests.
"The in-car video is in the early stages," Deputy Commissioner Andrew Scipione says. "We've done a couple of trials (digital and analog) and there are a couple more under way but it has now been funded and we are progressing."
In-car video is also on the shopping list in Victoria, with the state coming to the end of a 12-month trial of three different systems.
The windscreen-mounted cameras are complemented by radio mikes worn by officers, feeding video and audio back into a digital recorder installed in the car.
The results of the tests are being eagerly awaited in several other states, including Queensland.
Victoria Police in-car video project manager Inspector Ross Oberin says the systems - which hold a running buffer of 60 seconds of video both prior to officers activating the record button and and after the recording is de-activated - was already proving valuable.
"We have had a fair number of incidents resulting in complaints where you examine the video and it's clear they're vexatious or mistaken," he says. "In some cases there was the suggestion police had said or done things and in the past all we could do was investigate. When you look at the video it's obvious what the situation is."
The buffer allows police to activate a camera when they see a car run a red light, for instance. Although the officer presses record after the incident, the offence is still recorded.
The video cameras are installed so they are activated when sirens are used.
Oberin says Victoria Police have gone for a simple system, with a single fixed camera. "We could reduce the amount of time police spend in court arguing the toss on traffic matters, particularly when police are working on their own," he says.
Video is recorded in MPEG-1 format, although police have since decided MPEG-4 would be more appropriate. The service would like two audio channels, one data channel and a video channel.
And digital is definitely the way to go.
"We can give anyone who cares to ask lots of reasons for digital and none for tape," Oberin says.
A spokeswoman for Queensland Police says the force is undergoing "business requirements definition activities" on several technologies, including in-car cameras.
In addition to data and video, communications is also set for further investment. NSW Police is getting "encouraging signs" that the government will put up cash for complete digitisation of the Sydney radio network. The budget allocated funding for improving coverage on the country network.
The current police radio network in Sydney is a combination of analog in some areas and digital along the "Olympic corridor", where extra technology was installed for the 2000 Games.
Western Australia Police has begun procurement work, with the new network expected to go live in 2007.
WA's new Digital Trunked Radio Network will be complemented by GPS tracking of police vehicles and a new computer-aided dispatch system. The second stage of the CAD system will go live in 2004.
On an administrative level, WA Police is moving to stage two of its electronic court brief preparation system, which will see court results automatically entered into a police database. The service can already send electronic briefs to court through the Canadian-based BriefCase system.
WA is also rolling out a major upgrade to its Incident Management System, replacing legacy systems with what a spokesman described as a single comprehensive database that will become the "engine room" of intelligence-led policing.
Fourteen existing systems will be linked by the web-based Frontline IMS linking people, places, vehicles and property "of interest". Once stage two of the project is rolled out in 2004, every incident involving WA Police will be logged in the database.
WA will also upgrade its Insight crime mapping system, and introduce a new custody tracking package.
SA is undertaking a similar project, tipping an upgrade to front-end its legacy incident management system with a Java-based web system, and install a new intelligence system and data warehouse.
Future, possibilities include the "police station on the belt" concept, which could eventually see police officers carrying PDAs. NSW has looked at several PDAs and examined different types of software. Personal GPS transceivers, as sewn into the stab vests of British police, were also being examined.
But NSW police are cautious about the possibilities of GPS, as Sydney's high buildings and hilly terrain create an "urban canyoning" affect that blocks some signals, Scipione says.
"It will be an important tool in the future when we can be sure the technology is reliable," he says.
Scipione is less enthusiastic about facial recognition technology, much-hyped in the US where the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing it for war zones as part of the Combat Zones That See project. The state budget gave facial recognition for police mug shots the go-ahead as part of the PhotoTrack system, but Scipione warns wider video systems still have bugs.
In Britain, facial recognition is used to track football hooligans in stadiums. "It works well, but there are still limitations," he says.
"We are not using (video systems) in NSW at this stage for crowd control and the like."
Ultimately, technology is no substitute for good police work, he says.
"We need to have good tried and tested policing techniques - they are things that will never go away," he says. "It's about complementing them with good use of available technology."
A WA police spokesman agreed, saying many technologies may seem attractive, but were not necessarily practical.
"Issues such as bandwidth, the ability of service providers to deliver sustainable high-speed service and the cost of such a service given the size of the state are all issues to be considered," he says.
"The placement of devices within vehicles has also to be addressed in terms of officer safety."
Civil libertarians are less than impressed with the proliferation of new policing technologies, warning incorrect or misleading data could be propagated Australia-wide.
NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Cameron Murphy says it is increasingly difficult to keep track of data stored in police databases, and even harder to correct when it was wrong.
The introduction of more automated technology such as facial recognition was also worrying, he says.
"Facial recognition is a joke," he says. "It just doesn't work. If your face resembles a terrorist, you will be pulled up everywhere - it amounts to harassment."
The Federal Police has also upped resources for computer forensics, recently opening the High Tech Crime Centre, a co-ordination unit between state and federal forces to combat internet crime.
Director Alastair MacGibbon says it will broaden the scope of AFP investigations, and allow federal resources to be used to combat a wider range of technology-based crimes.
"We are now in a position to look across a bigger spectrum, most importantly state-focused matters and online child sex offences" he says.
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