The model for a successful distributed approach to regional crime databases already exists, pioneered by the Portland, Oregon, company Thinkstream. This model, which some consider a technically appealing way to avoid political squabbles related to ownership and logistics of data, does not require local agencies to surrender their data to a global federal bucket. Instead, the distributed network interrogates the data where it's created.
"This is a distributed system that provides real-time access to data at the site where the data is located without having to aggregate or move the data to a national data center," says Thinkstream president and CEO Barry Bellue.
Thinkstream's software has been in place in the state of Louisiana since 2004, where all state law enforcement agencies are connected by a system called LACCIE (Louisiana Civil and Criminal Information Network). County jurisdictions in California, Texas and Florida also are implementing the scheme.
"The patrol officer through any wireless device with access to the Internet, such as a laptop or Blackberry, can run record checks on individuals, check local warrants and misdemeanor warrants, or check stolen property records in any system in the state from any location in the state," says Sheriff Richard Edwards of Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana.
When the officer enters a name, race, sex and date-of-birth inquiry, the system now searches more than 300 different databases with one click. Results are typically returned in 20 to 40 seconds.
"Prior to LACCIE, we would have had to do 8 to 10 separate searches to obtain information that is now provided with just one query," says Capt. Bobby Baker, Ouachita Parish (Louisiana) Sheriff's Office.
Edwards advises agencies to move forward to sharing information. "We have not in any way created a new database, nor are we mining data," he says. "We are reading other systems and sharing that information via LACCIE."Growing privacy concerns
Regardless of system architecture, one of the most serious snags in any national crime database relates to the issue of privacy invasion. The larger the database, the greater the concern the safety is off and the system will be neither accurate nor secure.
Many of the data protection laws passed in the United States that limit the government's collection, use and dissemination of data about its citizens evolved because well-meaning, but over-zealous, government officials abused the information.
Data accuracy is one issue. "How do we insure that the information in the N-DEx database is accurate?" asks Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty section.
It's not like conviction information where someone has gone through a trial or plead guilty to a crime and law enforcement can have some confidence the information being reported is accurate, he notes.
"Here, you are talking about accusations, and some of them will be unfounded," Calabrese says.
For instance, suppose police respond to a domestic abuse complaint. They come to the house and take a report. The report goes into the local RMS. Later, the investigation determines the accusation to be unfounded.
"It's not clear that N-DEx would require a second report saying the incident was investigated and found to be unfounded," he explains. "The police have no incentive to keep the system updated, and initial reports could be left hanging in the system — potentially damaging to someone's career or reputation."
Security is another issue. Crime data is of potential interest to parties outside law enforcement.
"Everyone from landlords to insurance companies to criminals are going to want to see what's in this database," Calabrese says. Criminals, for instance, might want the identities of witnesses against them or the status of investigations.
Cuthbertson says N-DEx complies with all existing CJIS division security policies. But while the FBI may have a strong interest in keeping the database secure, Calabrese says in many ways N-DEx is a more powerful system than they have probably ever compiled before.
"Whether they are up to the challenge of keeping it secure I think is a fair question," he notes.