Most police executives should by now be familiar with the concept of “the cloud.” That is, using the Internet to store and access information, including e-mail, files, images and video, and so on. The question for them, however, is: Should police use the cloud to store data?
The main concern is that the shared infrastructure built to contain sensitive data may no longer be under the agency’s physical control. Shudders of fear go down the spine of any sensible records management official who thinks he or she no longer controls the data or the computers it’s stored on. But cloud computing is not a new concept, even for law enforcement.
For years, and particularly over the last decade, law enforcement agencies have successfully built systems to share information between both internal divisions and multiple agencies. Notable examples include: Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Records Management Systems (RMS). These were around long before the cloud was dreamed up. Information sharing tools like COPLINK and Datamaxx solutions connect law enforcement agencies in regional, state or even multi-state collaborations.
Storage systems like VeriPic and TASER’s Evidence.com let agencies store quantities of digital video and audio that would quickly take up space in most traditional storage configurations.
National, regional, state and local initiatives to share information among agencies have long been popular, from the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) to local sharing like the Alaska Law Enforcement Information Sharing System (ALEISS).
Companies worldwide are looking to the cloud’s potential to reduce the cost of doing business in the global environment. The costs of building an information technology (IT) infrastructure, maintaining its security along with software licenses, and training employees on new systems have increased substantially over the past decade. Meanwhile, the cost of high-speed Internet access has decreased, even as speeds (and thus, bandwidth, or the Internet’s capacity to handle large amounts of data) and reliability have increased.
At the same time, evidence shows that cloud use can actually help save money. Last year, an Enterprise Management Association (EMA) survey showed that 60 percent of 159 surveyed organizations had saved IT capital costs by using the cloud. One-quarter had additionally experienced reduced operational expenditures, including staff, maintenance, power and rental costs. (On average, the savings worked out to about 22 percent in operational costs and 26 percent in capital costs.)
The survey noted other benefits, too. These included freeing up strategic resources (49 percent), enabling disaster recovery/business continuity planning (46 percent), and increased flexibility and agility (46 percent).
The story’s the same for law enforcement. Dwindling discretionary funds, both budgeted and from grants, don’t allow for large scale IT projects anymore. The cost of maintaining the current infrastructures will continue to go up as legacy systems need repair and upkeep. Smaller departments with little budget for IT improvements have very little room for change or improvement. So is the cloud a real option for law enforcement?
Using the cloud
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in its 2010 report on cloud computing, defined three service models: software as a service, platform as a service, and infrastructure as a service.
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) allows service providers to provide the storage, networking, processing and other resources. The organization can use cloud-based platform and software, or install either or both locally. In a law enforcement context, the International Justice & Public Safety Network (NLETS, formerly the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System), the backbone of all justice information sharing, is an example of IaaS.