US law enforcement arm girds for high-tech criminal battles

Protecting digital evidence, employing advance VoIP devices to help fight law-breakers and using a variety of leading edge collaboration as well as biometric tools to keep ahead of the criminal element are but a few of the directions outlined by the US Department of Justice's research and development arm, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

The NIJ made 514 awards -- just over $1.1 billion -- for research, development, and evaluation of a variety of programs according to its 2007 annual report issued this week.  

The group has a wide range of responsibilities but is supposed to identify best practices; develop performance standards and conduct compliance testing for law enforcement equipment; advance law enforcement technology and improve the use of DNA among its many requirements.

The high tech crime fighting tools the group is working on include:

  • A public-private partnership between Cisco and the Danville, Virginia, Police Department. Cisco developed a radio-over-IP known as Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) that lets police officers with disparate radio devices communicate across State lines in real time. While the system was piloted in Danville, other communities have adopted the program. The system helps officers more quickly track cross-border suspect and handle emergency situations more efficiently.
  • Large-Scale code breaking: An NIJ-funded project, the Distributed Network Attack (DNA) for Large-Scale Code Breaking, is an online way for law enforcement officers to open encrypted files. When investigating officers need to open an encrypted file-in other words, need to break a code or identify the encryption key-they use a password recovery tool to gather the first 60 bytes of digital information from the encrypted file. They then electronically submit this digital information to the DNA server. Once the DNA master computer has received the investigator's submission, it parses the information to many computers on the DNA network, each of which works to assemble a small portion of the encryption key. The DNA master computer assembles all of the pieces of the encryption key and sends the results back to the investigating officers. The investigating officers then download the encryption key and enter it into the password recovery tool, letting them decrypt the contents of the suspect file, the NIJ said. In FY 2006, the project tested a number of write block devices, which preserve the integrity of digital evidence when officers remove data from an electronic device.
  • Fingerprints: In the biometrics realm, the NIJ is working on a number of initiatives. (Between 2005 and 2007, the NIJ gave over 8.3 million to fund four biometric projects at universities and corporations). NIJ-funded scientists and engineers are working on new tools and techniques that will capture the equivalent of 10 rolled fingerprints in less than 15 seconds and both palm prints in less than 1 minute. The current technique takes several minutes, requires a trained technician, and does not capture an imprint of the side of the hand or the palm, the NIJ said. NIJ's fast-capture initiative will improve fingerprint image quality, decrease the time it takes to capture fingerprints, and develop products that are affordable and can be manufactured in the near future. Three technological approaches are being used to find a fast-capture fingerprinting technology: Two projects use high-resolution camera imaging to capture fingerprints, the NIJ stated. One, created by Carnegie Mellon University, constructs a three-dimensional visual model of the entire hand using 10 micro-cameras positioned at different angles to image the hand. Meanwhile a project by TBS North America uses a three-camera system that captures the print as it scans under the fingers. The system captures detailed finger ridge and valley characteristics using novel image-processing algorithms. Finally a project by Cross Match Technologies uses a two-dimensional silicon contact sensor array on a polymer plastic foil to capture an equivalent rolled fingerprint. The polymer conforms to the shape of the finger on contact. A 64 x 64-pixel model has been developed and tested, according to the NIJ.
  • Face capture: In 2006, an NIJ-funded project at Sonic Foundry produced a prototype of facial recognition and audio analysis software. Other facial recognition systems funded in 2006 continue to advance the technologies involved in suspect identification. A grant at the New Jersey Institute of Technology is developing a system that uses an advanced algorithm to identify faces, the NIJ said. This algorithm has shown success in solving other complex pattern-recognition problems. Another grant, awarded to GE Global Research Corporation, will create a prototype of a program that extracts facial images from surveillance video. The images are rotated in three dimensions as necessary and combined to produce a recognizable image.
  • The Global Justice XML Data Model: The Global JXDM is an object-oriented data model for organizing the content such as interstate driver's license data and helps law enforcement agencies exchange information through networks like the Automated Regional Justice Information System. The NIJ lead the research and development effort underlying this initiative, contributing more than $1 million in research, development, and technical assistance to the effort in 2006.
  • Automatic license plate readers: ALPR systems scan license plates of cars driving past a certain point on a road or from a moving patrol vehicle, often reading plates in multiple lanes of traffic. They can identify stolen vehicles, stolen license plates, or vehicles with outstanding warrants, matching plates against FBI, State, or local databases that have been downloaded into the reader's processor. The NIJ said field testing in Maryland recovered 8 stolen cars, found 12 stolen plates, and made 3 arrests in a single shift. The Long Beach, Calif., police use four patrol cars outfitted with ALPR. The department has scanned 3.3 million plates in 15 months, identified 1,992 lost or stolen plates, recovered 490 stolen vehicles, and arrested 92 suspects.14 Future research will develop standards for sharing database information; explore data-mining strategies for information-led policing; and evaluate policies, performance, and new plate-reading algorithms, according to the NIJ.

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