by Richard Pastore

What If Police Databases Fell in the Wrong Hands?

Feb 15, 20043 mins
Data Management

The guy in the SUV in front of us, stuck in Chicago traffic with about a million other cars, lives in Virginia, has not been arrested in the past several years, has one outstanding ticket for speeding (in Virginia), and is six months delinquent in renewing his registration.

I know this because I’m in a cop car, right on his tail. We’ve just entered his plate number into the MicroSlate notebook mounted on the center console of our unmarked cruiser. A few more clicks, and we probably could have found out when he bought the SUV and what he paid for it.

I’m in the back of the cruiser as part of my reporting on the Chicago Police Department’s data warehouse and application suite that won the 2004 Grand CIO Enterprise Value Award. You can read on Page 56 how this data-rich environment helps battle crime in Chicago and beyond.

Chicago patrol officers and desk-based detectives now have at their fingertips access to 200GB and nearly 8.5 million records of arrests and other incidents. Type in an address?say, the Krispy Kreme on the corner or your neighbor’s house?and up will pop a list of all reported incidents for that location. Access a known offender, and you’ll get a list of his addresses and aliases, and high-res images of his mug shots and tattoos (tattoos are the criminal equivalent of bar codes and are put to the same use by the cops).

All this information can and does prevent crime and save lives. But I can’t help but wonder what could happen if these tools fell into the wrong hands?a detective with a vendetta, a gang leader hacking through the firewall to find a witness against him. (FYI: I’m making no judgment, but Attorney General John Ashcroft’s FBI is already accessing Chicago’s database.)

Of course, the Chicago PD has installed state-of-the-art security. Firewalls, encryption, passwords. Access is determined by your role on the force. But perhaps the biggest safeguard is that there is a continuous audit trail of any and all system use. That has its own privacy ramifications, with which the police union will grapple. But as the SUV driver with the expired registration goes his merry way, never suspecting that a stranger just took a peek into his life, it makes me feel better.

Errant Illustration

A rare lapse in attention to detail recently caused inappropriate content to find its way into print. Our Jan. 15, 2004, issue featured an illustration, in the “Essential Technology” section, that we wish we’d looked at a lot more closely. The art in question could reasonably be seen as insensitive and offensive. It was not at all what we intended to convey. We apologize for our lack of vigilance.

Richard Pastore, Editor