The New York Times: Police Take Fight onto the Web

March 6, 2009 | Coverage

The New York Times

3VR's CrimeDex is Crime Fighting 2.0


FIRST, MySpace. Now, Mugshotbook?

Like unhip adults late to adopt a fad, police departments and other law enforcement agencies are jumping on the social networking bandwagon. They hope to break down bureaucratic boundaries between departments and jurisdictions and further the fight against crime.

A few companies in the field are developing promising businesses, and supporters have given the trend a slightly cringe-inducing name: Law Enforcement 2.0.

As in so many other realms where the use of technology has expanded in what seems an eye-blink, this crime-fighting method promises great improvements over traditional ways of getting things done. But it also challenges existing privacy protections, like limitations on the information investigators can share about people they may suspect of committing crimes.

Most prominently, police agencies are now using the same Web 2.0 tools as everyone else — sites like YouTube, Twitter and MySpace. Last month, in a case that made national headlines, the police in Auburn, Me., posted on Facebook images from a surveillance video that showed three teenagers vandalizing the spa at a local Hilton.

Facebook members soon provided tips, and suspects were arrested and charged with burglary and criminal mischief.

The Auburn police publicly heralded the investigative possibilities of Facebook. But to avoid breaking the law themselves, the police then blurred the faces of the teenagers in the photos, because it is against Maine law for the police to publicly disseminate information about minors.

Now Web services are being developed specifically to allow public and private investigative agencies to share information, and these tools are increasingly popular within law enforcement.

One service, called CrimeDex, is billed by its creators as a “Facebook for law enforcement.” Jim Hudson, a former police officer, started the service in 2002 after growing frustrated with the wasted time investigators spent trying to determine whether other agencies were chasing the same suspects.

CrimeDex, now owned by 3VR, a San Francisco company that makes an image recognition system for surveillance cameras, says it is used by more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies and private businesses like banks and retail chains. For a monthly fee, members can submit information, photographs and videos related to possible crimes and make comparisons with data from agencies that may be seeing similar patterns or suspects.

“It’s the digital equivalent of the old-fashioned Western sheriffs nailing a wanted poster to a tree,” Mr. Hudson said.

Some investigators swear by it. Carol Byrum, a vice president and senior investigator at Wells Fargo, said it helped prosecutors build a case against Eduard Kholstinin, a Russian national who was caught in 2007 using fabricated A.T.M. cards to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from the accounts of California Wells Fargo customers.

After he was arrested in Oregon while carrying counterfeit driver’s licenses and credit cards in his car, the surveillance images that Ms. Byrum had posted to CrimeDex helped to link crimes in the two states. Mr. Kholstinin was convicted of money laundering and identity theft and is now serving a sentence in federal prison in Oregon.

But civil liberties advocates wring their hands at possible abuses of CrimeDex. The police typically file subpoenas or make other formal requests to get companies to hand over evidence of a crime. There is no legal process, or oversight, for sharing information on CrimeDex.

Privacy advocates also worry that a bank or another company may wrongly put an innocent person’s name or image onto the system, and that the person could suffer consequences elsewhere.

“We would be concerned if people are being deprived of a service because of something written or posted on there that doesn’t result in charges or convictions,” said Michael German, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former F.B.I. agent

Mr. Hudson responds that CrimeDex takes all privacy and intelligence-sharing laws into account and that companies are instructed to publish information on CrimeDex only if it is connected to a known crime.

Privacy advocates seem more amenable to another Law Enforcement 2.0 service,, based in Salt Lake City. The site, intended to increase the transparency of law enforcement agencies and strengthen their interaction with the public, allows police agencies around the country to record instances of crime on a single nationwide map powered by Google.

CITIZENS can visit the site and see a map of crimes in their neighborhood, peer across city lines to see crimes elsewhere, and sign up to receive regular e-mail alerts of all recorded criminal activity in their area.

Around 450 police agencies pay up to $199 a month to use the service, including departments in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Cleveland and all of Utah and Maryland, according to the site. Next month, CrimeReports plans to add a neighborhood watch feature, so citizens can form groups on the service and send alerts and tips to participating police agencies.

That might sound to some like a dangerous call for public vigilantism and an invitation for a million Dirty Harrys to inundate the police with unsubstantiated reports.

But law enforcement officials say they welcome the help. “The public knows what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” said Mark Shurtleff, attorney general of Utah, who has been battling to maintain funding to keep using CrimeReports amid the state’s budget woes. “We are not asking them to be vigilantes, or make arrests, but to keep their eyes open and notify law enforcement.” 

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