Leveraging Law Enforcement Expertise

Information technology empowers law enforcement to investigate and interpret crime more efficiently. Take the example of Graffiti Tracker, which I highlighted at the Federation of Tax Administrator’s recent tech conference. Street artists commit a crime when they deface public or private property with graffiti. But it is a crime that is hard to fight because to bust an artist police normally have to catch him in the act.

Enter Tim Kephart. He studied street graffiti and became an expert on it. He recognized that each artist has a unique style and often a signature or handle.

It would be too expensive for a municipality to have Kephart circulate physically around the city investigating graffiti crime. So he invented a way to perform his expert analysis of graffiti sites, without visiting each one individually. His Graffiti Tracker service equips municipal employees (such as police officers and sanitation workers) with digital cameras sporting GPS recorders. When a city worker spots fresh graffiti, she sends a snapshot of it to a database maintained by Kephart. Each photo is tagged with date and GPS coordinates.

Kephart then analyzes the photos according to their style, location, date and so on. He profiles the most prolific offenders, and the area of their probable residence, by virtue of their recorded behavior. This intelligence tips the police on whom to be looking for, when and where.

[Update: When I originally wrote this post in 2007 Graffiti Tracker used GPS-enabled digital cameras. Now, 2011, the Los Angeles police are using a similar method to fight graffiti. But rather than cameras, they rely on smart phones, which make more economic sense. Smart phones can perform many services that cameras cannot perform. So the cost of equipping city workers with smart phones can be justified by many purposes beyond just fighting graffiti.]

Graffiti Tracker is a specific instance of a larger idea. If law enforcement can gather good digital clues into a database, it can economically hire an expert investigator to shift and interpret them.

I dreamed up an example of this idea for the tax conference, although I stressed this was just an abstract example and not a suggestion for implementation. A state tax authority could use the Web to gather information about meetings, conventions and events, large and small, to be held within its borders. The Web is bursting with this information, and the detail swells larger every day. When these meetings attract out-of-state workers, the state could require the workers to pay income tax on the wages and salary they earned while in the state.

In order to make intelligent use of the “clues” available on the Web, the state could hire and train “experts” from a low-wage locale such as India or Bangladesh. These experts (analogs to Tim Kephart) could economically divine which out-of-state workers and employers should receive tax notices and audits.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not recommending a state do this! All I am doing is illustrating how technology can allow the talents of a law enforcement expert to be employed more economically.

P.S. If a business doesn't want tax authorities to gather intelligence from its web site, it might post terms of service that forbid such snooping. The terms would be like a form of end user license agreement (EULA) or no trespassing sign that advance the legal rights of the web site owner. This idea is not legal advice, but it is something to think about.