Stephen G Serrao

Stephen G Serrao

Back in May, an article for Federal Computer Week entitled, “Intelligence Community Wrestles with Web 2.0 Tools for Information Sharing.” by Alan Joch asked an important question that caught my attention: “Do Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and wikis, have the potential to improve data sharing for law enforcement intelligence analysis?”

Such technologies do connect diverse groups and potentially large numbers of participants who might not otherwise work together. Blogs and wikis are relatively quick and easy to launch, and require minimal training for participants. They excel at presenting new, quickly unfolding information. This would be an important advancement if it aids information discoverability.

But wikis and blogs alone can’t adequately solve the discoverability dilemma. There are several key concerns worth discussing from my experience as an intelligence commander, my role designing data sharing systems for law enforcement agencies and Fusion Centers. Ultimately, law enforcement agencies still need to rely on data sharing technologies and information search platforms.

Why? First, Web 2.0 tools can’t be counted on for completeness and reliability of constantly changing information. Unfinished intelligence may be published yet lack significant evaluation by analysts, which is an important step to validating and publishing actionable intelligence. Participation would most likely include only a subset of the intelligence community and might diminish over time.

Also, intelligence data sharing activity must comply with regulations about how an agency stores its intelligence reports, who can see them, and how often they must be reviewed. Modern intelligence software has specific workflows, permissions, and automation to ensure law enforcement officers adhere to these regulations. When it comes to compliance, Web 2.0 tools lack these specific refinements and crucial automation. As privacy concerns grow, groups like the ACLU are watching for examples of non-compliance.

Web 2.0 tools seem to work best for connecting people and ideas-not data. And connecting people isn’t necessarily the answer for information sharing in law enforcement. Many believe police need to move beyond the practice of relying on personal relationships to make progress on an investigation.

Lastly, the sheer amount of data that could hold relevant clues is too large for any one person to digest, so while Web 2.0 interactions might help, they don’t leverage the untapped potential of data we don’t even know we have.

As an example, when an analyst is searching for records of a gang member with a particular tattoo, that query needs to be run against data warehouses to find long-forgotten, free-text narratives contained in intelligence and/or incident reports. Discovering relationships takes processing power and capabilities, such as “unstructured free text data search,” to find useful information buried deep in a “comment” field in far-flung law enforcement databases. Searching unstructured free text data requires specialized software, but it solves a major problem of finding leads when you don’t know where to look.

While Web 2.0 may give law enforcement officials useful new ideas and establish social connections that didn’t exist before, a specialized information sharing platform is still law enforcement’s best intelligence tool to assess threats and fight crime.

Captain Stephen G. Serrao (New Jersey State Police,  retired) is Director of Product Management, Americas Region, for Memex, Inc. Serrao can be reached at