Stephen G Serrao

As law enforcement analysts and investigating officers do their jobs, they are finding a treasure trove of useful information on the Web. In fact, there’s been a significant increase in the amount of open source data that is being used by law enforcement over the past 5 years. Internet search tools, social networking sites, and other Web 2.0 technology tools have matured in that time span and now investigators can learn a lot about a suspect and build a picture based on public information. Some of that data actually comes from information a person may publish in his or her own Web-based profile.

In the pre-Internet days, analysts and investigators used open source tools like “reverse” phone directories or they would visit the city tax office and look up ownership of property. They would learn information by reading the newspaper or they might do “trash runs” or “dumpster-diving.” Now, technology allows officers to point content retrieval tools at specific Web sites, and automatically scrape and store information in a database alongside intelligence data. This open source data can be compared and contrasted against existing intelligence data.

Street Gangs are known to post pictures of their gang signs, graffiti, and tattoos on social media sites, often times filling in the details for police. Intel officers are harnessing publicly available info to learn suspect birthdates, property ownership, and more. If they need to conduct surveillance at a suspected gang meeting location, they check Google Earth to determine the routes of ingress and egress, and the best spot from which to conduct surveillance.

Open source can help determine known associates. If an officer tails a suspect to a business location and they meet with someone, you can often times quickly learn who owns the company and develop additional relationship details.

One of the major advances that allow open source data to be useful is unstructured data searching. Previously, if you wanted to search for a tattoo, you’d have to go to a field-based search in the tattoos field of a database. With unstructured search, you can find a free-text narrative from a witness statement that described a rose tattoo in a previous case. You could search rose tattoo in open source, too, and find a picture of a rose tattoo on a Facebook page, and you could show that to the victim for an ID.

Federated searching is also important. Now, analysts are able to resolve identities and confirm that a Joe Smith in one database is the same Joe Smith in an open data source. The open source trend, coupled with new system technology, has accelerated investigations. It makes more meaningful data available faster.

Captain Stephen G. Serrao is a former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism Bureau Chief, and now helps shape the direction of intelligence management software as Director of Product Management, Americas Region for Memex, Inc., a worldwide provider of intelligence management, data integration, search and analysis solutions ( Serrao can be reached at