BlueLine: A “Social” Network for Cops?
BlueLine: A “Social” Network for Cops?
I’ve been following news about the new “social network for cops” called BlueLine (by Bratton Technologies) which is due to go live sometime at the end of October this year. From what I understand it’s designed to be a network for police to securely share everything from photos, videos, tips and intel. A website where law enforcement can interact with each other in a secure way.
For those outside law enforcement it may seem like police from different agencies network and collaborate all the time to catch criminals. The reality is, it’s nothing like TV or the movies. Unlike the military, law enforcement agencies do not have a secure way to communicate via something like the DoD SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network). In basic terms this means a patrol officer, community police officer, or Detective have no way to send and receive secure information between agencies. Sure dispatchers can send “teletype” messages to other agencies, but those are focused on out of jurisdiction administrative information such as verifying warrants and stolen vehicles. Other teletype messages pertaining to officer safety, BOLOs and flash alerts are also sent out, but it’s a one way conversation. There’s really no way to quickly trade information.
You may also be surprised to hear that most agency email accounts are open to public information requests. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my signature reminding those I’m emailing any information could become public. There is really no such thing as sending a “secure” file via email or other means.
That’s just the start of the “networking” issues law enforcement faces. Take my agency as an example. We have 8 city police departments within our county and we are a tri-county agency which also borders the city of Tampa. You would think that as a Detective I would be able to quickly disseminate or retrieve information with officers in other agencies, but that’s just not the case. Trying to send or receive information turns into true “HUMINT networking” with other officers known to me personally, through co-workers (“hey Joe, do you know anyone in Street Crimes over in Tampa?”) or plain old cold calls to that agencies dispatcher.
Once you figure out who you need to talk to, you have to actually get them on the phone or meet face to face. In a patrol situation that’s no problem, but trying to meet with someone in a “specialty unit” is another animal in itself. Once you get that meeting or interaction, trading information back and forth can become a challenge as well. Handing off photocopied packets and sending unsecured email is still the norm in 21st century law enforcement.
The Reality of LEO Databases
Law enforcement databases are usually local to that agency. Some cities contract and share the same database to save money, usually with the county Sheriff. As a Deputy, the reports I generate, the subjects I build (and their associates), vehicles and addresses cannot be accessed by many adjacent departments in my county. This means officers from certain agencies cannot access our county database and we cannot access theirs. Same goes for adjacent counties, the Highway Patrol, or Federal officers.
Suspects and their associates are often double or triple built by different agencies within a county. Here is an example: Joe Dirtbag the drug dealer lives in the city of St Petersburg. He travels to his supplier in the city of Tarpon Springs, both of which are within the same county. He is built in the St Pete database and the Tarpon Springs database. Since he gets pulled over by a Deputy he is now built in the county database. None of these databases overlap and none of the officers in their respective area know what Joe Dirtbag is doing in other cities or areas of the county. Now multiply that by numerous cities within our county, the state and federal level.
While there are other databases available like the Department of Corrections and a few others I won’t name, they’re all disjointed and it can take hours of research to build a file on a suspect.
Current Online Resources
While there have been attempts to make “secure” forums for law enforcement, they have really been limited in my opinion. PoliceOne.com, Officer.com, AR15.com, M4Carbine.net and a few others have “LEO only” sections of their main forums, but they are lacking and fall more into a more casual forum atmosphere. I dare to even mention the website LeoAffairs.com as it is more of a clown show than anything legitimate.
So why do I feel these forums are lacking? First and foremost, they’re not secure. They each try to verify your law enforcement credentials or .gov email address but once you are signed in there is no real way of knowing who is reading your posts or knowing if your peers are legitimate. While I believe PoliceOne.com and Officer.com have more of an interest in securing the information on their website, who knows how far they really go. I also know some agencies have policies forbidding photocopying of officers credentials, thus eliminating any way for those officers to be verified. Adding more, some officers simply will not send a photocopy of their credentials to a forum administrator for vetting.
As for AR15.com I know for a fact that non law enforcement “forum administrators” have access to all the posts and comments in LEO Only forums. Therefore anything posted can be viewed by those administrators. To me this is no different than posting a question about tactics or INTEL in the “General Discussion” section; and if you know anything about AR15.com, the “GD” section is the armpit of the internet (in my opinion).
Secondly all of these forums are more geared toward talking about equipment and gear, blowing off steam, or bitching about something or someone. I’ve seen most legitimate questions about tactics or intel going directly to PM (private message) and even then do you really know who you are chatting with? Trading .gov emails seems to be the best bet, but then you are back to square one as we’ve already discussed.
Enter BlueLine. Maybe.
Right off the bat, I’ve seen news articles labeling BlueLine as a “social network for law enforcement”[1,2]. I think this is a label BlueLine needs to get rid of and get rid of fast! We (cops) are our worst enemy and the stupid, ridiculous and outright immature behavior of some have forced Chiefs and Sheriffs to come up with social media policies governing employee use of social media websites. Even Facebook or Twitter posts that seem totally innocent have gotten officers suspended or even fired. In my opinion, those running the marketing of BlueLine to agencies need to get out from under this label. If not they will fall into the realm of “policy” and may not be able to be used by some agencies.
Now, if BlueLine can get past the “social” label and fall more in line with business sites like LinkedIn, I think it may have real potential. Using a layout more along the lines of Facebook and not traditional forums makes sense. The interaction on Facebook is much more intuitive than surfing forums and by adding LinkedIn style networking would be great.
BlueLine states the network and data will be secured in a center that is compliant with the FBI and Department of Defense. When I was in the Army using the SIPRNet and secure phone lines to communicate with American Embassies overseas, I didn’t give much thought to the technical details of how those communications were secured. I didn’t have to as it was in-house with the DoD. BlueLine being a private company will have to prove to the Chiefs and Sheriffs that the data is secure, but also prove this to the line officers who will be using the network the most.
I’m also on the fence as I see BlueLine will have advertising on the site. Someone has to pay the bills right? Will my information be given or sold to a company so they can market to me (or my friends or social networks)? While using “social media” as a template makes sense, will the practice of data mining also come along with it?
What starts as a novel idea can quickly be turned into something else when advertising and big corporations get involved. Just walk into any mom and pop “tactical gear shop” and ask why their shelves are full of 511, Uncle Mikes and Blackhawk gear. Big corporations put enormous demands on retailers to push their product and the same thing can happen on websites with advertisers.
If my tinfoil hat falls off and none of this turns out to be true, I think BlueLine has great potential. The thought of networking and sharing information securely will definitely fill that chasm that currently exists. Social networking has proven that sharing information online works (for good and bad). The speed at which news travels now is amazing. The recent terrorist attack at the mall in Kenya and the active shooter at the Navy Yard in DC are just two examples. Heck, even the raid on Bin Laden was live-tweeted!
If I could post a question about a subject, vehicle, or crime pattern on my “wall” of the BlueLine website and have those in my network see that question and respond with information or even photos (just like I do on Facebook when asking about gear or tactical training), I can see this being a true leap in law enforcement technology.
Will law enforcement embrace this new age of information or will we stand by the wayside? Will agency “social media” policies get in the way of officers networking? How will public information requests and government transparency play into this? If you access BlueLine from your work computer would that be looked at the same as surfing Facebook on duty?
There are certainly a lot of questions to be answered as law enforcement blasts full speed into the “social media” arena. This is happening whether most like it or not! What are your thoughts on the idea of BlueLine?