Supercomputers: the long arm of the law?

On the basis that the Top 500 listing isn't just the subjective pronouncements of a couple of blokes in Texas, and that not being...

On the basis that the Top 500 listing isn't just the subjective pronouncements of a couple of blokes in Texas, and that not being there means you're not a supercomputer, Johnny Burglar has little to fear from the technological Behemoth.

Police say they don't use supercomputers, and suppliers either say nothing, or say they know of no police forces who use supercomputers. What, then, do they use? What happens to the mountain ranges of information said to be available to the police?

Crime - in the UK this is anything precluded either by statute or by the common law - includes fraud of which, as Mark Jeffery of Business Intelligence at Silicon Graphics (SGI) points out, there's a fair bit around. SGI bought and recently sold Cray but, having 'hung on to about 40 staff and most of the software', still considers itself in the supercomputer business.

Nothing to do with crime, though. A 1998 SGI press release described a 'new Medicaid fraud, abuse, and waste detection system' in Texas, with 'neural network technology that learns from experience to recognise suspicious patterns'. But Mr Jeffery concedes the Origin2000 hardware used is not Top 500 material, whilst adding, reasonably, that it's 'quite big, and it does the job'.

It seems fair to say that, were there a Top 500 criminals' list, its constituents might in any case be a trifle blas‚ about a system designed to stop people fiddling their Medicaid payments. Not so, says Jeffery. The system can be used to combat money laundering, uses things like clustering algorithms to detect unusual transactions, is smart enough to spot 'smurfing' - paying in the millions you've nicked in small chunks - and is currently being pitched at British banks.

Jeffery goes on to say this has yet to prove an unqualified success, as financial institutions seem reluctant to admit activities of this nature occur within their austere boundaries - 'they prefer', he says, 'to pretend the problem doesn't exist'. A straw poll of banks proves him right, although Chase Manhattan vp Greg Cutbush did say Chase has a fraud department which isn't actually called a fraud department.

Credit Suisse was unavailable for comment on a BBC report quoting 'regulators who said banks, including Credit Suisse Group, did not use proper caution when accepting money of dubious origin from the family of late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha'. I'm sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation, but I'm not sure I fancy SGI's chances in Zurich.

What then of the manufacturer of three tennis court size mega RS/6000 bolt-up Asci White? Big Blue's normally engaging PR department was strangely reticent, didn't think it had sold much to the UK police, wasn't sure about anywhere else, but thought 'there might be something somewhere'. Apparently there wasn't, although the redoubtable Paul Fryer, in Finland and speaking from memory, said the UN uses AS/400s for war crime investigations, including 'consolidating evidence, and coming up with suspects'. The same application is used in the US; Las Vegas casinos use AS/400s to identify shady goings on, and he was quite sure he'd never said 'if you can't do it on an AS/400, then it ain't worth doing'.

Robert Festenstein, a Manchester based lawyer whose acquaintance with the computer business is of more than the nodding variety, says: 'You do not need a Cray to check out fingerprints and car registrations,' and he thinks it 'highly likely the police aren't fully using the information they've already got.' This, he believes, is partly due to the incumbent parochial nature of the various police forces, but also because any use of technology invokes 'a load of emotive Big Brother stuff, and we're not talking about that tedious tv programme.'

'The public,' says Festenstein, 'is quick to yelp about invasion of privacy - look at the fuss when they put birthdays on driving licences - but the minute a car radio's stolen it wants the local bobby to show up leading a contrite culprit within the hour. Personally, I don't see why they can't just fingerprint everyone in the land and be done with it - at least you'd catch the ones who aren't bright enough to wear gloves.'

There are two main police computer systems, both based in London, and both part of PITO (Police Information Technology Organisation). The PNC (Police National Computer) is a Siemens S-150, runs a BS2000 Operating System with open-UTM TP Monitor, and the Adabas database is accessed by programs written in Software AG's Natural. PITO has a marketing and communications department where Debra Leith says the beast is rated at 330 mips, although Siemens account manager Robert Sketchley is at pains to point out that his company uses RPFs (Reactive Performance Factors) as units of measurement as 'basically, one of our mips would be two to five times faster than one of IBM's'. Anyway, it's fairly clouty, and accessible info includes firearm and car details, plus everything from modus operandi to shoe size on convicted criminals.

NAFIS (National Automated Fingerprint Indentification System), 'basically a whole load of racked up Sun machines', deals with - well, fingerprints - and is progressing from ink pads and bits of paper, to sticking your hand on a thing that looks a bit like one of those bar code readers in Waitrose. Then there's PNN2 (Police National Network 2), for which a contract was signed with Cable and Wireless in September 1999, plus a host of other abbreviations (38 in all, and I query the description of PNN2, PSRCP/S, and NDPB as acronyms) which are helpfully listed in the 1999-2000 PITO annual report.

So, supercomputers or no, Constable Evans in Aberystwith can whack a set of prints through, find out if any of the 6 million or so on file match those of his apprehendee and check MO, car, gun info, and shoe size, all at the touch of a mouse. Not necessarily - 25 of Britain's 43 police forces are connected to Nafis, and the rest aren't planned to be on until 2001 but, with 128 million database items claimed to be on file, the potential information interaction is staggering. It will surely come to pass.

Jevan Morris, deputy director of Identification and Verification Services at PITO, makes the point that the information is all there anyway, and they'll just be using it better. I'm not too sure about that - your mother showing your girl friends embarrassing bits from your school reports is a minor irritation, but you wouldn't want it strewn about the internet.

Fingerprints, confirms Morris, are unique. Then there's nose, elbow and ear prints, the last apparently most commonly used in Holland where (no, Morris doesn't know why either) they tend to be left on the glass of French windows; and there was the pilot scheme in Newham where CCTV images of passers by were compared with an online rogues' gallery. What is lacking, says Morris, is cross relationships, but he emphasises that information is only held on conviction - all the stuff gets destroyed the minute you skip out of the Appeal Court, as long as you haven't been done for something else.

I ask about Robert Festenstein's if it moves fingerprint it notion, and Morris agrees that would make things easier, but says the public wouldn't have it - he mentioned Orwell and Huxley and, like Mr Festenstein, recalled the fuss about the new driving licences.

What is germane about the new driving licences? Come, I will tell you. Long, long ago - after Chuck Berry did Johnny B Goode, but before Bill Grundy met the Pistols on telly - the British driving licence was a natty little book with red cardboard covers which, completed by hand, arrived from your local authority by return of post. A natural candidate for efficiency improvement, the system was centralised to Wales, and people - there are always those wishing to retard progress - have since commented unkindly that the waiting time has been elongated to something in excess of a week.

That is not the point. The new driving licence laid bare the birth date of its holder, and souls sensitive to such horrors complained, but were pacified by the news that their birth date would be printed in the lower right hand corner and, should they wish, they could simply lop it off by cutting along the diagonal line provided. Honour was satisfied, and the fact that the prominently displayed driver number contained a crudely encoded representation of their birthday bothered them not one whit.

This one's even better, as there's a perceived benefit - 'give us your prints, and keep your Blaupunkt'. Everyone on Nafis by 2005? I wouldn't be surprised and, should you find a willing bookie, I'll bet you the odds against it won't be too clever.

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