Police data in the cloud: Security and storage solutions

During IACP 2012 in San Diego, TASER International CEO Rick Smith joined a group of panelists to illustrate for the attendees why the cloud makes sense for law enforcement

The vast majority of people would rather keep their money in a bank, rather than hiding it under the mattress. Most would rather have their electricity supplied by the power company, as opposed to a gas-powered generator in the back yard. And pretty much everyone wants to have programs automatically appear on their television, not trudging someplace to get a DVD of every single thing they watch. 

If you’re a money-under-the-mattress, generator-out-back, run-to-the-video-store type of person then perhaps cloud computing isn’t for you.

But if you agree that the massive FDIC-insured vault at the bank is more secure than your Posturepedic, and that the power company is more likely to keep the lights on than the little Honda in the yard, and that a trip to Blockbuster looks rather lackluster, then read on my friends.

The TASER AXON Flex is the latest generation of body-worn video cameras for law enforcement.
The TASER AXON Flex is the latest generation of body-worn video cameras for law enforcement. (Photo TASER)

I’m about to take you into “the cloud…” 

What is the Cloud?
A decade ago, we didn’t say “the cloud” — the term back then was Software as a Service, also known as SaaS. I kind of wish we still called it that, because at its most fundamental essence, that’s precisely what cloud computing is: software applications delivered as a service via a network (that network almost universally being the Internet these days).

To a certain extent, you’re using “the cloud” right now. Any photo you’ve seen on Police1 today was delivered to you by a SaaS provider with whom we’ve partnered.

Further, there’s about a 99.999 (remember that number) percent chance that you’re reading this column on a computer that’s connected to the Internet (there’s about a 0.001 percent chance that someone printed out and handed it to you, but THEY got it from a computer that’s connected to the Internet).

Admittedly, Police1 is not a software application per se, but it can be accessed via the Internet, connected to any number of devices, such as laptops, tablets, Android Smartphones, and of course the iPhone.

Commercial applications in the cloud are countless. I’ve written in the past about Xora, a relatively-small company which does field force management, but there are also Silicon Valley behemoths like VMware, Salesforce.com, and WebEx. If you have a decent investment portfolio, you have at least one of those (or you should).

Consumer applications in the cloud — with which you are likely to be familiar — include things like Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube.

You click over to those services (note I did not say websites!) and instantly you have access to software that enables you to send and receive email, see your friends’ latest pictures, and waste countless hours watching cat videos.

See? Don’t be afraid of the cloud.

Why Use the Cloud?
Simply put, cloud computing is safer, more secure, and more efficient than anything you can do “on premise” at the local level. Incidentally, “on premise” is also a term I wish never came across — it used to be called client-server software because it was software, run on client [computer], connected to a server. Sigh.

A decade ago, when I first began trying to explain the cloud to people, I used the above analogies about the bank and the power plant to illustrate what tech geeks call the “five nines of uptime and reliability” — see, I told you to remember that number.

Banks have massive vaults, high-tech surveillance systems, and armed guards (yeah, they also have cops like you to come running when someone presses the button beneath the counter). Most people forget to lock their doors at night — their bedrooms are a security cakewalk by comparison.

Power companies have spent billions of dollars to create multiple levels of redundancy such that if one power plant goes offline for any reason, another in the grid picks up slack and keeps electricity flowing. If that little Honda generator in the yard breaks, the house is going to be dark for a while.

In recent years, I’ve added that third analogy of the video store to explain how the cloud delivers necessary updates automatically, to every device running the application, at precisely the same time, and usually in the middle of the night. This is far better than having a frantic IT guy putting a CD-ROM (read: DVD) into every single computer in the facility, one at a time, and usually over the course of about a week.

Cops in the Cloud
Whenever I get into a discussion with a cop on the topic of the cloud the first question is almost always some variant on, “How can law enforcement use the cloud?”

The most common answer I used to give is actually a question: “Have you ever had occasion to access the FBI N-DEx  (short for National Data Exchange)?  Have you ever had occasion to access LEO.gov? Then you’re already using the cloud.” 

Recently though, I’ve simply said, “Check out Evidence.com. Now, that’s cloud computing for cops.”

Let’s do some word association. When you hear the word TASER, you probably think “X2” or the “X26,” right? Five years from now — maybe much sooner — you’re probably going to think “Flex.”

For the unfamiliar, the TASER AXON Flex is the latest generation of body-worn video cameras for law enforcement. The previous iteration on the AXON — dubbed the Pro — was pedestrian by comparison to what the company has put out in the past several months.

The Flex is small, light, and wearable in a variety of places on the body. But the thing is, it’s the SaaS solution behind it that makes the thing so great for law enforcement. 

The advent of body-worn video cameras for law enforcement has been an amazing boon for forward-thinking agencies protecting against frivolous, baseless, and costly litigation. Far more often than not, the body-worn video exonerates officers against whom citizens have made complaints.

The trouble is, with every officer in even a small agency wearing these cameras, the data-management of video files — as admissible evidence in court — becomes a massive undertaking if you’re relying on old-school, on-premise, infrastructure. 

That’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Nobody, that is, except the folks at TASER International.

TASER, with its combination of AXON Flex and Evidence.com, has created an end-to-end solution that just makes sense. 

HQ Visit
About a month ago, I had the opportunity to visit the headquarters facility for TASER International. During that time, and in phone contact thereafter, I spoke extensively with CEO Rick Smith. 

“If you think about cameras and video, the hardware is the easy part,” Smith said. “An average size agency will generate millions of videos each year. How you track those and store them securely is a huge technical challenge. We’ve looked at this holistically, saying law enforcement needs to buy a solution not a bunch of technologies that they have to figure out.”

I happen to think that Rick Smith is the Steve Jobs of law enforcement technology. When I challenged him with that comparison, Smith admitted that he has been inspired by the ways some of the great technology companies — Apple included — have addressed complex problems with seemingly-simple solutions.

“Look at what Apple did in the consumer space. They identified that people don’t want to have a bunch of pieces of technology and have to figure it out.  They want an end-to-end solution.”

That’s exactly what TASER International has now done for the storage and management of videos captured on their new line of body-worn cameras, the TASER AXON Flex.

The officer wearing a video camera isn’t going to want to have to sit down at the end of the shift, uploading video files, naming files, and doing additional paperwork. They’ll want to plug the device into a docking station and go home. That’s where the heavy technology lift comes in. That’s where the cloud takes over.

“How do you take that information, encrypt it, store it securely, and pass it into workflow so it can go around to the different agencies?” Smith said. “How do you ensure that they can see it, or over at the DA’s office or defense attorney’s office, without having police officers become couriers because they’re running evidence around town on DVDs?”

The cloud, that’s how.

Put all that evidence into a vault, with multiple redundancies to ensure 99.999 uptime and availability, all with instantaneous, simultaneous software updates to anyone on the system. Manage permissions for who can access what, at what time, and for how long.

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