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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 09:09 GMT
Virtual detectives track criminals
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology staff

Police across the world have turned to technology to play the role of virtual detective.

Police officer at computer screen
Police increasingly rely on computers
Increasingly police forces are relying on software that can sift through the information they gather to help them solve more crimes.

Every UK police force, some European ones and the FBI in the US now use a visualisation software tool by a British company called i2 to analyse all data.

It allows hard-pressed police officers to piece together and picture the evidence they have collected.

Drawing pictures

In numerous cases it provides the breakthrough, making connections between phone numbers and providing the key decisive lead to take a case forward
Mark Evans, Police Service of Northern Ireland
Police investigations as diverse as the Maxwell enquiry, the case into the murders committed by Fred and Rosemary West and the US sniper attacks have all relied on the software.

"The charts for the Maxwell investigation were hugely complex and up to 40 feet long," explained Mike Hunter, Chief Executive Officer of i2, the Cambridge-based company behind the visual analysis software.

"The basic problem that the police have is that they gather as much information as they can and that is often a lot of information to make sense of," he said.

"Our software effectively draws pictures to enable them to understand what they have collected," he added.

The software works by analysing witness statements, names, addresses, telephone and financial records and any other evidence. It then looks for links that otherwise might have remained elusive.

Tracing paedophiles

The police can use the software to analyse the people that are making the paedophile pornography, where they are doing it and where they are getting their victims from
Mike Hunter, i2
It came in particularly handy when investigations hinge on mobile telephone records said Mark Evans, director of analytical services at the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

"In numerous cases it provides the breakthrough, making connections between phone numbers and providing the key decisive lead to take a case forward," he said.

The software has made a significant difference to how the police investigate crimes, he said.

Following the Yorkshire Ripper case in the 1980s, the police were given a new way to investigate crime with software dubbed Holmes.

Now i2's visualisation software has been embedded into the Holmes system to enhance the virtual detective's ability to solve crimes.

The program is also coming into its own in cracking online paedophile rings.

"The police can use the software to analyse the people that are making the paedophile pornography, where they are doing it and where they are getting their victims from," said i2's Mr Hunter.

Accurate information

The software can provide crucial breakthroughs but, said Mr Hunter, it is only as good as the information it receives.

"Our software is very faithful but there could be mistakes in the information it is given," he said.

"The rule is to accept that some of the sources could be dubious and always question the source."

Technology such as mobile phones and the internet is a double-edge sword for police forces such as his, said Mr Evans.

On the one hand it has made police investigations vastly more complicated and requires a new set of detective skills.

But it has also provided the police with more opportunities in terms of evidence.

Despite all the advances of software, old-fashioned policing still wins through.

"We still print off the charts and gather round the board to talk about it," he said.

You can hear more on this story on the BBC World Service, Go Digital.


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