CHEYENNE — Technology is changing at a dizzying pace, and law enforcement officers are having trouble keeping up.
New smartphones are being released constantly. Tablets like the iPad are replacing laptop computers. Almost everybody – including those who break the law – have access to a cellphone.
"We tend to play catch-up a lot of times because technology is changing so rapidly," said Jason Lee, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wyoming.
This new way of committing crime can pose a problem for law enforcement officers, who have to be knowledgeable about every new device.
According to a 2011 report by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, that year marked the third in a row that it received more than 300,000 complaints. The center received 314,246 complaints, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2010.
However, technology can also be beneficial, as officers have new and faster ways of communicating with each other.
And this communication has become standard for everyone, not just law enforcement officers.
"Society has accepted a certain level of this technology, and that becomes the regular, ordinary communication," said Kebin Haller, deputy director at the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
And because technology is not going away anytime soon, criminal justice professionals will have to work hard to stay on top of it.
How has crime changed?
Electronic devices are everywhere.
Lee said in his classrooms, more tablets are beginning to surface.
"I've started to notice a few more iPads, but I notice more (laptops)," he said.
The increasing use of electronic devices also goes for crime.
Cheyenne Police Department officer John Gay said most crimes investigated today usually have some element of technology used n whether that is during the crime or through sharing information about it.
For instance, if someone wanted to buy drugs, the process may have been different 10 years ago.
"In the past, I would venture to say it was a phone call to somebody, or you talk to a friend in person, who talked to the friend that got you the stuff," Gay said, "whereas now it's a text message away."
This change is also noticeable with crimes against children, said Robert Leazenby, team leader for the DCI computer crime/Internet Crimes Against Children team.
"Every kid now has a cellphone with camera capabilities," he said. "A few years ago, that was not the case."
Leazenby said this makes it easier for predators to access the images or convince children to send them.
"The numbers of crimes against children has dramatically increased, strictly because of the technology available to them and their comfort with using the devices," he said.
The availability of these digital images, either on mobile devices or the Internet, also means fewer hard copies for people who view child pornography.
Leazenby said 20 years ago, most users kept hard copies of the pornography. When people began using the Internet, he said these collections were maintained but increased in size because of easier access.
Now collections are no longer the norm.
"Somebody that's truly interested in child pornography now has such ease of access to it, there's no need to maintain the collection anymore," he said.
This change in criminal behavior has put a strain on law enforcement officials.
Negative impacts of technology on crime
For CPD officers, the anonymity of the Internet has been a problem.
Gay said threats can be sent from any electronic device at locations like a park or school.
"Social networking, people putting threats up on Facebook or MySpace, any of that stuff n you can do that from anywhere," he said.
People can also perform illegal activities from a shared wireless network available at libraries or coffee shops. These networks make it harder for officers to trace who downloaded the material.
Access to evidence has also been a problem for DCI employees.
Typically, there is an abundance of information on electronic devices, Haller said.
"As far as electronic evidence, digital evidence, it has been growing and continues to increase because everybody has the electronics on their person 24 hours a day," he said.
Leazenby said to access this evidence, however, ICAC employees must understand the operating systems of the devices.
"Computers were easier for us because they followed a standard architecture," he said. "The operating systems all behaved in a way that we could interpret."
However, with tablets and smartphones, each operating system is different. The security of the devices and people's implementation of that security varies from brand to brand.
"It is increasingly difficult for us to get to that evidence," Leazenby said.
On top of learning the operating systems of these devices, team members also have to keep up with new computer technology.
For instance, soon they must be familiar with Windows 8, set to be released in October.
"That's a game-changer for us," Leazenby said. "We have to start all over again and learn Windows 8."
Employees also have to be familiar with all the past technology, in case a suspect is using a system like Windows Vista.
Haller compared this to learning how to operate a cellphone each time a new one is purchased.
"Now you take that times all the new instruments across the board," he said. "That's what the computer crimes unit has to deal with."
Dealing with this technology involves constant training and equipment upgrades, Leazenby said.
"We have to keep up on our training relentlessly," he said. "It never ends."
Despite the difficulties of training, technology does have its advantages.
Technology can be positive, though
Although it is difficult to access evidence with different operating systems, there is help out there for DCI employees.
There are 61 ICAC teams in the U.S. to share information with.
"If we see a problem here in Wyoming and we're able to address it, within short order we'll be able to share that information with other ICACs," Leazenby said.
Information may include how the suspect tries to hide who they are, how they share information and where the information is stored on their computer.
"If somebody has a device and they were able to retrieve the information off of it, they will post that so that information is available," Haller said.
This is also available for the Wyoming ICAC, which can request information from other agents around the nation.
"They can pose a question and it goes to experts dealing with same problems," Haller said.
After this information is uncovered from crimes against children, it can then be used for other computer crimes like fraud, Haller said.
For Gay, how this technology is used is also an advantage. He said most of the technology they use is open-source software that anyone can download.
And not disclosing how it is used can be helpful for the police department.
"The advantage is people don't know what we're doing to catch them," he said. "They don't know the technology we're using."
But this kind of privacy worries some officials.
Privacy concerns affect crimefighting
Gay said even with the wealth of information available, is still has to be accessed legally.
"We can't walk into Verizon and say, 'Give us this information.'" he said. "We'd have to get a search warrant signed by a judge to access that information, in most cases."
However, some private information is being accessed without search warrants, according to Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Everyone agrees there are times surveillance is important," she said. "The question is what standard law enforcement has to meet before accessing that information."
For instance, private correspondence can be accessed more easily than 10 or 20 years ago.
"Officers can access people's private correspondence through companies like Google," she said. "Ten years ago, they would've had to physically break in to access their mail."
Police can also track people's movements using cellphones.
A Google Maps application allows people to gather approximate location data using nearby cellphone towers n a practice that worries members of the ACLU.
"Twenty years ago, if someone said one day every American would carry a tracking device, it would be dismissed as crazy," Crump said. "But that's exactly what we all do."
Crump said accessing this new technology is left up to interpretation and needs to be addressed.
"Police often access electronic information without a warrant because our privacy laws haven't kept up with technology," she said.
What does the future hold?
Keeping up with technology is a common theme for local law enforcement agencies.
At the Cheyenne Police Department, a computer crimes unit is being looked at "very seriously," Gay said.
The new unit would allow computer crimes detectives to handle technology-related problems, giving other detectives more time to concentrate on other aspects of the investigation, Gay said.
DCI is also getting an upgrade.
"We're currently looking at a mobile vehicle that will allow us the ability to process forensics in the field," Haller said.
He said the mobile unit has received approval from a grant coordinator and should be operational early next year.
The mobile unit will allow agents to analyze evidence on scene.
"It becomes critical," Leazenby said. "The sooner that you obtain any evidence, the better for an investigation."
This will be especially helpful when the ICAC team is outside of Cheyenne. Rather than having to travel back to a town to arrest someone due to insufficient evidence the first time around, agents can check their computer or other device onsite for evidence.
"Having those capabilities with us on scene will save days," Leazenby said.
Even though the new mobile unit will be state-of-the-art, there is no doubt newer devices will be invented in the coming years.
For law enforcement officers, it is trying. But it is also inevitable.
"As technology changes, we have to change with it," Leazenby said.
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*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult an attorney.
|Cheyenne Police officer John Earnshaw uses a computer mounted in his squad car near the police station earlier this week. Michael Smith/staff