UCSON, Oct. 28 — Officials building a case
against the Washington-area sniper suspects are using a new
investigative tool to help trace their movements across the
country. It is an Internet-based system called Coplink,
developed at an artificial intelligence laboratory here, that
allows police departments to establish links quickly among
their own files and to those of other departments.
During the 21 days in which snipers terrorized the area,
investigators used everything from specialized ballistics
testing to geographic and criminal profiling to radio and
television announcements to track them down. Then, in what
turned out to be the 11th hour of the pursuit, they finally
reached out to Coplink. As it turned out, John Muhammad and
Lee Malvo were arrested before it was fully installed, but now
the post-arrest task force is using the system to help connect
All of the information that was collected — including that
from other computer database systems like the Federal Bureau
of Investigation's Rapidstart — is now being downloaded into
the Coplink database so that the accumulated data can be
compared, said Robert Griffin, president of Knowledge
Computing Corporation of Tucson, which is turning the
prototype in the laboratory into a commercial product. "The
more data you get, the better Coplink works," he said.
Coplink was designed by Hsinchun Chen, the director of the
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of
Arizona. "It's the Google for law enforcement," he said,
referring to a speedy popular Internet search engine that,
given a couple of words, can find an array of related Web
sites. "Things that a human can do intuitively we are getting
the computer to do, too."
During the sniper investigation, which generated hundreds
of thousands of tips, the number of potential clues to
assimilate was daunting. "We were mobilizing a massive
effort," said Lt. Mitch Cunningham of the Montgomery County
police. "We had tactile resources, the military, federal,
state and local law enforcement agencies and information
technology using several products where each one of these had
a role." So when the National Institute of Justice, the
Justice Department's research and development arm, suggested
that the sniper task force try Coplink, the officials agreed.
While no one is suggesting that old-fashioned detective
work is being replaced by machines, the idea behind Coplink is
to provide a computer program that can save busy police
officers precious time and sometimes even help solve cases.
That's something Coplink's oh-so-human advocates will boast
about like a good story about a rookie getting a lucky break
in a case. It is like having a new partner in the form of a
computer backing up a cop.
"There is a greater and greater role for technology in law
enforcement," Lieutenant Cunningham said.
Software like Coplink's is already part of everyday life,
said Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's
inevitable that it's going to have some law enforcement
Mr. Brooks said that his company, iRobot, has machines that
investigate caves in Afghanistan before military units enter
and that such machines are finding their way into municipal
police forces. "Columbine High School is a great example of
how the police did not know what was going on inside," he said
of the 1999 school shootings in Colorado.
Furthermore, he said, the human mind can process and retain
only so much information. "There are enormous amounts of facts
and connections out there, more than can be held in any one
person's mind," he added. "Just like with gene patterns, it's
much too complex for someone to remember it all."
Coplink works by linking and comparing data from new and
existing files. For example, Mr. Griffin said, in a Tucson
case a man was found lying face down after his throat had been
cut and he had been run over by a vehicle. The man was still
alive, and before he was taken to a hospital he told people at
the scene, "Shorty did it." The name Shorty was put into
Coplink and cross-referenced with the victim's personal data,
and within minutes the records showed that the two men had
been in prison together.
The program also allows users to look at lists of data or
to create graphs and charts showing affiliations among