||SO IT IS IN
real life that a geeked-out computer-science professor just might
revolutionize law enforcement in the 21st century. Working at the
Artificial Intelligence Lab he founded at the University of Arizona in
Tucson, Hsinchun Chen is the inventor of a high-tech crimefighting tool
with a name straight out of the comic books: Coplink.
Dubbed by its creator as “Google for law enforcement,”
Coplink is really nothing more glamorous than computer code. It’s based on
an achingly simple, but frustratingly elusive, premise: if the sundry
databases used by crimefighters could talk to one another, the importance
of seemingly inconsequential pieces of information would become more
Had Coplink been up and
running during last fall’s sniper investigation, it would have quickly
flagged investigators to the multiple times that police had stopped John
Muhammad and Lee Malvo near a shooting scene, say law-enforcement
officials. The system is now being used to help build the federal and
state cases against them.
Chen has been
touting Coplink since he developed it with the Tucson Police Department in
1998. But it’s been only in the last two years that it’s caught on. The
CIA and the National Science Foundation are now looking at ways to use the
software, and police departments in a half-dozen states either have it
already or have signed up.
everyone realizes we need to share information,” Chen says. The once
ferocious turf battles between law-enforcement agencies have cooled
off—squabbling over who gets credit for cracking a case seems petty when
dealing with the war on terror. Currently, Chen is working with the
Department of Homeland Security.
enforcement, you have all these computer data-bases—sex offenders,
speeding tickets and so on,” says Bob Griffin, president of Knowledge
Computing Corp., the Arizona company that produces Coplink. “This system
automatically finds those patterns.” Case in point: Griffin says Coplink
could have almost immediately pointed to the man accused of kidnapping and
murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion last summer in southern California.
“He was a convicted sex offender, he had previously been accused of
molesting another child who lived in the same complex, and they got a
partial license-plate number,” Griffin says.
Chen hopes his efforts will do much more than capture suspected
kidnappers. In the days after September 11, the country learned that small
warnings were buried deep in various agencies’ files—puzzle pieces waiting
for someone to decipher the big picture. With Coplink on the case, the
pieces might fall into place a lot faster next time.
Seth Mnookin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.