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The Cloud: Beyond Data Storage

Many law enforcement agencies have turned to the cloud as a solution for their data needs and for delivering mission critical information to officers in the field.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Microsoft's Advanced Patrol Platform features technology running on the Azure cloud. (Photo: Microsoft)Microsoft's Advanced Patrol Platform features technology running on the Azure cloud. (Photo: Microsoft)

Cloud computing became a popular concept in law enforcement about five years ago with the widespread acceptance of body-worn cameras. One of the first things the agencies that adopted body cams learned about their systems was that they capture a lot of data, much more than in-car video systems. With dash-cams, law enforcement agencies were dealing with terabytes (1,000 GB) of data storage; now they have to cope with petabytes (1,000 TB) of information.

And the storage and processing demands are increasing. "The average county or city in the United States now has four or five petabytes of data on average. That will double every two years. And that creates a difficult problem for governments to store all that data and back it up," says Mike Donlan, vice president of state and local government engineering sales and marketing at Microsoft.

Many law enforcement agencies have turned to the cloud as a solution for their data needs and for delivering mission critical information to officers in the field. The most common applications for cloud computing include digital video evidence storage, management, and cataloging; crime mapping and analytics; records management; and backup for disaster recovery.

With the budgets of most law enforcement agencies stagnant or even declining, cloud computing has helped reduce the cost of adopting new technologies. It's been especially critical for smaller agencies that don't have massive legacy IT assets. Donlan says some agencies using Microsoft's Azure Government cloud have four officers.

Questions to Ask

With so many agencies expressing a desire to start migrating their data to the cloud, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has established a set of 10 guiding principles for law enforcement cloud computing. Most of the principles are fairly cut-and-dried stuff such as reliability, integrity, confidentiality, and accessibility. The issues that are more complicated when it comes to law enforcement agencies using the cloud involve cost, ownership, and most importantly security.

Cost savings over on-premises storage is one of the key benefits that law enforcement agencies seek when they migrate data to the cloud. But it’s important that agency administrators understand the total costs of their chosen cloud service. Cloud services are generally purchased on a contract basis with lower initial capital expenditure than on-premises server acquisition and maintenance. However, before signing up with a cloud service, administrators should crunch the numbers and make sure there is a cost savings over the long haul of the contract or enough additional benefits to make the cloud a viable option.

Data ownership is another critical point for agencies to consider when researching a cloud solution. Almost all cloud service providers specify that the client owns the data. But IACP says to get that in writing. Also IACP advises agencies make it clear to the cloud provider that your data is off limits for any data mining or ancillary operations of that company. Finally, it's not enough for administrators to know their agencies retain full ownership of its data, they also need to know what the procedure is for migrating it to another service or back to your in-house servers.

As mentioned, security is probably the most important concern for any law enforcement agency considering a cloud solution. That's because not only does the agency want to protect its internal information, it also must protect confidential data from federal and state databases. Any computer system that can access such confidential data must comply with the security regulations set by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS). This includes cloud solutions.

Donlan says Microsoft spent enormous resources on securing its Azure Government Cloud for law enforcement operations. "We did CJIS from the ground up. It was engineered into the Azure Government Cloud from the beginning, and we will attest to CJIS compliance on a state-by-state basis."

Donlan says the security built into Azure protects all aspects of the solution, including data storage and the dynamic software platform, which gives users the ability to send emails and produce documents in Microsoft's subscription software service Office 365.

Microsoft also ensures security beyond what some other cloud providers are willing to do for their law enforcement customers, according to Donlan. He says the Azure system is completely isolated from the company's other cloud solutions. Also, all of the employees who work on Azure have been vetted through CJIS background checks. "We were the first hyperscale cloud solution provider to do that," he says.

The Cloud in Operations

Law enforcement agencies are deploying cloud solutions in a wide variety of applications. The hyperscale storage and processing capabilities of cloud computing are changing the ways some agencies fight crime, enhance community relations, and even discover and disseminate information about terrorism threats.

In January, the Detroit Police Department partnered with eight local gas stations in an effort to reduce armed robberies. The program, called Project Green Light, installed high-resolution indoor and outdoor cameras at the stations. Video feeds from these cameras were streamed live back to Detroit Police headquarters. The data was stored and cataloged using the Microsoft Azure Government cloud and its analysis was facilitated by Motorola Solutions' CommandCentralAware.

Project Green Light resulted in a 50% reduction in crime at the businesses that installed the cameras, Donlan says. "In one case the Detroit police caught a shooter in two hours because they could instantly access the video from the gas station where it took place," he adds.

Another agency that is producing positive results through the cloud is the Miami-Dade Police Department. The department has created an app that lets the public anonymously report concerns. More than 2,000 people have now downloaded the app called Citizens on Patrol (COP) and the tips they have provided closed at least six incidents. The COP program leverages many of the capabilities of Microsoft Azure, including its Office 365 software, which lets users securely type in tips.

Cloud-based tools are also in use with law enforcement fusion centers where law enforcement and intelligence personnel are tasked with identifying and preventing terror attacks. Jack Weiss, president of BlueLine Grid, says his company's collaboration tool can run over the Amazon Web Services cloud and the cloud version is in use at numerous fusion centers. Because BlueLine Grid can be run over the cloud, users can securely access and share information over computers, smartphones, and tablets. Cloud delivery also improves the security of the system because the data is not stored locally on an officer's device.

The Internet of Things

Experts say the role of cloud computing solutions in the future of law enforcement is just being established. "We're probably in the second inning of discovering the true potential of what cloud computing can do for law enforcement," says Donlan.

Since last year Microsoft has been working on a project for exhibiting some of the next-generation applications for the Azure Government Cloud and how it works with law enforcement technologies. Donlan says one of the goals of the Microsoft Advanced Patrol platform, which was built into a Ford Police Interceptor, is to apply the Internet of Things concept in law enforcement.

The Advanced Patrol Platform vehicle features TASER's Axon in-car video camera and, Genetec's license plate recognition solution, and controls for Aeryon's Skyranger unmanned aircraft system. "We take it around to different customers. It really shows what can be done. It makes the Internet of Things real," says Donlan.

The Microsoft Advanced Patrol platform was on display at last year's IACP convention and exposition. Donlan says the company also plans to bring it to this year's show

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