Real-world NCIS pushes geographical data use

Data from the sky already tracking criminal activties in US

For fans of crime investigation show NCIS, the real-life equivalent of computer whiz Abby might be a let-down. There's no quirky comebacks, no eerie green glow emanating from the monitor and definitely no instances of "double hacking".

But in pretty much every other way, Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) computer scientist, Kyle Caston, is a lot more interesting than a wisecracking TV character. Within the US government agency's cyber department, Caston develops real-life products and Web applications to analyse and detect threats against US Navy and Marine Corps staff, technology, and assets.

Caston told Computerworld Australia that he is currently focussed on geographic information systems (GIS). These provide the ability to organise, store, and display all forms of geographical data, and can be used to glean information on gang hideouts and narcotics.

"People often overlook GIS because they do not understand what the term means," he said. "GIS is more than making maps — it’s a powerful tool for data analysis."

The technology also has civilian applications, such as being able to plot potential fire dangers across Australia.

Potentially, the public could also play a role when it comes to effective use of geographic data, Caston said.

"More real-time crime mapping tools could allow citizens to use smartphones to automatically report an incident and attach geo-tagged pictures to the report," he said. "This would allow citizens to receive real-time alerts, should crime happen in their vicinity."

Similar proposals have been made to the Australian Government, particularly by mash-up developers looking to better use the geographical data made available on the government's data repository, However, some have warned of a lack of sufficient access to the proper metadata to make this information useful.

“As the popularity of GIS increases, agencies are under pressure to release geospatial data as quickly as possible. Crime statistics, for example, should be given to the community as quickly as possible,” Caston said.

Unfortunately, sensitive data, such as names and addresses, are sometimes not removed from the exported data.

“Agencies and organisations need to put policies and procedures in place to remove or redact private information,” he said. “Fortunately law enforcement agencies traditionally have experience in handling these privacy issues. The use of GIS may present a new technique, but the same principles apply.”

Another barrier, according to Caston, is cost. Although free GIS applications exist, Caston said the commercial software suites were often prohibitively expensive, as is the modernisation required to improve systems sufficiently for their use.

“If management cannot envision the long-term benefits of using GIS, they definitely will not fund the short-term purchase," he said.

“Overall, it depends on the operational tempo of the agency — if people respond well to new technology, then GIS will not meet much resistance.”

Caston said that proper use of geographical data could ultimately provide law enforcement officers the ability to predict potential trouble areas and aid them to stop crime before it happens.

Perhaps comparisons to the NCIS TV show are unfair — maybe Minority Report would be more pertinent.

Caston is scheduled to present at the upcoming security conference AusCERT in May.

IDG Communications is an official media partner for AusCERT 2011.

Got a security tip-off? Contact Hamish Barwick at hamish_barwick at

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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Tags cyber crimegeographic information systems (GIS)US Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS)

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