ATF Seeks 'Massive' Database For Faster Investigations

ATF agents stand close to the area where an Assistant District Attorney was shot and killed on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 in dow
ATF agents stand close to the area where an Assistant District Attorney was shot and killed on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 in downtown Kaufman, Texas. Kaufman County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse was shot and killed early Thursday morning as he was walking from his car to the courthouse. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, David Woo)

The federal agency tasked with regulating firearms wants a new weapon in its investigative arsenal: Big Data.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is seeking proposals for "a massive online data repository system" that could allow agents to make faster connections between suspects' names, social security numbers, telephone numbers and utility bills, according to a request issued last month.

The ATF already uses such databases, but it analyzes the data largely by hand, "resulting in longer turnaround times on important information and intelligence research and analysis requests," the agency said. It's also difficult for law enforcement to use the information effectively because it's not connected in a single database, according to Mark Tanner, president of Law Enforcement and Intelligence Consulting, which helps tech companies meet the needs of federal agencies.

Computing power would dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes federal agents to link pieces of information on suspects, Tanner said.

Police departments across the country are using data analytics to predict where a crime is likely to occur and deploy resources to those areas. The FBI is creating a database that will connect suspects to crimes using not just fingerprints, but also palm prints, iris scans and images of faces. Several companies are competing in the market to help create these databases, including IBM, Palantir and Textron Systems, Tanner said.

The ATF has faced mounting criticism for using what many consider to be antiquated technology. Critics have called its system of tracking gun sales "horse and buggy" technology and "a national embarrassment." The agency is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. Instead, when federal agents want to trace the source of gun sales, they must search records on microfilm, a process that can take as long as five days, according to Information Week.

ATF spokeswoman Ginger Colbrun said the new database would not be used to analyze gun purchases, but instead would be used to gather publicly-available data without requiring agents to go to multiple sources.

While some law enforcement agencies are seeking technology to find patterns in existing data, others are clamoring for access to even more data on the web. New York police officials have said they want to scour the web for chatter that could identify a gunman to prevent another mass shooting. In a speech last month, the FBI’s general counsel said the bureau's "top priority" in 2013 is to modernize surveillance law so that authorities can monitor in real time the web activities of Americans suspected of committing crimes.