December 18, 2013
A federal law passed in February 2012 to help middle class families by creating jobs and cutting payroll taxes included a section mandating the creation of a nationwide interoperable broadband communications system for law enforcement and first responders. The system, which is being created under the direction of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), seeks to create a nationwide broadband network capable of being used for a variety of law enforcement purposes including remote surveillance, mobile biometric applications like field fingerprint scanning and facial recognition, as well as automated license plate reading. The system is currently in a pilot phase with less than a dozen locations around the country participating in the initial rollout of the FirstNet network. However, comments from FirstNet board members indicate that the future goals of the system include an interoperable network operating in all 56 states and territories of the U.S. that is capable of integration at the state, local and federal level.
FirstNet was created by the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 which mandates the creation of a “nationwide public safety broadband network” with a “nationwide level of interoperability.” Section 6203 of the Act mandated that a board of experts, in consultation with NIST and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), draft minimum technical requirements for the nationwide system. A board of directors comprised of telecommunications executives and law enforcement officials from around the country, including former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, was assembled and announced in August 2012.
The public safety network being created by FirstNet has many positive applications, enabling police, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders to communicate more effectively, increasing coordination of emergency response efforts and increasing situational awareness. The network’s capabilities could potentially enable novel applications such as “enabling firefighters to download blueprints of burning buildings in order to plan their entry route” or “allowing emergency medical technicians to remotely access a victim’s medical records from an ambulance.” However, the network will also enable a number of capabilities that are concerning to privacy advocates including facial recognition technology, mobile iris scanning and fingerprinting devices, automated license plate recognition and much more. These capabilities will be facilitated by a network that is interoperable with federal and state authorities including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and even the Army National Guard.
What is FirstNet?
FirstNet received initial funding of over $2 billion as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Future stages of the project will eventually be funded through spectrum auctions that are expected to generate approximately $5 billion. The FirstNet network will function in a portion of the frequency spectrum at 7000MHz known as Public Safety Broadband Band 14. The spectrum allocation was certified by the FCC in October, paving the way for construction and sales of devices to first responders. The decision was hailed by the FCC commissioner Ajit Pai as a first step towards helping “the equipment market for the 700 MHz public-safety band to develop and for innovation to flourish.”
There are less than a dozen locations around the country that are currently serving as test sites for FirstNet’s broadband network, including Mississippi, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and California. These sites were selected because of their participation in the NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which provides billions in dollars in grant money to local communities for broadband projects. In July, FirstNet issued 17 requests for information covering all aspects related to the construction of the network infrastructure. According to a presentation by FirstNet board member Ed Reynolds in June of this year, FirstNet will have a “diverse network architecture” with three main components: multiple terrestrial networks, including both dedicated public safety and commercial networks, mobile satellite systems as well as publicly deployable systems that could be installed in vehicles.
Though still in its infancy, FirstNet’s work towards building an interoperable nationwide network has not been without controversy. In April, a FirstNet board member decried the fledgling organization’s overreliance on private sector consultants motivated by their own commercial interests. Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa described FirstNet’s network as being “developed largely by consultants” with “board members having a commercial-wireless point of view” receiving more documentation and having more input over “board members with a public-safety point of view.” Fitzgerald also noted his concerns with the organization’s lack of transparency, saying that certain financial information was not being provided to all board members. “I worked hand-in-hand with [the] Public Safety Alliance for quite some time to see this network created, and I will not sit by and watch it built by my industry board-member colleagues in accordance with their commercial vision, rather than the vision of the public-safety users of the public-safety broadband network,” Fitzgerald said in a statement to his fellow board members.
Introducing Mobile Biometrics
The creation of the FirstNet network is primarily intended to enable communication between first responder entities including police, medical response, firefighters. The system is intended to facilitate interoperable communication during disasters, mass casualty events and other catastrophic situations that could threaten traditional communications systems, such as the land mobile radio (LMR) systems currently used by emergency services. However, the broadband capabilities of the FirstNet network, based on the 4G LTE standard, enable entirely new applications of wireless technology for law enforcement. The high bandwidth network’s powerful capabilities enabling large file transfers and remote database access are already being explored by a number of companies seeking to create the next generation of law enforcement technology.
One of the primary focus areas for companies seeking to exploit FirstNet’s capabilities is mobile biometrics. Until now, biometric identification using fingerprints or iris scans has remained a tool limited to the context of active war zones or high-security government facilities. FirstNet’s broadband network is set to change this by enabling police around the country to use mobile biometric devices to scan the fingerprints of suspects, scan their irises or even match their face against a central database of criminal mugshots. Promotional materials for FirstNet explicitly list the use of facial recognition technology and other biometric identification techniques as part of the “vision” and “promise” of the national network they are building. FirstNet lists the use of “specialized applications that allow police to quickly identify criminal suspects and accident victims through technologies such as facial recognition, iris scanning, and fingerprint identification” on the first page of its recruitment prospectus.
A presentation slide describing potential future applications of FirstNet’s nationwide broadband network.
With the advent of the distributed data network created by FirstNet, law enforcement throughout the U.S. will soon have access to the same capabilities currently used in Afghanistan to track and monitor the population. A study released in June 2013 by Sandia National Laboratories and co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) sponsored a series of “pilot projects” to obtain information and feedback from the “first responder law enforcement community on further identification of requirements for mobile biometric device technology.” The study involved 62 jurisdictions around the country with many testing the very same devices currently used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, such as the SEEK II made by CrossMatch Technologies and the HIIDE 5 made by MorphoTrust. According to the study’s conclusions, mobile biometric devices (MBDs) are currently used only in a limited number of jurisdictions in the U.S. that rely on “intermediate communication links and Wi-Fi proximity to either Blackberries or patrol car mobile data terminals.” FirstNet’s capabilities would expand this reach to enable any police department in the country to implement or expand the use of MBDs, something the study says many departments want to do. This includes “technologies for subject/suspect/detainee enrollment in the field” which is currently of “definite interest” to a number of law enforcement and first responder stakeholders who “have also identified a need for a truly integrated MBD that uses fingerprint, facial recognition, iris recognition, and voice recognition technologies.”
The Future of Crime Fighting
While still years away, the promise of advanced law enforcement technologies made possible by FirstNet’s broadband network has driven a number of companies to begin capitalizing on what they hope will someday be a lucrative market. At the 2013 International Wireless Communications Expo, Alcatel-Lucent demonstrated mobile biometric technologies for facial recognition that would rely on FirstNet’s broadband network. Through the company’s ng Connect Public Safety Program, Alcatel-Lucent is building a coalition of companies that focus in facial recognition, location tracking using GPS and other law enforcement technologies facilitated by the “commercial deployment of an all IP Network (4G LTE) with high bandwidth and low latency” known as FirstNet. Touting the U.S. government’s allocation of $7 billion for the construction of FirstNet, an infographic created by Alcatel-Lucent proudly displays the estimated annual value of the U.S. homeland security and public safety market at over $100 billion by 2020. The nG Connect Public Safety Program combines the expertise of several companies to redefine the “art of the possible” by building applications that help law enforcement to incorporate “award winning tracking solutions for fleet management and leading edge law enforcement surveillance and covert operations capabilities” as well as “proprietary recognition engines for analysis of video streams to identify ‘people of interest’ by biometric and personal characteristics.”
Mutualink, another company working to leverage FirstNet’s capabilities, is taking the concept of mobile biometrics one step further with its Google Glass for Public Safety. “Robocop may not be real, but his efficiency is something worth aspiring to,” begins an article about the product published in Government Technology. The technology will integrate with the Google Glass heads up display to allow users to “look to the right in their peripheral vision and view information that is being served to them, like maps, blueprints, surveillance video feeds, or other documents.” According to Mutualink’s Senior Vice President Joe Mazzarella, the technology could be “very useful for first responders and soldiers alike.” An article in the law enforcement publication PoliceOne.com provides examples of potential applications for the Google Glass for Public Safety, suggesting an “officer interviewing a suspected gang member could run the suspect’s image through a facial recognition database of known gangsters, or pull up a photo record of a tattoo to compare against one on the person in front of them.” During a search of a building, officers could “see their own location and those of everyone else involved in the effort on a stored floor plan of the structure” or, as a Mutualink press release states, they could “watch video feed from school security cameras in real-time during an active shooter scenario.”
A presentation from the acting Chief Technology Officer of FirstNet Craig Farrill at a regional workshop in May 2013 indicates that FirstNet intends to foster a “vibrant developer community contributing useful apps for first responders.” These applications would be vetted by FirstNet prior to being offered for download to devices on the broadband network, something like an iTunes for law enforcement and first responders. Similar plans were discussed in a prospectus issued by the Major Cities Chiefs’ Association in 2012 which called for the creation of a “secure, socially driven interface” resembling Facebook to enable “state and local intelligence and counterterrorism personnel to effectively network,” allowing “a detective in Las Vegas . . . to securely customize a profile page, build a network of ‘friends’ who are in fact colleagues in other agencies, and network by sharing nonsensitive information through wall posts, messages, and status updates . . .” In June, Bill Bratton, who has headed police departments in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, announced the creation of BlueLine, described as a “Facebook for cops” that is “geared toward collaboration on policing issues like gangs or drugs and product and technology advances.” The network will reportedly be funded through law enforcement product sales including everything from “from socks to Glocks” according to the project’s Chief Strategy Officer Jack Weiss.
Local Interest in Mobile Biometrics
Though adoption of many of the advanced technologies made possible by FirstNet’s broadband network will ultimately remain up to local municipalities, several local jurisdictions have already expressed interest in mobile biometrics and other applications. At a meeting in August, the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications Systems Authority (BayRICS), a joint powers authority of 12 counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, used a slide from FirstNet describing facial recognition, field fingerprinting and automated license plate reading as part of the “promise of broadband” coming soon to the area.
Likewise, an Oregon Statewide Interoperability Coordination technical report issued in December 2012 titled “Planning for FirstNet” discusses introducing a number of “labor saving applications incorporating license plate recognition, scanning of driver licenses, facial recognition, and other advanced technologies” once the FirstNet broadband network is operational. A section of the report listing public safety broadband applications includes remote access to database including “mug shots, finger prints, reporting, NCIC, criminal history, hot files” as well as “video surveillance, remote monitoring” and “automated license plate recognition.” A press release issued in February by the Texas Department of Public Safety titled “FirstNet Ready to Boost Texas Public Safety” states that the network will not only “give emergency responders a common and instant connection, it will allow them to share information through automatic license plate readers, facial recognition systems, field fingerprint analysis processers and much more.”
The National Association of Counties even issued a policy brief in June 2013 advising counties that it is “imperative” that they “engage in the consultation process and actively seek out the designated state coordinator” to take advantage of the more than “$7 billion of spectrum auction proceeds and valuable spectrum bandwidth toward deployment of the nationwide network” as well as $135 million allocated by Congress for a new “State and Local Implementation Grant Program administered by NTIA to support State, regional, tribal and local jurisdictions’ planning work with FirstNet.” The network is described in the brief as working to provide a “secure and interoperable network” that will “also support cutting-edge applications – for example, enabling firefighters to download blueprints of burning buildings in order to plan their entry route, allowing emergency medical technicians to remotely access a victim’s medical records from an ambulance, or helping police to identify criminal suspects through facial recognition or iris scanning technologies.”