The Next Stage of Patrol Computers

In the last decade, mobile computers have become as common in police cars as radios. So where do we go from here?

Today’s patrol officer starts his or her shift by logging into a laptop that’s been specially constructed to survive the rigors of law enforcement. That same officer carries a smartphone that boasts more power than the desktop computers of a decade ago, and if that officer works for a particularly well-heeled or technologically forward agency, there may even be a tablet computer in his or her cruiser.

The rapid penetration of mobile computers into everyday law enforcement operations during the last decade has coincided with advancements in wireless technology. Not long ago, equipping patrol cars with mobile computers required modems in the trunk. Now agencies are using air cards to connect to mobile broadband. And your next mobile in-car laptop will probably connect to the Internet using built-in wireless connectivity like the latest smartphones and tablets. Your agency may even choose to equip your car with a tablet instead of a laptop. Some are already experimenting with this configuration.

Mobile computing technology is evolving rapidly, so rapidly that it can be hard to put a finger on the trends that you will see in the next five years. But by talking to the experts and checking out the equipment at trade shows, we can get a pretty good idea of what’s coming in law enforcement mobile computing.

Goodbye to Simple Passwords

Few predictions can be assigned 100% probability. But more security in law enforcement computing is a lead pipe cinch.

The Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division of the FBI is requiring that agencies using NCIC and IAFIS data on their computers tighten access security by requiring advanced authentication. Hint: It can’t be (Your Dog’s Name)1234 or your (Agency Name)badge number. The password as you know it is becoming obsolete.

CJIS compliance will require every computer that’s used in the field by patrol officers to have a combination of agency approved password and user name authentication and an advanced security system. Advanced security systems come in seven flavors, but they basically break down into three options: hardware, software, and biometric.

If your agency chooses hardware authentication, that means you will need a physical object to unlock your computer. Most likely you will be carrying a smart card in your wallet that will grant you access to your computer by its proximity or a hardware token that you will have to insert into the computer’s USB port to gain access.

The most common software authentication system is essentially a random password generator. Once you gain access to the system through another means, the software creates a one-time password that you have to plug in to gain further access. These tools are often called software “tokens.”

Biometric is by far the most common advanced authentication system on today’s mobile computing systems. That’s because it seems to be the easiest. You put a thumb on the scanner and you get access for the trouble of giving the machine your print. But agencies are discovering that these systems require a lot of support on the back end to make sure that the machine recognizes the authorized users. Also scanners can misread because of skin oil and perspiration. So biometrics may soon fall out of favor and be replaced by a hardware or software option.

Regardless of which way your agency chooses to go with its CJIS compliance, it will change the way you do business.

Will Prices Come Down?

When you consider the price of the average Windows laptop in the consumer market, it would seem likely that ruggedized law enforcement computers would also drop in price. But don’t hold your breath.

There are two essential reasons why law enforcement laptops don’t follow the same trends as standard Windows laptops. One: ruggedized computer manufacturers pretty much follow Apple’s strategy on pricing and not HP’s. In other words, they give you faster processors and more memory and more features but hold the line on pricing. Two: when you buy a ruggedized laptop that meets Mil-Spec, you are buying a computer in armor, and the armor is a substantial part of the cost.

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