'Sentinel' Computer System Helps FBI Solve Crimes

Dennis Faas's picture

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plans to join the twenty-first century by using computer systems rather than paper to manage its cases. The change may improve detection rates by making it easier to cross-reference data between cases.

The new computer system, called Sentinel, will also allow FBI agents to make notes on cases via dedicated software.

A demonstration for reporters showed that Sentinel contains elements reminiscent of consumer software, such as web browsers, Microsoft Outlook, and tax preparation software. (Source: wsj.com)

FBI personnel have been using Sentinel since July 1, though officials waited a month to check for any initial teething troubles before publicly announcing the launch. (Source: fbi.gov)

FBI Sentinel System Makes Search Easier

If the system works as designed, investigators will have access to one another's files.

This will make it easier to detect any links that may exist between cases. A search function will let investigators check whether a person or item in a new case has also been involved in a previous case.

Sentinel lets investigators "subscribe" to a case file using Real Simple Syndication (RSS), providing them notification whenever a change is made to the file.

The FBI's move to digital case management has been in the works for more than a decade. After the 9/11 attacks, officials conceded that traditional paper files made it much harder for investigators to share information.

Delay In Switching To Digital Cost Time And Money

The administration involved in making the switch to digital has proven seriously problematic. In 2005, FBI management abandoned an earlier project, Virtual Case File.

It then contracted with Lockheed Martin to work on Sentinel, but after further delays fired the company in 2010 and took over the project itself.

All in all, the switch to digital has cost the FBI more than $600 million.

Security on the new system is obviously a major concern. The FBI is understandably tight-lipped about the precise measures it is taking to safeguard the case file information.

Observers do know, however, that agents using Sentinel must put their security badges into a special card reader whenever they want to "sign a document."

The transition to digital will also present logistical problems, since it appears all new cases will go straight into Sentinel. Existing and old cases will remain on paper, but any new details on them will be entered into Sentinel.

At the moment, there's no talk of immediate plans to digitize the FBI's paper archive.

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