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When passwords prevent productivity

Although they’re great roadblocks against improper use of LE information, sometimes that constant stream of little hiccups can complicate an already complicated job

Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome Thane Gallagher to the ever-growing PoliceOne roster of writers. Thane is a Senior Patrol Agent with the U.S. Border Patrol — on the job for more than 13 years — and has worked in various patrol assignments throughout his career thus far. For the most part, Thane will be reporting on all manner of matters from our southern border, but every so often will also branch out to broader topics. In his debut column below, Thane tackles a technology topic that affects every cop with a computer.

Powerful sidearms and the absolute best handgun training in the world? Check! Topflight long arms, with all the bells and whistles? Check! The most powerful fingerprint and identification technology/software ever developed? Check! Top-of-the-line patrol 4x4s, patrol sedans, ATVs, go-fast boats, helicopters? Check, check, check, and check! UAVs? Check! Remotely operated low-light and/or infrared surveillance capability? Again, check! The ability to bring all those assets to a screeching halt by locking you out of various databases and workstations and therefore preventing you from going 10-8 at the beginning of shift? Or post arrest? Or 10-7 at the end of shift?

Sadly, check.

Ancient History (Lesson)
Let me explain. The “every tool at your disposal, but no key to open the tool box” is really not that abstract a concept. We all experience various forms of operational hiccups, many times due to the smallest wrinkle. The Border Patrol is no different. When I first got hired in 1997, the agency was going through a significant rebirth and subsequently, radically exponential growth. President Clinton had signed The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which provided the funds necessary to swell the Border Patrol’s ranks by the thousands, therefore, providing me with gainful employment.

That said, when I arrived at my first duty station fresh out of the academy, I only needed two passwords: one to log onto the agency’s network workstations and another to access our internal email system. Simple, right? Yeah well, not for long. I very quickly had to add another password so that I could process my arrests.

During my formative years, a Mexican national by the name of Angel Maturino Reséndiz — later dubbed “The Railroad Killer” — was going to unintentionally change the law enforcement game forever. That case — and more specifically, the fact that unbeknownst to each other the F.B.I. and the Border Patrol were both looking for this man at the same time — was the impetus behind the IAFIS technology we all take for granted today. IAFIS was launched on July 28, 1999, shortly after the arrest of Reséndiz. Before that, the processing of ten-print fingerprint submissions was predominantly a manual, labor-intensive process, taking weeks or months to process a single request. In other words, agencies looking for the same subject would, ideally, now be aware that another agency was also seeking the same subject. I only mention it though, because as I’m sure you can guess, I would need another password.

Entering the Realm of the Ridiculous
Okay, only four at that point. It was still a manageable prospect but does anyone see a pattern developing? We were not done — I had no idea how difficult it was about to become.

It’s important that I clarify something here: the events on 9/11 were tragic and incomprehensible. It not only changed the game for the military, but for every single law enforcement officer working anywhere in the continental U.S. and abroad. That said, however, I’m going to analyze its effects in the micro for the purposes of this discussion. The long and the short of it was that my beloved agency — the U.S. Border Patrol — was absorbed into the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Now, I was going to have three more passwords for inputting work schedules, time and attendance information, and inputting and viewing various other pieces of operational information which were deemed critical. Okay, that tally put me at seven. Now keep in mind, those seven passwords were necessary to access systems critical to my operational duties, often requiring me to log onto several systems, either separately or all at once.

Let’s fast forward to the present day because quite frankly, I can feel your attention spans running — not walking — to the nearest exit. I now have to maintain ten passwords for systems proprietary to my own agency, as well as six others in order to access systems proprietary to various county and state systems. Due to partnerships forged with these ‘local’ agencies — something not often seen before 9/11 — I can access Department of Motor Vehicle information, Wants and Warrants, NCIC information, Judgment and Conviction data for Superior Court cases, etc.

That’s sixteen passwords, all related to operations, just incase anyone has lost track of the math. It’s a brave new world and I’m blazing a password-laden trail right through it!

I’ve always been of the mind that more information is certainly better than less. But, if you consider the fact that every one of these passwords must be reset or regenerated EVERY 90 days or sooner, maybe critical mass isn’t that far behind? And naturally, because many of these systems run independent of each other, they can’t all be reset and/or regenerated at the same time. No, no, you are in a constant process of wrangling with these passwords just to access basic information systems necessary to do your job.

Did I forget to mention that the rules for regenerating these passwords all vary, based on the particular system that you’re accessing?

It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the array of data that exists — and to which I have access to in the relatively new, all-access-all-the-time, global war on terror. In my opinion, though, it would really be nice if it were a little simpler to access. I will admit, in defense of the agency, that they’ve set up a relatively simple ‘help-desk’ process for us agents to use and all in all, I’ve never really had a major problem. But as we all know, it’s that constant stream of little hiccups that complicate an already complicated job.

Can I get an ‘amen’? Or did your password the PoliceOne website just expire?

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