The Man From Interpol

Despite its reputation, Interpol is not a secret organization of superspies and double agents. Rather, it’s a network of 178 member countries whose police forces share leads and cooperate on international criminal investigations. Since 1923, Interpol has been helping the world’s law enforcement officers track thieves, terrorists and other assorted thugs and bad guys.

Today, e-mail sent over secure networks has replaced Morse code as a means of information sharing, and Interpol maintains vast databases of wanted criminals, missing persons, organized crime groups, drug seizures, unidentified dead bodies and stolen artwork, to name a few. IT has become such a powerful weapon in the sometimes lengthy and complex pursuit of enemies of the global states that roughly 20 per cent of Interpol’s annual budget of US$30 million is devoted to IT.

For Peter Nevitt, who says he’s long been interested in the application of technology in the police world, serving as Interpol’s director of IS is “the ultimate techno-police officer’s job.” He recently spoke with us from Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France.

CIO:Many people who watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will be surprised to learn that Interpol isn’t an international spy organization but actually a network that the world’s law enforcement agencies use to share information.

Nevitt: Yes, we’re seen as a semimythical organization of supersleuths. We want to get rid of the myth; we’re not interested in it. Well, we like it a little, of course, but the reality is better.

CIO:So set us straight: What really happens at Interpol?

Nevitt: We have a network linking 178 countries and the Interpol general secretariat. Through that network, we offer two kinds of services. The first is an e-mail service. Country A sends a message to Country B asking for assistance or cooperation. Country B replies. During 1998, 2.4 million messages went through our network.

We also provide access to an international database of criminal information. So countries use e-mail to send information to the general secretariat, who incorporates it in the international database and then makes that database available to every country in the world or to those countries that the owner of the information authorizes.

CIO:How do you make information available to some countries but not to others?

Nevitt: We do it by the design of the system, which is based on tables. So if Country X has not been granted access to information from Country Y, and Country X does a search, the system will recognize that this information is denied and Country X won’t know it’s there.

It’s not just a question of diplomatic relationships either. Sometimes it’s a question of trust or the need for secrecy among a small group of countries with a specific project. So a message can be one-to-one, one-to-several, one-to-many or one-to-all. And we can also do what we call a “full diffusion” of the message – such as a circulation of a wanted person – from the originating country to every country in the world in five minutes.

CIO:What happens once countries get these messages?

Nevitt: Interpol is an organization of mutual cooperation, so it can’t force any action. It’s the responsibility of each country within its own national laws to take whatever action is appropriate.

CIO:How was information stored and shared at Interpol before the advent of databases and e-mail?

Nevitt: Originally, information was stored in manual files in enormous archives down which clerks used to slide on chairs attached to rails. Not surprisingly, response times for queries were measured in days rather than seconds.

In the early 1980s, member countries communicated to Interpol and to one another through telex, Morse code and HF radio. Interpol also developed its own coded language for radio transmissions.

CIO:What would a typical message in that code have said?

Nevitt: You could use one word such as “alone”, and it would translate as a phrase, such as “Please allow an officer to arrest this man.” Or “bakle”, which is used to describe a person in detention. It means “He’s been placed in detention awaiting trial.” I have operators working for me who still use this archaic language.

CIO:So how did Interpol move from the days of coded messages and Morse code into the IT era?

Nevitt: We began design of a global telecommunications network in the early ’90s. In 1994, we began rolling it out to the world, an X.400 network running over X.25 lines. The rollout was finished only last year. The problem was that only one-quarter of the countries could afford the equipment and the line. So Interpol raised money from its richer members and from other organizations, such as the United Nations, to fund the leased lines, install the equipment and provide training in 130 of its 150 member countries. Interpol was one of the first major global organizations to contract with SITA, which is now Equant NV – a private company created and owned by a consortium of airline companies that collaborated to develop a global network for ticket reservations, air traffic control and so on – to act as network operator and to install and maintain the equipment.

CIO:Since the explosion of the Internet, how have you been using the Web?

Nevitt: Like most organizations, we’re working out how we adapt to it. At the moment, we’re using Internet technologies in three ways. The first is a public relations Web site. And here we’re providing simple, nonsensitive police information – such as information on children or on what we’re doing with counterfeit credit cards – directly to the public.

The second is a secure domain of the site where we publish restricted information, which helps investigators do their jobs. For example, using counterfeit credit cards is an international criminal activity. We have developed a technique, not unlike fingerprint identification, that defines the characteristics of a genuine original and of a counterfeit. And we publish that information so that investigators of counterfeit credit card crimes have a database that they can use as a research tool.

The third way we’re using Internet technologies is to replace our X.400 network with a secure IP network.

CIO:What do you do to ensure that your databases are secure?

Nevitt: We don’t regard ourselves as the world’s leading experts on security. The criminal opportunities and the technologies are changing so fast that it’s very difficult to stay at the leading edge. So we are a member of the Information Security Forum, a cooperative group of some of the major European companies and government organizations that share expertise on security and develop and apply standards.

CIO:How would a police officer go about tapping into Interpol’s databases of criminal information?

Nevitt: On a day-to-day basis, hundreds of searches are made of the international databases. Typically, a police officer or a customs officer at a port wants to check on a vehicle, so a search will be made on an Interpol database. As a result of introducing this international database of 2.3 million stolen motor vehicles, hundreds of those vehicles are identified and recovered every year.

Similarly, when police officers are checking individuals and think that there might be an international dimension to the check, they will consult the database to see whether they find a “hit” on that person – whether he or she is recorded as wanted in another country. It’s a regular occurrence.

But the most interesting things, of course, are the international multicountry operations that may last for eons and have much more significant results.

CIO:Can you describe such an operation?

Nevitt: One that started about two and a half years ago involved heroin smuggled from Thailand in hollowed out books in a series titled “Show Me How”. The investing action began with an enquiry from a U.K. agency asking if we had any records of drug seizures relating to small packages delivered to hotels. We searched our databases and found a few examples that had been reported to us. The examples were mainly in Europe, but all of them had a link to Bangkok – a parcel was posted in Bangkok to a European city close to an international airport, like Heathrow or Frankfurt Airport. That gave the investigator in the U.K. a lead for his enquiry and gave us an indication that this may be part of something bigger.

So we asked every country to search their national records and tell us whether they had examples of similar incidents that they had not reported. And within 24 hours, 50 countries – in Europe, Africa, Central America and North America – said they recently had such seizures.

We called a meeting in Lyon of the investigating officers from as many of these countries as we could get to come to Lyon – because face-to-face they will share information that they may not otherwise provide.

As a result of that, a multi-country operation coordinated by Interpol began to focus on these hotels in different countries. [The investigation led to the discovery of] Nigerian criminal gangs operating out of Bangkok and Bogota, Colombia. And so it was not just heroin from Bangkok, but opium and cocaine from Bogota. During the last two years, a significant number of arrests have been made in various countries on all continents, involving many seizures of heroin and opium. And a very important international gang of drug smugglers has been disrupted.

CIO:Moving from the seamy world of drug smuggling to the rarified air of art museums, doesn’t Interpol also help countries recover stolen artwork?

Nevitt: We’ve got something like 15,000 or 16,000 items in the international database of stolen works of art. To identify a picture as identical to one that is stolen, police officers describe the unique characteristics of the item in lay terms (for example, painting size, internal or external scene, man seated, horse and water). The computer searches and provides pictures that seem to match. It is a very effective approach and requires no artistic expertise or knowledge. We also publish a CD-ROM with this information for national law enforcement agencies and for art dealers. So Christie’s and Sotheby’s and other art dealers have the Interpol database.

CIO:Interpol’s mission is to track down some of the world’s most unsavoury characters. Have you been able to maintain faith in humanity while working there?

Nevitt: I can’t think of a more exciting mission than to help make the world a safer and nicer place to live by providing these services to the police forces of the world. I think it’s a great place to be.

Alice Dragoon is a senior editor at CIO (US).