A New Broadband Super Highway—Just for Cops

The latest technologies promise cops the ability to whip out a smartphone, take a snapshot of a passerby, and instantly learn if that person is in an immigration or gang database. A federal broadband program, designed after 9/11 to improve first responder communication during emergencies, will enhance this sort of capability and integrate it into an internet “super highway” built specifically for police and public safety, reports The Intercept.

The program, called FirstNet, is already expanding the surveillance options available to law enforcement agencies across the country. According to publicly available documents and interviews with program participants, stakeholders, and government researchers, FirstNet will help agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection communicate with local police, deliver more information to officers’ hands, accelerate the nascent law enforcement app industry, and provide public safety agencies with new privileges and powers over AT&T’s commercial broadband network.

The program will also hasten these agencies’ migration from public radio frequencies to encrypted broadband networks, potentially eliminating one resource that local newsrooms and citizens have historically relied upon to monitor police and first responders.

FirstNet is a public-private partnership that creates a dedicated lane for public safety agencies within AT&T’s existing broadband network. All states have opted in to FirstNet, meaning that they agreed not to build their own competing broadband lanes for law enforcement and public safety. AT&T says that FirstNet’s core — the infrastructure that isolates police traffic from the commercial network — had become operational at last. “It’s like having a super highway that only public safety can use,” the company said.

Part of FirstNet’s mission is to create a virtual space that allows any federal, state or local law enforcement or public safety agency to communicate seamlessly with any other. Local law enforcement officials are well-aware of the new capabilities that FirstNet is offering their departments. Domingo Herraiz of the International Association of Chiefs of Police is excited about the heightened access to federal data FirstNet promises. He said FirstNet will place information from fusion centers, which enable criminal intelligence-sharing between government agencies, at the fingertips of local officers.

“You could have gang databases,” he said. “It’s not there [on officers’ phones] today, but it will be.”