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Sex Offenders: 1 Supervision Officers: 0
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 08/08/2011

Officer computer Recently a parole officer contacted me for guidance on a sex offender he is supervising. The sex offender was prohibited from being on any social networking site (SNS) and he suspected he was accessing at least one. He had seized the computer and was asking for advice. At that point I asked the officer if he had checked any SNS to see if the offender was online.

You guessed it. It appears the sex offender is not the only one prohibited from accessing a SNS. The supervision officer was prohibited by his agency’s policy and system from accessing any SNS from his work computer. In fact, his agency’s computer usage policy was so restrictive he couldn’t even download a copy of Field Search, a program initially developed by National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) to assist probation and parole officers in sex offender management.

Unfortunately I can’t say this a new problem. I have heard it expressed countless times by other officers from other agencies all over the country. We can’t access SNS or other Internet areas because our system/policy prohibits it. There is a fear that officers will start updating their SNS or worse visiting pornography and not do their work. I understand the concern that employees may waste time online. After all monitoring software companies stress the amount of hours wasted by employees surfing the net on the clock.

The problem is supervision officers need to know what offenders are doing online. It is part of the job in the 21st Century. Sex offenders are online and on SNS. Gang members are also using SNS to communicate with one another. This blog has noted how offenders are using Twitter to discuss their officers and supervision. Can anyone imagine an agency prohibiting its officers from going in the field because of fear they might goof-off or do something in appropriate?

It is funny in some respects if we consider that some correction agencies are looking to expand inmate access to e-mail and possibly the Internet. But when it comes to the parole officer getting access…nope we can’t trust you to do your job if you have online access. So we can trust inmates but not officers? Wow what a thought!

The second reasoning for limiting access is an IT based argument. Specifically, we can’t allow officers to go anywhere they want because they are liable to download a virus or worm. They also don’t want employees making changes to the system by installing software. That is probably why the officer I noted above couldn’t download Field Search. I get there are problems with downloading or going to locations without proper precautions. There is stuff out there will install itself even if you don’t click on something and then your machine is infected.

But lets take this argument into the brick and mortar world a bit. Would we prohibit officers from driving agency vehicles into some of the high crime areas out there to do their supervision activities? I mean the agency car might get stolen or damaged. And we can’t have officers speeding in those cars because they might get in an accident, so lets put controls so they can’t go faster than 45 mph without approval. In some correctional agencies those kinds of controls and prohibitions are being put on computers and the Internet. They are more concerned about protecting the agency property than performing the agency mission, which is protecting the community.

Our jobs are inherently risky. Officers take a chance every time they put on a gun and a vest and go out in the field to supervise offenders. That is our job. We don’t ignore risk but we don’t run from it. The same approach must go for computers and the Internet. Allow officers to do their jobs when it involves the Internet or computers. Protect the system but don’t lock it down so tight that it is useless. By all means keep anti-virus and firewalls working and make sure updates are made when needed. But make appropriate exceptions for officers to do their jobs. If needed isolate those machines from the rest of the agency system so they can be used to perform online supervision activities.

Officers and mangers also need educated about what the risks are and what to avoid. Officers and managements need to talk with IT staff about what is needed. Risk must be managed so that officers can still do their job. ”No way” has got to be replaced with how can we minimize the computer/system risk and protect the community. After all can we really put more value on a desk top computer or even a whole network (both of which can be restored or replaced) over community protection? Do we really want to protect one lap top with WiFi Internet access over the life of one child abducted and killed by a supervised sex offender they met online? Lets put the public over the computers we use. Otherwise the offenders will win. By the way, that sex offender I mentioned is online, while his officer’s agency hasn’t even started the game. Gee I hope those agencies aren’t blocking officers access to the Three C’s! Time for a cigar on that thought.

Visit "The Three C's (Computers, Crime & Corrections)" blog by Art Bowker

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