Police officers must prepare themselves for all threats, and in today’s environment, those are as likely to be viruses and hackers as bullets and armed robbers. Cyber security is crucial for police departments to do their jobs properly and protect the public. Without proper security measures, officers are vulnerable to:
Viruses have the potential to shut down entire computer systems or individual functions. Given how much police officers rely on computers to communicate with the public and with each other, this can seriously impair their ability to do their jobs. Even if police departments have redundant systems, it takes time to activate those, leaving civilians and isolated officers vulnerable. In the best of scenarios, police must waste time, effort, and taxpayers’ money repairing the damage; in the worst, lives could be at stake.
Police departments have always dealt with prank calls and other distractions, but computer communications dramatically increase this risk. A pernicious program can inundate police with false reports of crime, forged instructions from superior officers, or information that has nothing to do with policing. This could cause officers to go to areas where a crime is not actually being committed, distracting them from real problems. Even if police do realize that they have been hacked, they may not be able to tell the difference between actual and false messages, causing them to ignore legitimate crime reports and orders. They will thus be unable to do their jobs correctly and will have to spend time, money, and effort fixing the problem.
Police departments store sensitive criminal, officer, and civilian data on their computer systems. Ransomware can deny them access to this data, encrypting files and demanding payment. Without criminal evidence, police will be unable to investigate crime reports or develop strategies to reduce crime. Ransomware may also deny them access to evidence from past offenses, preventing them from testifying in court and bringing criminals to justice. Given that cartels and other large criminal syndicates frequently wield ransomware, police officers who are investigating organized crime were especially vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.
For many officers, the mere denial of data is the least of their worries. Far more severe is the threat that hackers could steal sensitive information and use it to target officers. Criminal organizations may steal data on the officers involved in investigating them, using it to blackmail those officers or to figure out when they would be vulnerable to attack. Stolen data can also impact the public. Civilians who were exonerated during past criminal investigations could have the details of those investigations leaked to the public, violating their privacy. These and other police system attacks present a serious threat to all of society.