After adopting Firefox and Linux, French law enforcement moves their own criminal research laboratory data to open-source software platforms. Will they share their secrets?

(Alan Cleaver)


PARIS - The Gendarmerie nationale, the French paramilitary police force, is making the surprising move into the world of open-source software. In recent months, as the Gendarmerie's renowned Institute of Criminal Research (IRCGN) began revamping its own IT system, the open-source approach emerged as the best solution. This means not only adopting numerous open Internet technologies, but learning PHP, or the Hypertext Preprocessor language. The early results coming out of this ongoing transformation are already operational.

This choice of technology is quite surprising, given the IRCGN's mission and the operations it conducts: scientific tests and research during trials, employing specialized equipment and training technicians in criminal identification. Yet the move came after an official report by the head of the institute's IT department. "The IT system has grown alongside the laboratory, but without being truly organized," said Guillaume Duprez, the IT department chief. "The range of software has become too similar, and too insular."

Duprez also pointed to the problem of existing programs no longer interfacing efficiently. The rewriting of the IT infrastructure, begun just over a year ago with the assistance of French-based open-source consultancy Sensio Labs, took into account this need for opening up and for better communications within the laboratory.

MORE SHARING

In an institution such as the IRCGN, the mechanics of performance are critical. The IT infrastructure should respond to its unique demands, such as locating inventory and securing data. "In spite of the reputation that some open-source technologies may have, mostly in public administrations, the flexibility and security that these platforms offer suit us perfectly. They are sufficiently secure and solid enough to handle judicial data," said Guillaume Duprez.

While other public officials have generally been quite cautious regarding the open-source world, the police have turned out to be an unlikely guinea pig. In 2006, it abandoned the Internet Explorer browser in favor of Mozilla's Firefox, then overcame additional obstacles to transfer 80,000 work stations in early 2008 to Linux. The plan should be completed in 2015 and saves the Gendarmerie about 2 million euros per year.

Once the applications are fully installed, the IRCGN would be well-advised to embrace the guiding principle of the open-source community: information sharing. "The secrets are in the data, not in the analytical process of the data," said Guillaume Duprez. "We fully intend to share our tools with other branches of the police, whether French or foreign."

The department head believes that using open-source software could further help collaboration, exchange and interfacing between different services. "The recipe for opening up may seem new in the public administration," Duprez said. "But if we get good results, why not do it?"

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