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Taser develops 'cop cloud' for law enforcement

Stun gun maker Taser International is poised to take a turn from sub-lethal weaponry to law enforcement cloud computing provider.

Taser International, known around the world for its handheld electrical weapons that shock and stun targets into immobility, is moving from side-arm and law enforcement tool maker to IT service provider.

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In combination with its head-mounted AXON cameras and a secure data center that provides a chain of evidence credible enough for criminal court, Taser is building a law enforcement cloud. Vince Stephens, vice president of network operations, said the service, which has been in use for about 12 months, is going to radically reshape the company.

Stephens said the service offering is projected to turn Taser into a $400 million company in two years and produce the majority of the company's earnings. The company reported $92 million in earnings last year.

The law enforcement cloud works like this: Police officers wear the head-mounted camera and stun devices. They then use Taser's Web portal, Evidence.com, to file police reports and upload data, such as audio, video, GPS, time and shots fired. Evidence.com organizes the data and presents it in a user-friendly format. If evidence is needed, Taser said it can provide an unbroken, tamper-proof audit trail useable in court.

The devices and the service are sold to police and law-enforcement agencies. Figures from Evidence.com show that the cost of the device, bandwidth and the Web site service might cost as little as $1,500 per officer per year, or $694,000 over three years for a 160-officer department.

Taser piloted the service in several cities, said Stephens, including San Diego, San Jose and Denver.

The Taser data centers currently hold about 10 petabytes of data. When Taser began to look at options for building out the service, it realized that there was nothing in the public cloud that came close to its needs.

"We had to produce a secured data structure that can be shown to restrict access," Stephens said. Sharing hardware or facilities was out of the question, since if evidence was ever challenged in court, prosecutors might have to produce not only the officer who recorded the data but also any and all Taser IT technicians who might have accessed, moved or come into contact with the data.

"You have to be able to provide a chain of evidence to a limited number of hands that have touched it," Stephens said.

Taser's data centers are colocated and physically accessible by only a few people, Stephens said. That meant any kind of hosted, shared or public resource was completely off the table, and Taser wanted an automated, fully virtualized, cloud-ready operation.

"At some point, five, 10 years down the road, it may be an acceptable law enforcement practice," Stephens said. "Right now, it's not."

That left Taser with two options: build a cloud from scratch using open source solutions and/or having a development team create a cloud, or purchase available ready-made technologies. Taser went with VMware vSphere and Cisco's Unified Computing System, which is more deliver-configure-turn on.

A major issue with Taser's law enforcement cloud was accountability, Stephens said, but the company worked around those issues with a hands-off strategy familiar to cloud providers. Taser places no restrictions nor accepts any responsibility for how its AXON and Evidence.com system is used or who the data is shared with, he said. If the San Diego police decide to share videos of protesters with the FBI, Taser doesn't stop them. All the company does is keep bullet-proof records of when and where the data goes and provides that data on demand.

Taser is also working to supply the service to law enforcement in other countries, Stephens said, and it plans to establish satellite data centers geographically to satisfy jurisdictional requirements.

Alistair Croll, principal analyst at Bitcurrent, dubbed the service "cop cloud" and said it was a textbook example of a vertical market springing up in cloud. While he considered the Taser story an exceptional example of a non-IT firm adopting and selling cloud computing, he said it was early days for the intersection of government and cloud.

The commodity nature of what Taser has built might pose a problem for the company down the road, Croll said, since it has effectively proven that this kind of service was not only possible but cost-effective and relatively easy to implement with off-the-shelf technologies.

"What happens when some government looks at this and decides, 'Hey, we need to own this'?" Croll said. He added that legislatures and government wouldn't be able to help but look at a service like this and want to take charge of digital evidence.

Carl Brooks is the Technology Writer at SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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