How a new wave of startups are bringing law enforcement into the digital age

At home and abroad, Canadian companies are using new technologies to help police forces solve cold cases and deal with 21st century threats


Cop with a flashlight projecting data

(Illustration by Yarek Waszul)

When Alexandra Brown set out to create a tool that would show people what they might look like when they get older, she never expected to receive a call from the police.

She wasn’t in any sort of trouble—rather, the police wanted to learn more about her software.

Unlike novelty smartphone apps that use simple algorithms to morph users’ features into different shapes and permutations, Brown’s AprilAge relies on a database housing thousands of scanned images of real faces to predict future appearances based on age, gender, ethnicity and lifestyle.

For law enforcement officials, it has proven to be a helpful tool in the search for suspects and missing persons involved in cold cases.

“You need the image to be realistic and believable,” Brown says. AprilAge assures police officers the image they’re looking at is “a statistically significant result.”

Founded in 2010, the Toronto-based company’s first customer in blue was the forensic services branch of the South Australia Police. These days, Brown primarily targets health and wellness providers, who use the software to show patients the benefits of a healthier lifestyle, but she continues to sign up police forces in the United States, Poland, Ecuador and Turkey.

AprilAge is just one example of law enforcement agencies’ newfound appetite for technology and innovation, observers say. While the industry is known for its stodginess and traditionalism, a growing number of police forces are discovering that startups can help make their lives easier.

“Where there is a problem with paperwork or something like that, it can really make a lot of sense for a private firm to step in and provide assistance,” says Christopher Parsons, managing director of the Telecom Transparency Project at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

Several opportunity-driven Canadian startups—including HealthIM and Labforge, both based in Kitchener, Ont.—are rising to the challenge.

HealthIM, started in 2014 by University of Waterloo students Daniel MacKenzie and Daniel Pearson Hirdes, makes software that improves how police respond to situations involving mentally unstable individuals.

Police don’t currently have any tools for dealing with such circumstances, MacKenzie says. Officers typically apprehend people they suspect might need help and then take those individuals to a hospital for assessment. The process can take hours and involve a lot of paperwork, only to result in the individuals’ eventual release. This happens about 60% of the time, he adds.

HealthIM’s tool is installed directly in police car computers. Officers fill out a patient profile and send it to a hospital. Medical staff can then prepare an assessment and provide police with a preliminary report before they arrive at the hospital.

The system provides benefits to police, medical staff and detained individuals.

“If you’re not stuck under police guard in a hospital for hours, that just helps make everyone’s life better,” MacKenzie says.

HealthIM won $25,000 in funding last fall from the University of Waterloo’s Velocity accelerator hub and a further $60,000 from the school’s AC JumpStart program earlier this year. Unlike AprilAge, the company is specifically targeting police departments and has signed up two so far in Ontario, in Brantford and London.

MacKenzie credits HealthIM adviser Ron Hoffman, a former mental health training co-ordinator for the Ontario Police College, with landing the deals. Once he gathered everyone at the table, the company found police to be eager customers.

“They are more progressive than I thought in terms of innovation and tech,” MacKenzie says. “They’re always looking for solutions to make their lives easier.”

Labforge, founded in 2014, has also brought in advisers with law enforcement and security backgrounds to open doors. Clint Robinson, former head of government relations with BlackBerry, is helping the company showcase its technology with police and military forces.

Labforge is working on systems that incorporate drones, wearable sensors and smart cameras to give security forces “situational awareness” or a better idea of what’s happening around their personnel in the field.

Currently, when police officers enter a building, they often don’t know what they’re getting into. A system that identifies and differentiates friendly individuals from unfriendly ones can potentially save lives.

“[When you enter a building,] you don’t know where the good guys are or where the bad guys are. Technically, the whole place is a hostile environment,” says co-founder Yassir Rizwan. “If you can put trackers on your guys, then the story changes.”

Labforge’s smart cameras can also identify details officers might otherwise miss. They can, for example, spot licence plates of stolen cars or missing children via image recognition. The company is currently talking to several law enforcement agencies about potential trials, Rizwan says.

Despite the opportunities, security-oriented startups face a number of challenges. Chief among them are privacy concerns and the public’s ill ease with law enforcement using advanced technology to gather data on their whereabouts. Startups dealing in the space would do well to be as open about their technologies as possible, says Citizen Lab’s Parsons.

Often, it’s enforcement agencies and not the companies themselves that are engendering public distrust. Police may be enthusiastic about adopting new technology, but they’re usually not as forthcoming in disclosing how it’s being used, he adds.

It’s incumbent on the firms, then, to push their customers toward improved transparency as well.

“They’re trying to sell into an aspect of government that is very, very secretive, which isn’t very helpful for the public’s trust in law and order,” Parsons says. “That can boomerang back on companies.”

If both businesses and law enforcement give prompt, upfront disclosure of what technology is being used and in what manner, it will make it easier for startups to do business and help ease people’s concerns, says Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer with the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic at the University of Ottawa.

“You do need to deal with the friction upfront, kind of like ripping off a Band-Aid,” Israel says.