BYOD vs. COBO Devices: What Law Enforcement IT Should Know

Body cams, automated license plate recognition devices, GPS, and audio recorders: these are just some types of evolving law enforcement technology that make IT responsibilities even more mission critical. Today, the IT team plays a crucial role in managing department technology, connected devices, and network infrastructure.

To ensure safe, productive, and efficient work in the office and the field, the growing number of mobile devices used in law enforcement needs to be managed appropriately. As a result, IT must stay on top of changing technology trends and make decisions about devices and applications that will address agencies’ needs without letting tech stacks grow out of control.

When it comes to officers’ mobile devices, however, there are two main options for law enforcement IT teams to consider: BYOD and COBO.

What Law Enforcement IT Needs to Know About BYOD

BYOD (bring your own device) puts law enforcement officers in the driver’s seat. That means each officer is in charge of selecting, using, and managing their personal devices for work purposes, whether conducting background checks, capturing and sharing photos and videos, filing reports, or issuing tickets. Often consumer-grade smartphones or tablets, these devices may not be built to withstand the wear and tear of on-the-job use.

Benefits of BYOD

Law enforcement officers who use their own devices for work purposes are in charge of their own technology and plans, relieving IT of device management and costs. If there’s a problem or the device breaks, the officer is responsible for fixing or replacing it.

Good law enforcement technology is essential for situational awareness in the field

Law enforcement officers can use whatever type of device they prefer. They’re also responsible for teaching themselves best practices to efficiently use their phones or tablets — including keeping their software up to date to benefit from the latest security updates.

Placing device purchase and management responsibilities on officers lowers an agency’s technology costs as well since the IT department doesn’t need to budget for devices or worry about training and rolling out device upgrades on a regular basis.

Drawbacks of BYOD

While cost and time savings are attractive features of BYOD, this approach also creates challenges for law enforcement technology support teams. Although officers use their own phones and tablets on the job, they may still seek IT assistance when their phones malfunction or break — and there’s only so much IT can do to help when a device doesn’t belong to the agency.

Even officers using personal phones need access to agency software and platforms from those devices, whether it’s citation software or an app for drug identification. The range of devices and operating systems can make software rollouts more complex, and older phones or tablets may not be compatible with other agency technology and vehicles.

It’s also more difficult to monitor BYOD usage and compliance with policies and regulations. Officers will likely use whatever devices, applications, and operating systems they want, which can increase security and privacy risks.

For example, an officer may download an app on their device that carries a hidden virus or malware that spreads to the company network. Because the phone serves a dual purpose, it’s also possible other people will use the device (significant others, friends, children, etc.), which poses a different type of risk.

If hacking, loss, or theft occurs, then personal and professional information on the device is at risk. When an officer stores agency credentials on their phone, bad actors potentially have open access to the law enforcement agency’s network.

The BYOD approach can also clash with Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requirements, creating security concerns about protecting an officer’s personal information and compliance.

What IT Needs to Know About COBO in Law Enforcement Technology

A COBO (corporate-owned, business-only) policy ensures that IT maintains control of department technology. The team distributes and oversees a standard set of agency-owned devices for work purposes. All officers use the same device, operating system, and carrier. As needs change and technology becomes outdated, the IT team continues to manage, update, pay for and replace devices.

Benefits of COBO

COBO gives law enforcement IT complete control of the devices, operating systems, and plans the agency’s officers use. This prevents them from having to rely on their own technology, which may be outdated and impact response times.

Providing devices to law enforcement also makes it easier to roll out agency-wide enterprise mobility management and mobile device management platforms. That way, all device data can be secured and IT can control, test, and push/pull applications as needed across all devices.

Enterprise mobility management helps law enforcement IT bolster security and keep devices up to date.

Agency-owned devices simplify CJIS compliance management as well so officers can use devices to securely access and store sensitive database information.

While a COBO policy shifts law enforcement technology costs to the agency itself, it does give the IT team the opportunity to streamline tools, better manage costs, and reduce the number of devices they oversee. For example, they may choose to use rugged devices that take the place of several distinct digital tools, which results in a lower total cost of ownership in the long run.

Additionally, when the agency issues one type of device to a team of officers, IT understands how each officer’s device operates. This makes it simple to create a set of standard operating procedures that works in every situation.

Drawbacks of COBO

The decision to bring device management in house translates to more IT oversight and management. In a COBO-led agency, hands-on IT work is essential for a successful program.

Getting started with COBO devices requires research and investment. IT will need to spend time searching for plans and devices that meet an agency’s needs. Despite upfront expenses, however, law enforcement agencies may purchase devices in larger quantities for greater savings.

When new COBO phones, tablets, or computers arrive, IT can coordinate and lead technology onboarding and training for the device.

Is BYOD or COBO Best for Your Law Enforcement Technology Needs?

If you’re deciding between BYOD and COBO policies, considering these questions can determine whether you have the resources required to manage agency devices — or if you should put responsibility for mobile devices into the hands of your officers. 

  • Does your department have the time and funds to manage COBO devices?
  • Does IT need faster, easier ways to roll out updates and apps with confidence that they’ll work on all devices?
  • Does your agency need to comply with CJIS compliance standards?
  • Are you worried about security when officers’ personal phones are used to access secure information?
  • Does IT want to streamline the types and numbers of mobile devices being used by law enforcement?
  • Do you need complete control over how devices are used, monitored, and managed, as well as policies and data security?
  • Are you concerned about mixing personal and business information on one device? 

Learn more about Panasonic’s mobile technology solutions for law enforcement.