Share Mandates

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

President Bush might propose more space exploration, but connecting the federal government's labyrinth of systems may be a more audacious goal.


    Next up on the path to information sharing may be changed charters. Aside from the DHS, no agency has information sharing as a mission. In addition to its latest foreign visitor database, the DHS also has created the Terrorism Screening Center, which became operational in December. "I see the DHS as largely a startup," says Ron Dick, a 25-year FBI veteran now managing Computer Sciences Corp.'s homeland-security business unit.

    Without an information-management mission, the best way to entice other agencies to swap information is to mandate data-sharing rules. The most telling example of the lack of common data-sharing rules is terrorism watch lists. The FBI may use first, middle and last names, while the CIA may use given and surname. Once other lists are compared and cultural naming differences are introduced it's easy to understand how mix-ups happen.

    "The FEA is a step in the right direction because it will ultimately help collaboration within each agency, which will make it easier to provide information to other agencies," says Dick. "I haven't met anyone at any agency that doesn't think the FEA is the way to go, but it takes time."


    Once agencies have the connections to share information, the Big Brother database that privacy advocates fear could become possible. Technically, such a database, pulling in massive amounts of information from various agencies, could offer the business intelligence to find patterns in the food-supply, homeland-security and health-care systems. Like a business that can track all of its units in real-time on a dashboard, the government could aggregate data to spot trends.

    The information feeding this master database would still be controlled by regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which keeps personal health-care information private.

    Nevertheless, experts say that privacy concerns make such a database highly unlikely. Although the DHS's fingerprinting of foreign visitors could be viewed as a start to such a database, it's more problematic to require similar information from U.S. citizens. The biggest issue would be deciding who would own the data in the interagency database and who would have clearance to use the information. Also, individual agency heads likely would be reluctant to give up control of their data.

    Accuracy is a challenge, too. Would each agency clean and verify its own data or would that be left to the new cabinet-level office? Despite the hurdles, pursuing such a data warehouse would make sense, says Shay. "To truly analyze data you need to have one common repository," he says. "If the data isn't in one place you don't know what questions to ask."

    An operational data store—essentially a warehouse where data expires in 3 to 6 months—would be a compromise effort, but couldn't allow the analysis of longer-term trends such as the pattern of behavior of a suspected terrorist who entered the country five years ago.

    What will remain for the foreseeable future is a "federated database" approach in which a series of self-selected agencies such as Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration share information on a limited basis. This model is essentially a series of networking and data links crisscrossing between agencies. Today, if the DHS wants information from a federal agency, it can simply make a request. While this approach is more politically palatable, it does limit the DHS' ability to readily piece together disparate data nuggets.

    So what would make an über-database acceptable to U.S. citizens? John says some sort of opt-in system for citizens—and incentives such as easier passage through customs—would make sense. To be sure, a lot of lawsuits and legislation will dictate the boundaries of information sharing before citizens swap a slice of their privacy for the country's information needs.

    In the meantime, something dramatic may reshape the debate, says Harvard's McFarlan. "The sad reality is that it would take another World Trade Center to sharpen the minds on this issue," he says. "It's the great American tradition dating back to Pearl Harbor—you need a massive incident to mobilize."

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    Business Editor
    Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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