Homeland Security

Posted 2002-09-10 Print this article Print

A year after Sept. 11, law enforcement far too often finds itself left alone on the front line of defense.

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Homeland Security: Can It Guard The Front Door?
As federal bureaucrats piece together a new Office of Homeland Security, sharing information will likely assume a high priority. Officials have repeatedly cited the need for better coordination between agencies' data, from Immigration and Naturalization Service records of student visas to U.S. Customs Service reports of searched trucks to Department of Transportation data concerning bridges and tunnels.

The hope is that through the proper bureaucratic and information architecture, all of these scattered data points could be used to cobble together around-the-clock snapshots of what is going on across the country—and the world.

That would require taking data sharing to another level. For just as local law enforcers feel shut off by the FBI, the FBI has been shut off from the CIA and the NSA. A constellation of technological and cultural problems inhibit law enforcement and intelligence agency information sharing.

With the creation of a Homeland Security Department, that won't get any easier. At least seven large federal agencies and a smattering of smaller ones that deal with border security will fall under the authority of the department. But, for now, the FBI and CIA don't fall under the new agency—which is sure to raise a nest of bureaucratic issues surrounding how those agencies share data with Homeland Security.

Federal agencies already harvest enormous quantities of data every day. People entering the country apply for visas and personal information is logged into computers. Drug dealers are arrested at the border and data about them and their arrest is captured.

The problem is, the surfeit of data sits in silos, available only to one particular agency. Information collected about an individual rarely gets mingled across agencies. As a result, the millions of data points never join together to paint the pictures of, for example, terrorist activity the government seeks.

Here's what could be interconnected: An FBI agent is concerned about a group of foreign nationals taking flying lessons, and he drafts a memo spelling out his worries. Several of the same foreign nationals are in the country illegally because their visas have expired. One of them is on a list of potential terrorists. Another one has studied chemistry off and on at Iowa State University. Still another one has been observed by intelligence agents spending time with a group of violent terrorists in Egypt. Ideally, from the administration's point of view, all of these data points would have at least the possibility of converging in a unified data system that can alert analysts about possible threats.

The Homeland Security Department is aimed at bringing the data under one roof and letting the machines and the analysts go at it. Armed with a constant and organized flow of intergovernmental data, officials believe teams of analysts might have a better shot at stopping terrorism before it happens.

However, these organizations run a multitude of disparate computing platforms, from IBM mainframe to Unix server to Windows PC—with a little Linux scattered around the various agencies.

While getting these agencies and their varying systems to talk to one another is not an insurmountable problem—global corporations have been knitting together their systems for years—dollars and making organizational sense of the vast infrastructure the Homeland Security Department will inherit will be huge challenges. The agency will probably have a 2003 information technology budget in excess of $2.1 billion, according to Input, a research firm that specializes in the government's use of computer and communications systems.

By putting all of the target agencies under one roof—with one budget—the hope is it would be easier to coordinate the different homeland agencies, including how they buy technology and how they work together.

"If you look at the INS, Customs or the Coast Guard, for example, there is a lot of information that we have already that we don't do anything with," Rindskopf-Parker says, including much of the data about the people and products that come into the country. "Getting that information together and drawing them into Homeland Defense might create some analytic approaches that might be helpful, which would not be consigned to a law-enforcement approach or purpose."

Many of Homeland Security's computer platform issues will not be worked out for months.

For that reason, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has put a freeze on most big-ticket technology spending in the various bureaucratic bodies that are slated to be folded into the new department. Before these agencies start spending money on technology, OMB officials say they want to make sure that either the current architecture can be retrofitted with middleware that lets agencies' systems talk to each other, or that a new architecture will work.


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