Share and Share, Unlike

To share or not to share data? That’s the question facing federal agencies (and the integrators that help automate them) in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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It won’t be easy. “There’s 200 years of politics in these cabinet agencies. And federal-to-state boundaries are an even higher hurdle,” says Steve Rohleder, a managing partner at Accenture for U.S. government work.

Currently, each agency maintains a separate data fiefdom. On top of that, each agency collects different kinds of information, such as financial reports, immigration logs and telephone records, and stores them in different ways. Even records about a single person can include different spellings of the name and fields arranged in different orders.

Even so, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is advocating a national ID-card system—powered by Oracle databases—and Sun Microsystems, Siebel Systems and a handful of other hardware and software companies want parts of any federal megadatabase projects.

But even if federal agencies—or private organizations such as banks—agree to share information about potential terrorists, use of information still is subject to the federal Privacy Act, a code of fair information practices passed in 1974, notes Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International, a Washington, D.C., consulting company.

There are also technical hurdles. Every agency seems to have a mix of new and legacy databases from different suppliers.

Synching old data sources with more-modern databases that can store everything from fingerprints to photos on federal watch lists will be tricky. The usual vendor- or user-developed database connector, which relies heavily on custom coding, is unlikely to fit the bill.

Pilot projects are in the works. The U.S. Department of Justice is promoting information sharing across state and local law-enforcement agencies through its National Integration Resource Center. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers plans a common infrastructure blueprint for sharing information between states.

But don’t expect much progress for three to five years, McConnell predicts. Even devising a driver’s license common to 50 states that can’t be illegally copied would take that long, he says. And there would have to be a shared database to support it.

—Additional Reporting by Kim Girard