Information Sharing: LAPD Starts to Connect the Dots

On the seventh floor of a tan, rectangular block building in Norwalk, Calif., behind a locked door, sit rows of cubicles—each one supplied with a PC, a phone that makes voice calls over the Internet, and double flat-panel monitors. In a few cubicles, analysts work intently on the computers. In the others, idle monitors display a silver ring encircling an American flag and a bald eagle flying out of a bell-shaped speaker. Images pour into the room—from a bank of six flat-screen TVs suspended from the ceiling that are tuned to Al Jazeera and five other newscasts; and from the smart boards, giant electronic whiteboards that hang around the walls beneath computers fixed with projectors. They flash air traffic updates, maps of the Los Angeles area, a picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Since Sept. 11, the government has been trying to collect and share information across geographical and political boundaries to prevent another terrorist attack. This place—the Joint Regional Intelligence Center (JRIC), near Los Angeles—is the latest plan.

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The idea is that the locals will be able to sift through the bits of information that flow into the center—sightings of suspicious activity reported by corporate security officers or passers-by, criminal histories from the Los Angeles Police Department, news reports—analyze them, and push them back out so the affected agencies can respond quickly if there’s a threat. The 9/11 Commission reported hundreds of such missed opportunities before and after 9/11. Two hijackers, for example, were in the State Department’s terrorist database, but the FAA didn’t use that data—and the hijackers boarded the planes.

Over the years, law enforcement agencies have been hobbled with aging, incompatible computer systems and a culture that rewards competition over cooperation. “There are no greater Type A’s than in law enforcement,” says Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent now teaching about terrorism and public policy at the University of Southern California. He says the U.S. lags other countries, like the United Kingdom, in information sharing because law enforcement databases here are not connected and terrorism in this country is still a recent concern.

Some projects started in the panic that followed 9/11 have run into problems—legal, technical and political. In 2002, California’s Criminal Intelligence Bureau set up a network to exchange information on suspicious activity with law enforcement and intelligence agencies in New York and Washington, D.C. A set of online forums called the Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES), it was based on workspace software from Groove Networks—founded by Ray Ozzie, who created Lotus Notes—and Microsoft.

In 2003, the newly formed Department of Homeland Security took over JRIES, decided to expand it to all 50 states, and renamed it the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN). The DHS rushed to deploy the network, and Groove couldn’t scale fast enough to handle the surge in users, reports the DHS’s Inspector General. In 2005, the DHS took all the agencies it had added to the network off Groove and put them on Web-based portals. But HSIN still isn’t used much by anybody—including law enforcement, which dropped out and tried to form its own more secure network, the Inspector General said in a June report. That’s because “users are confused and frustrated,” without clear guidance on how the network works or whether it can be trusted to handle sensitive information. Instead, they resort to the phone. Microsoft, which now owns Groove, has no comment.

And in Florida, the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix), which let states mine for personal information on suspects across databases maintained by a corporate data broker, Seisint, was shut down in April 2005. The federal government was funding Matrix, but after the American Civil Liberties Union filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and a lawsuit, Florida pulled the plug.

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