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1/26/2005
04:53 PM
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Technology's Foot Soldiers Are The Key To Homeland Security

It's not hard to find someone, even in government, who agrees that 9/11 could have been prevented. It's also not hard to find someone, even in government, who agrees that data-sharing projects underway to correct the intelligence lapses that enabled 9/11 are moving slowly. A year here, 18 months there, and throw in some overpriced, overdue technology. All of this would make me very nervous if it wasn't for some very dedicated people I've met lately.

It's not hard to find someone, even in government, who agrees that 9/11 could have been prevented. It's also not hard to find someone, even in government, who agrees that data-sharing projects underway to correct the intelligence lapses that enabled 9/11 are moving slowly. A year here, 18 months there, and throw in some overpriced, overdue technology. All of this would make me very nervous if it wasn't for some very dedicated people I've met lately."I don't think anyone's satisfied with how fast (these projects) are happening, but we are satisfied with how smart they're happening." Sure, that quote came from the director of Microsoft's justice and public safety division. But Mike Byrne is also a 20-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department and the former director of the Homeland Security Department's Office for National Capital Region Coordination.

This is the kind of guy whose opinion on homeland security and emergency preparedness matters. It's just not easy to feel confident that federal, state, and local government will pull their data-sharing plans together in time to protect us from the next big attack.

The Government Accountability Office, in a report released earlier this month, characterized a substantial portion of the federal government's ability to share information as "high risk." More specifically, GAO noted that while the White House Office of Management and Budget, departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State, and Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency are committed to preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S., a lot more work has to be done to develop "detailed policies, procedures, and plans for sharing homeland security-related information" that would ensure any long-term safety.

Another disheartening piece of news from earlier this month came when the FBI revealed that its $170 million Virtual Case File system was a bust. Blame for this disaster seems to be spread between the FBI, for frequently changing the system's requirements, and to Science Applications International Corp. for ultimately delivering a taxpayer-financed lemon. "The FBI changed the system's requirements to the point where (SAIC) decided to give them a Ford rather than a Cadillac and be done with it," Jeff Vining, a Gartner analyst who covers homeland security and law enforcement, said earlier this week.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, convinced, along with the State Department, that drug traffickers are contributing heavily to several international terrorist organizations, has a new query engine in the works that will make intelligence from the DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, Homeland Security, and other federal agencies available to agents via a single interface. The delivery date? Not until the middle of 2006. "We've got a ways to go," Michael Braun, the DEA's acting assistant administrator for intelligence, told me Monday at a DEA event in New York.

At that same event, I learned that Homeland Security is developing a document fraud detection system, an infrastructure and asset registry, a better way to monitor cyberspace to determine when it's under attack, and an early warning system for biological attacks. All of this should be available by the end of the decade.

Yet, some argue that the government is working miracles in terms of its data-sharing projects, considering the technological and cultural barriers that prevented data sharing in the past. "It's not happening fast, but it is happening," Gartner's Vining, a former FBI attorney, told me.

Maybe Vining, Byrne, and others have a point. There are dozens of government projects underway simultaneously to shore up our country's borders, airways, and critical infrastructure. Anything as big and complex as the U.S. government is bound to move slowly and make a few missteps along the way.

The x-factor becomes technology and the people who believe in technology's ability to improve homeland security. Or, as Ralph Utley, Homeland Security's acting counternarcotics officer, put it to me, "Technology is a force multiplier."

"The next attack will be thwarted not by some supercomputer that spits out some formula, but by some cop on the beat whose suspicion is aroused by some tidbit of information," said the DEA's Braun, a Vietnam veteran whose law-enforcement career spans the past 30 years.

The key to our immediate safety, then, comes down to making sure that cop can move quickly on this information, turning instinct into action.

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