Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul - InformationWeek
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Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul

White House plan will work only if the IT systems and databases used for background checks and gun tracing get the improvements needed to support stepped-up oversight.

At the ATF, the technology used to trace weapons recovered during a criminal investigation is a generation (or two or three) removed from today's state-of-the-art systems. When a trace request comes into ATF from law enforcement officers involved in an investigation, the agency uses microfiche -- that's right, the film-based records you remember from the library -- to retrieve the information needed to respond to the query. It's an archaic, labor-intensive process, made necessary by the fact that ATF is prohibited by law from maintaining a central database of information on firearms owners and transactions.

In fact, the ATF maintains many other kinds of records. They include the transactions of out-of-business gun dealers, and reports on multiple handgun sales made to the same person within five business days. And the ATF's National Tracing Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., manages a database of information on guns recovered during crime investigations that can be accessed using a service called eTrace. This lets law enforcement agencies submit firearms trace requests, monitor their progress, retrieve results and query "trace-related data."

But ATF's Firearms Tracing System, just like the FBI databases, has holes. On the same day that Obama introduced those gun-control executive orders, he issued a memo ordering federal agencies to trace every firearm taken into custody. "The effectiveness of firearms tracing depends on the quantity and quality of information and trace requests submitted to ATF," Obama wrote. A second memo instructs federal agencies to do a better job of contributing records to the FBI's NICS system.

Such policy mandates are toothless without the requisite IT infrastructure, and the ATF acknowledges it's got work to do. The agency's published strategic plan outlines a series of needed improvements, including implementation of a standard technical architecture and real-time knowledge management capabilities.

Given the vital role that backend IT systems play in gun control, and the fact that Obama has pinpointed the need to improve information quantity and quality, we might expect the FBI and the ATF to quickly address the issues that have been identified. So far, however, the agencies have been mum about any new plans to plug the gaps. The FBI, in response to a query from InformationWeek Government, offered only this: "With regard to the proposed executive order, the NICS section will strive to accommodate upcoming changes and mandates." An ATF spokesman, meanwhile, said he wasn't aware of any actions planned in the wake of the White House's recent gun-control steps.

The FBI and ATF must do better. Concrete plans are needed now to improve data collection and sharing. Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, who has demonstrated an aptitude for such things, should help clean up this mess. VanRoekel's Digital Government Strategy, introduced in May, defines an IT architecture and processes for sharing digitized content securely, using Web APIs and with attention to protecting privacy. The FBI and ATF should study it closely.

I reached out to VanRoekel to inquire about all of this, but the federal CIO's office bounced my query to the FBI and the ATF. ATF CIO Rick Holgate didn't respond to my email, either.

Unfortunately, on top of the data quality issues identified by the White House, and the FBI's and ATF's outdated IT systems, there's a lack of transparency about the systems used to enforce federal gun-control laws. That also must change. The White House's new initiative simply won't work without across-the-board improvements in all of these areas.

Mobile applications are the new way to extend government information and services to on-the-go citizens and employees. Also in the new, all-digital Anytime, Anywhere issue of InformationWeek Government: A new initiative aims to shift the 17-member Intelligence Community from agency-specific IT silos to an enterprise environment of shared systems and services. (Free registration required.)

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/31/2013 | 5:53:46 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
What kind of dedicated IT budget do these agencies have? It sounds line they're spending so much on manual processes, like searching microfiche, that it's the 80/20 problem on steroids. Lorna Garey, InformationWeek
User Rank: Apprentice
1/31/2013 | 9:44:27 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
I wonder if this is a topic that will come up during the congressional hearings on the gun control proposals.
Greg MacSweeney
Greg MacSweeney,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/31/2013 | 10:52:53 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
The state of these systems is comical and sad. Microfiche? Missing records? Only 6% of background checks are electronic? My lord.
User Rank: Apprentice
2/1/2013 | 6:14:30 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
"Timely, comprehensive data is needed because the FBI has only three business days to find relevant information that might be missing from its databases. After that, the gun purchase is allowed to proceed."

If there is any indication that there is missing information or any inconsistency in the available information, I would extend the time for the search to at least two weeks or more. Heck, it takes two weeks or more to get a solar net metering system checked out and the worst thing that could happen in that case is a blown fuse. Handing a gun to someone simply because you couldn't find the information in a few days makes absolutely no sense.
User Rank: Ninja
2/1/2013 | 7:27:56 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
It is much easier to just repeal the 2nd Amendment and replace it with a law that allows for gun licenses on a strictly as needed basis. Nobody in suburbia needs rifles, especially when the excessive amounts of guns out there are drastically reduced. But for some shootings like in Newtown or the killing of a school bus driver in broad daylight are just collateral damage. How many more innocent people have to die? Why throw technology at a problem that requires much different solutions? Do away with guns and the need for an expensive background check system doesn't even present itself while keeping many many people alive and well.
User Rank: Author
2/2/2013 | 12:35:26 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
the risk is when lawmakers legislate based on a faith in magical tech. a national database that could meet this vision of quick and compromise background checks is just incredibly difficult to execute.
User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2013 | 3:42:30 PM
re: Federal Gun Control Requires IT Overhaul
In discussions like this, for years I continue to see references which would imply singular responsbility for maintenance (the ATF's system, the FBI's system). While these agencies may host the system, why is there not discussions about distributed maintenance? For instance the DoD maintains a worldwide, multiagency access card system. Why can't that same two factor authentication be adapted for weapons manufacturers, anyone with a license to sell (WalMart, Jake's bait & tackle, gun shows, etc.), law enforcement channels, and courts to track legal firearms movement. These entities would be required to log all transactions to transfer a firearm via a web based access (yes internet access being a requirement for licensure). Similar system with a different backend archive would host the NICS and perhaps be available through the same UI.

Certainly it is a 100000 ft view, but the point is the technology has been around as long as the talk of more highly integrated, collaborative law enforcement and intelligence systems. The biggest obstacle is as always moving beyond the talk to actually dedicating funds for implementation. Certainly, microfliche... really ... seriously ? ? Do they still have people flipping transparencies on 3m overhead projectors as well? Maybe Mr. Holgate's staff need's a focus on fundamental modernization projects rather than getting an iPhone in every agent's hand.
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