Several public sector groups are successfully sharing information to combat crime and make the government run better

Johanna Ambrosio, Tech Journalist

June 30, 2006

6 Min Read

After some high-profile failures, federal, state, and local governments have embarked on a round of more successful data-sharing efforts. Many of the bigger initiatives are still being implemented, but some smaller efforts are well under way.

In this context, "success" means figuring out what kinds of data to share, putting the technology pieces in place to do so, and then establishing the rules for data ownership and access. And of course, this must all happen within the bounds of privacy laws and constitutional protections.

The federal government has long been behind the technology curve when it comes to data sharing because of organizational issues, how and when the agencies are funded, and politics. "These guys are far less able to rip and replace than the private sector, so they have to live with the installed base for much longer periods of time," says Herb Strauss, a Gartner analyst who covers national security.

But as far behind as the government is in some ways, some agencies are miles ahead of businesses when it comes to figuring out governance issues, such as who gets to update a given data set, whether it can be downloaded and manipulated, where it physically resides, when it ages out, and who deletes it.

"Business tends to be more agile, but government is far more consensus-driven," Strauss says.

Crime Stopper
One example of this type of consensus is the Law Enforcement Information Exchange, or Linx, a way of sharing information at the state, local, and federal levels to help catch criminals and counter terrorist threats. Six states are participating, with others, including New Mexico and the capital region, about to go live. At the federal level, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and, to a lesser extent, the Justice Department share data with the states. The FBI is about to join, too (see story, More Sharing To Come).

Dan Estrem, now a consultant to Linx, helped set up the initial arm in Washington state in 2000, while he worked at the FBI. The original idea was to help secure Navy facilities by sharing information with local law enforcement in communities around bases, Estrem says. Although initially the goal was to prevent terrorism, the result has been more arrests at the local level, including of people writing bad checks and stealing identities.

In one notable case, an arrest was made in the slaying of a police officer only 24 hours after the killing. That type of investigation normally takes weeks to conduct, but Linx helped law enforcement "connect the dots," Estrem says.

Linx includes only enforcement information, such as who was arrested for what crime, if the person was found guilty and served time for a crime, and if he or she is wanted for questioning in another investigation. Also in the system are statistics and particulars about local burglaries, murders, and other crimes.

Not included is intelligence data, such as unconfirmed tips about someone dealing drugs. The database differs from the FBI's ill-fated Matrix program, Estrem says, which planned to tie information about credit, driving, and health history, among other things, with enforcement data, as well as link it all to unproven intelligence.

Linx also segments data so that law enforcement officials within a specific state or locality can share information only with each other and with federal agencies. It doesn't let them see information about investigations going on in other states. So Washington state law enforcement can't see what their peers in Texas know, but both states can share information with NCIS in separate transactions.

The most time-consuming and grueling part of Linx, Estrem says, is figuring out the details of the initial setup in each locale--who needs to be involved and how to transcend whatever politics may be involved to get the various stakeholders to talk to each other. That's where he comes in, helping set up the various data governance boards so each state can figure out its own rules for how to share information. In Linx's case, only the agency that submits data is allowed to change or delete it.

Another security-related data-sharing project is the Coalition Operating Area Surveillance and Targeting System, spearheaded by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Coasts collects data from a range of wireless devices, including battery-powered infrared sensors and fingerprint and iris scanners. Sensors embedded in vehicles and equipment positioned around a battlefield can transmit data to local and regional command centers where it's combined with law enforcement and intelligence information. The sensors can pick up information on chemical weapons up to 50 feet away and can be GPS-enabled to track movement at up to 40 mph. They use a covert radar signal that can be picked up by planes, balloons, and ships employing mesh communications and relayed thousands of miles if necessary.

In a recent demo of the technology in Thailand, Navy students showed how fingerprints and iris scans of the crew of a suspicious ship could be collected and sent to a U.S. command center, where they could be run through a database of known terrorists and drug runners.

Program manager James Ehlert has been invited to demonstrate the system in other countries. "Southeast Asia is plum for this, because they don't have much technology or communications infrastructure already built," he says. "As their borders become more secure, so do ours."

Beyond Crime And Terror
Terrorist threats and law enforcement aren't the only places where data sharing is being refined. Utah recently implemented a way for several state agencies to share eligibility information about citizens who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, and child care, among other services. "If a person or family is eligible for one of these programs, often they're eligible for several of them," Utah CIO J. Stephen Fletcher says. Case workers for various agencies, including health, human services, and workforce services, had been conducting separate interviews. Now it's all input once, and the information is available to any number of agencies.

Because of reporting requirements for programs such as Medicaid, Utah had to get various federal agencies to agree to allow the data to be combined and shared among agencies, Fletcher says. "There's a big challenge in the interaction with the states and the feds" because, although everyone would like to become more efficient, federal agencies often are constrained by the funding they receive from Congress. Watchdog agencies frequently are set up to track specific programs in a certain way, and when systems are combined, even for good reasons like data sharing, it makes it difficult to determine that money was spent well.

As Utah and other government entities demonstrate that data sharing can be done in ways that allow for visibility, maintain privacy, and still save money, the likelihood increases that public-sector data sharing will continue to expand.

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About the Author(s)

Johanna Ambrosio

Tech Journalist

Johanna Ambrosio is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She has been a reporter and an editor in the computer industry for over 25 years, covering virtually every technology topic, starting with 'office automation' in the 1980s, as well as management issues including ROI and how to attract and retain talent. Her work has appeared online and in print, in publications including Application Development Trends, Government Computer News, Crain's New York Business, Investor's Business Daily, InformationWEEK, and the Metrowest Daily News. She formerly worked at Computerworld, for which she held various positions, including online director. She holds a B.S. in technical writing from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., now the Tandon School of Engineering of New York University. She lives with her husband in a Boston suburb. Johanna's samples of her work are at

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