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National Terrorism Information Network Links Decision Makers

June 2004
By Henry S. Kenyon

 
 
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program to create the Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (ATIX). The ATIX is a secure World Wide Web site located on the RISS network. It is designed to provide officials in disaster response organizations a means to share information and to collaborate during an emergency.
Intelligence centers provide resources, tools and equipment for law enforcement, emergency management organizations.

A new World Wide Web-based service allows emergency first responders to access government databases, conduct live online collaborative meetings and send encrypted e-mail in the event of a terrorist attack. Designed to serve a variety of user communities, the secure network service’s home page provides links and information on terrorism, disaster mitigation and homeland security issues.

Recent history has demonstrated a need for close communication between those organizations that are the first on the scene such as police, fire departments and emergency medical services. But coordination goes beyond common radio frequencies and equipment. Decision makers must be able to reach each other to plan activities and manage the outcome of an event after it has occurred. Web-based applications and virtual venues such as chat rooms and messaging services offer new tools to speed official reaction time in the critical minutes and hours following a terrorist attack or disaster.

One example of such a service is the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (ATIX). According to Angelo J. Fiumara, deputy director, RISS Office of Information Technology, Downington, Pennsylvania, RISS officials decided after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that the first responder community needed a secure venue to share resources and sensitive information.

The ATIX consists of a Web site and connected services hosted on the RISS network. It is designed for use by officials from government and nongovernment organizations who are responsible for planning and implementing prevention, response, mitigation and recovery efforts for terrorist attacks and disasters. The ATIX program serves a variety of communities such as state, county, local and tribal government executives; federal government executives and agencies; regional emergency management; law enforcement and criminal justice organizations; fire departments; agriculture; disaster relief; special rescue units; telecommunication and transportation.

The Web site features information such as Department of Homeland Security terrorist threat-level alerts and areas where participating organizations can post and share data specific to their communities. The ATIX site is protected by a secure network architecture, message encryption and virtual tokens for individual users. This framework also allows member agencies to set varying access levels for their personnel, Fiumara explains. “Because we have fine-grained access control, we can separate the resources provided to first responder communities from law enforcement sensitive resources and information available via the network,” he says.

In each individual community section on the Web site, user organizations can establish collaborative electronic conference services, virtual bulletin boards and live chat rooms. Member groups also create most of the ATIX site’s content and bulletin board posts. Each conference has a live chat feature where users can post conversation threads and discuss topics. An on-screen paging function permits users to notify others if they need to shift a conversation to the telephone or to a face-to-face discussion.

In service for less than a year, the ATIX actively is seeking feedback from its member organizations. The exchange also continues to add communities such as the hotel industry to its rolls. Fiumara explains that during disasters, hotels often become headquarters or serve as emergency shelters or hospitals. 

RISS is experimenting with providing a wireless notification service to alert ATIX participants when they are away from their computers. Fiumara adds that RISS is preparing to launch a pilot program for this service to access text-capable devices such as cellular telephones, personal digital assistants and laptop computers. “It’s a necessity because you can’t depend on people sitting at a computer when things happen. You need to be able to reach these people when they are “off system,” he says.

The ATIX program is part of the larger RISS network, which began in 1973 as a means for law enforcement agencies to share information. In the early 1970s, an interstate criminal organization known as the “Dixie Mafia” was active in the southeast United States, Fiumara explains. Because this group operated across jurisdictions, regional law enforcement officials began meeting to share information to combat the criminals. The officials decided that it would be useful to have a centralized source of information about regional criminal activities.

The result of these meetings was the founding of the first RISS center, the Regional Organized Crime Information Center (ROCIC) in Nashville, Tennessee. The ROCIC was launched in 1973 and received its first federal funding in 1974. There are now six RISS centers across the country. They are overseen by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), which provides program management and administrative oversight for RISS and the ATIX. Fiumara notes that each RISS center is responsible for its own region and is supported by participating state, local and tribal law enforcement organizations. RISS now consists of some 6,800 U.S. and international member agencies.

Fiumara believes that one reason the system has so many partners is that RISS has no turf to protect. “We don’t own the information. The information in the criminal intelligence databases is submitted by member agencies. They own the information, and they have the corroborative and substantiating documentation back at their offices,” he says.

Participant organizations can put as much information on the network as they wish. This can include photographs, audiovisual files and PowerPoint attachments. Depending on the agency, the system may provide a great deal of information online or just enough data to confirm a query and provide a point of contact.

Maintaining a regional perspective is an important part of RISS. The centers tailor their services to the particular policing needs of the area, Fiumara says. For example, though they have many similar issues, the Phoenix, Arizona, law enforcement community has requirements that are very different from those of New England.

When an organization applies to join RISS, it is given a thorough background investigation for any issues, such as corruption, that would preclude it from receiving intelligence data. When that organization is accepted, it becomes a member of a regional center. Then, the agency head selects the officers who will be granted access to the RISS network. “It is a one-to-one relationship. A unique individual is identified to the network and granted permission to get specific resources,” he says.

Each center has a policy board and an executive board composed of representatives from the regional member agencies. These boards set the policy and guidelines for the services the center offers and approve or deny applications for RISS membership by member agencies. On a broader level, the BJA sets national policy for the maintenance of the national criminal intelligence databases that form the core of the RISS network.

RISS maintains several electronic resources, such as the Criminal Intelligence Database, the National Gang Database and the RISS Leads collaborative criminal information bulletin board. RISS also offers its members access to other national databases. In 2002, the organization connected its network to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system. Users vetted for each system can open simultaneous browser sessions on both networks.

The connection between the networks also permits users to send encrypted e-mail to anyone on the RISS or LEO domains. Fiumara adds that this mailing capability also extends to users on other law enforcement networks with e-mail domains resident on RISSNET.

While the ATIX provides an encrypted e-mail capability, RISS continues to maintain its own dedicated frame network connecting regional nodes and federal networks such as LEO. Users also can access the network from the Internet via virtual private network software to create a secure connection from the user’s laptop or desktop computer.

Another important step in connecting to the LEO network is ensuring that federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officials can access the system. Fiumara observes that this type of cross-jurisdiction information sharing often did not occur in the past, making the LEO interconnection a potential new avenue for collaboration. RISS also is developing connections to other resources such as the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS). A pilot program is underway for authorized RISS users on state systems to connect to RISSNET through their existing NLETS connections. Negotiations also are underway for an interface to Department of Homeland Security national networks.

Additional information on the Regional Information Sharing Systems program is available on the World Wide Web at www.iir.com/riss.

 

One-Stop Crime-Fighting Centers

The Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program is known for its secure computer networks and access to national criminal intelligence databases. But RISS is more than electronic services such as the Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, explains Angelo J. Fiumara, deputy director of the RISS Office of Information Technology in Downington, Pennsylvania.

He notes that the program’s six regional centers provide a variety of services for their members such as conducting analytical work for law enforcement agencies. A criminal investigator with paperwork and other data can bring the information to a center where it is analyzed for any connections or hidden associations relating to a case. “You can walk into a RISS center with all your paperwork, and they will scan that information, run analytical tools against it and produce court-ready documents for you,” he says.

The centers’ staffs are able to generate graphs and drug trafficking flow charts, telephone call use-analysis, and can produce court-ready crime scene drawings. They also have specialized equipment such as night vision goggles, body wires and hidden surveillance cameras to lend to law enforcement agencies.

RISS centers provide confidential funds and telephone services for cash-strapped regional law enforcement agencies. Referred to as “flash money,” the funds are used by undercover police officers during drug investigations. The money is lent to an agency for the investigation and repaid with any seized assets. The regional RISS centers also have an 800 number that permits law enforcement officials to place toll-free calls to other officers across the country.