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Good Guys Share, Bad Guys Lose

Tuesday, February 02, 2010
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

National Data Exchange pulls together disparate records to aid the fight against crime and terrorism.

Law enforcement personnel are employing a new system that enables them to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated data in an unprecedented manner. The technology correlates information from various databases, allowing users to learn more about subjects of interest than they could with previous methods. Each increment of the system’s deployment offers additional information fields and introduces new tools.

The National Data Exchange (N-DEx) is an information-sharing platform for the criminal justice community that uses law enforcement record management systems already in existence at the federal, regional, state, local and tribal levels. Approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies operate in different locations around the United States. The exchange provides an ability to correlate the data on people, places and things already in those systems. “We like aggregators,” says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey C. Lindsey, program manager and unit chief of N-DEx. He emphasizes that N-DEx does not compete with other systems; it complements them by connecting them. As a result, they all have a greater reach for their membership. “We’re not trying to go in and create what has already been created,” Lindsey states.

Not only does the system connect other systems, it also offers applications that help perform investigation and analysis functions. However, it is not a new records system. The only records it will create are links made between information already residing in existing law enforcement databases.

In addition to its other connections, N-DEx also is being integrated with OneDOJ—a system that serves as a repository for Department of Justice-only law enforcement components’ (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Federal Bureau of Prisons; Drug Enforcement Administration; FBI; and United States Marshals Service) data that enables sharing of investigative information within the department. The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division operates both systems, which are key components in the DOJ’s Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program. The phased integration began in July 2009 with the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program Exchange Specifications Search and Retrieve interface between the two systems. Through this process, information available through OneDOJ now also is available to N-DEx users. N-DEx is an Internet-based system that will reside on the CJIS network.

N-DEx first debuted in March 2008 when Increment 1 successfully deployed. This early manifestation established a single point of integration and discovery for national criminal justice information. At that time, 50,000 individuals could use the system to capture case data and conduct entity resolution on incident and arrest data.

Increment 2 rolled out in July 2009, building upon the capabilities of its predecessor. This step added subscription and notification, geovisualization and collaboration capabilities. It also included additional data sources and increased the capacity to 100,000 users through the integration of additional law enforcement agencies. This increment puts an emphasis on corrections data.

The final phase, Increment 3, is scheduled to roll out in fall 2010. This stage will focus on probation and parole data so that when completed, N-DEx will capture the full criminal justice life cycle of information. Increment 3 will introduce a comprehensive set of Web services to facilitate navigation and usability. Additional upgrades include enhancements to the correlation and visualization tools to assist users with detecting crime networks, patterns and trends. When this increment is complete, the system will be established for 200,000 users, though that number could adjust. “N-DEx is designed to have an extremely robust capacity for simultaneous users and can be scaled at a greater level if needed,” Lindsey explains.

When fully operational and deployed, the capabilities N-DEx will offer include nationwide searches from a single access point; searches by modus operandi for clothing, tattoos, cars and so forth—this will link individuals, places and things; notifications of similar investigations and suspects; identification of criminal activity hot spots and crime trends; threat level assessments of individuals and addresses; and visualization and mapping features.

Using N-DEx, law enforcement officials can access a spectrum of information never before available in one place. Lindsey says that through the system’s incorporation of various agencies’ incarceration, booking, incident, arrest, probation and parole data, it makes correlations and associations for users unlike any previous system. “It is literally a game changer for the way that an investigator or analyst can access rich, criminal justice life cycle data ... in one place,” he states. The system will continue to grow in usefulness as more criminal justice systems deposit their data and more investigators and analysts make queries.

Before N-DEx, the information now accessible through it was available, but nothing existed to connect that data so law enforcement personnel could search it in one place. When the system is populated fully, investigators and analysts can obtain an individual’s entire criminal history. Lindsey explains that the system will paint a fuller picture of people, places and things, making connections through analytical capabilities more easily and readily than in the past.

The FBI’s N-DEx Web site lists an actual application of the system in which it helped law enforcement agents in Nevada identify and apprehend a suspect on drug trafficking and firearms charges. The perpetrator also had committed crimes in California under another name. According to the site, “The North Las Vegas Police Department was investigating a man whom they suspected was selling illegal drugs. They knew that he was living in North Las Vegas with a female and another male and that he used the alias ‘Peanut.’ Unfortunately, the standard information systems were little help by themselves. Subpoenaed utility company records showed Patty F. and husband Chris M. at the North Las Vegas address, but there were no local records on Chris M., and without a date of birth or other identifiers, there was no way to crosscheck that identity with data from other jurisdictions ... investigators turned to N-DEx [and] found an incident report from Los Angeles naming Ed V. as an associate of Patty F., and they connected that to National Crime Information Center data listing both Chris M. and ‘Peanut’ as aliases used by Ed V. They also discovered Ed V.’s extensive criminal history and a felony warrant for stolen vehicle possession.” North Las Vegas law enforcement officers served a warrant to the suspect and found a large quantity of narcotics and two handguns.

Lindsey emphasizes that N-DEx is an unclassified system primarily focused on criminal investigations and activities and that the data received by the system is all criminal justice. “We don’t ingest any intelligence data,” he explains. Even if the intelligence information is unclassified, the parameters of the system are outside the intelligence realm, though intelligence professionals could use the search capabilities in their operations. Lindsey adds that personnel on Joint Terrorism Task Forces, in fusion centers or in other counterterrorism-related positions could benefit from the system by accessing the more complete data source and incorporating information found there into their own analyses and evaluations. “We’re out there for the crime fighters, but we’re also out there to prevent terrorism activities,” he states.

Personnel can gain access to the data exchange in two ways. One is through Law Enforcement Online accounts by clicking on the N-DEx link. The other option is to use one of the service connections that various contributing partners are beginning to establish. Through this method, personnel log in to their agencies’ terminals and perform their searches. Lindsey says the bureau is working to expand access through means such as RISS.net and other trusted information sharing systems.

Though the FBI sponsored, developed and will maintain N-DEx, Lindsey states that the data exchange is a project of the entire criminal justice community. Major criminal justice organizations including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Major City Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs’ Association have endorsed the system. The CJIS operates N-DEx on a shared-management basis through its Advisory Policy Board (APB). “The APB and other criminal justice subject matter experts have had input at every stage of the system’s development and delivery and will continue to have a say in the way forward,” Lindsey explains.

The FBI also is working with private-sector contractor Raytheon Company on the N-DEx effort. As the partners worked on the system, they had to devise a way to ensure security and privacy. Anyone who wants to share on the system can upload data through the established process. A security system maintains the security around the data to protect it under the various rules and regulations that govern different types of data and where it originates.

Access to information in the system will be controlled by the law enforcement agency that owns the information, and each agency will decide what to share, with whom and under what circumstances. Each time the system is accessed, a log generates so administrators can determine who accessed N-DEx, why and what information was gleaned.

Andre Haynes, the project manager for Raytheon on the project, says that with N-DEx, law enforcement personnel will increase the likelihood of correctly identifying a person they are tracking because of the ability to access many criminal justice records. Raytheon’s goal for the system is to help the law enforcement community enhance safety as well as to help prevent terrorism.

Haynes says the system is important in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. He explains that it improves the ability of law enforcement communities and members across the nation to share information through a system. “It is the first-of-its-kind national information sharing capability,” Haynes states. Before the attacks, the law enforcement community lacked this sort of data passing between agencies.

He believes that N-DEx will enhance homeland security in the same way it improves more traditional law enforcement endeavors. People charged with protecting the country can use the data exchange to identify persons of interest and people who have committed crimes more quickly than they could previously. In addition, they can collaborate among themselves more easily. Raytheon estimates that 6 million queries a day will move through N-DEx when it deploys fully.

Lindsey agrees that N-DEx will assist homeland security. The information investigators and analysts access through the system supports their missions of crime and terrorism prevention and will help them solve incidents that have occurred already. “It’s truly a multiple-source, all-threats tool,” he shares.

WEB RESOURCES
FBI National Data Exchange: www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/ndex/ndex_home.htm
Raytheon National Data Exchange: www.raytheon.com/capabilities/rtnwcm/groups/iis/documents/content/rtn_iis_n-dex_casestudy.pdf
Law Enforcement Online: www.leo.gov
FBI Criminal Justice Information Services: www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/cjis.htm