Zalmai Azmi, Federal Bureau of Investigation

July 2006
By Zalmai Azmi, Chief Information Officer, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Which emerging technology will have the biggest impact on your organization in the future?

Improving information sharing and moving toward information management rather than data management are priority objectives for Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) information technology. Traditionally, information protection included withholding information to better protect it. Tendencies toward withholding and perhaps overclassifying information made for multiple organizational elements throughout the government with their own treasure trove of information that was not available to others. The more information withheld, the more important the organizational element, according to some.

A second tradition was the technocratic need to correlate information and data directly. The focus seemed to be on new and better ways to store and access data. However, this often resulted in losing the true meaning that the information represented and possibly forgetting that the data itself needed interpretation, collaboration, coordination and linkage to other data for it to provide meaningful information to aid in competent decision making.

The government is changing and so is the FBI. Information management is a business not simply of storing, manipulating and reporting data but of presenting executive decision makers with solid, internally collaborated information. In addition, other agencies within both the intelligence and law enforcement communities can make use of the FBI’s information and provide valid information in return.

If anything positive resulted from the September 11, 2001, attacks, it was the reminder of what this country stands for and how far it has come. Perhaps Americans felt they were already safe and secure enough on their own soil, so there was no need to worry. But from this rude awakening came a renewed and united commitment. Along with this commitment, drastic steps were needed throughout the government to evaluate how the attacks happened and to initiate dramatic changes to prevent its recurrence.

At the FBI, the mission changed radically: Counterterrorism now is a number one priority. Historically, the bureau’s investigative expertise and criminal apprehension capabilities were legendary, and they remain so. However, after-the-fact expertise would not provide the capability so desperately needed. The change from reactive to proactive—from apprehending to pre-empting—was significant, and the need for improvements was urgent.

Since that time, the bureau has responded to these changes by diverting attention and support to other mission elements. But it remains clear to the agents on the street, to the partners in pursuit of mission and to the executive decision makers that without timely information upon which they can act, the FBI will not achieve more than modest success.

However, for the new, electronic, global enemy, these changes are not enough. To underestimate the enemy is a critical mistake. The more freely we share our information, the more likely the enemy is to find a way to intercept it or at least to understand what we know and to set about addressing their vulnerabilities.

So along with the pursuit of information sharing comes the need to protect privacy and the security of information. This requires understanding the information by implementing processes such as role-based access. The FBI has discrete networks to communicate information at multiple security classifications as well as an unclassified network for information not bearing those restrictions. Access to these networks is determined by users’ security levels rather than by the nature of the information. Security and privacy are not tack-on additives; they are watchwords for all we do.

As the FBI better learns to manage information rather than manipulate data, as it learns to apply technology solutions when they make sense and enable operations, as it focuses on providing only the best services to its agents in the field, it also needs to continue to change the way it conducts business. These changes are occurring gradually as the bureau continues to support legacy systems and operations while introducing new capabilities and services to the field. The first focus is on overall improvements for FBI personnel as the bureau changes from an organization of information technologists to one of business consultants. The biggest human capital challenge is striking a balance between business and technology to ensure continuing and evolving support to operations.

The second major change includes the establishment, improvement and re-engineering of the process by which information can be managed and shared. The bureau is partnering with industry as well as with other government agencies to seek out and utilize best practices to guide this evolution.

Finally, the FBI remains the provider of technology. It needs to keep abreast of emerging technology as well as to collaborate with partners in government and industry to ensure it achieves another delicate balance—the need for commercial technology that is available and reliable today and the need to continuously pursue new and better techniques for technological solutions.

At the FBI, the chief information officer maintains these delicate balances. Success is not a desirable option. Success is our mandate.