Information Sharing Raises More Questions Than Answers

May 2008
By Charlotte Adams

Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, USN, J-6, the Joint Staff, gives a plenary address at the AFCEA Solutions series forum covering information sharing.
The devil is in the details as assets and liabilities are weighed.

Information silos and data hoarding are more than annoyances—they cost lives and disrupt missions. Although government leaders understand the need to share information, not only among agencies but with allies and the private sector, progress has been slow and uneven.

High among the challenges are the need to protect data and the instinct of its creators to maintain the data’s ownership. Barriers are more cultural than technical or budgetary. No one wants to stick his or her neck out and then suffer blame if something goes wrong.

Military and corporate leaders gathered to express their support for, and describe their progress in, information sharing at a two-day, highly interactive Solutions Series conference held by AFCEA International on March 12-13, 2008, in Washington, D.C. The inaugural event will be followed by similar conferences on identity assurance, information assurance and cyberspace/cyberwarfare. It was no surprise that the information sharing sessions raised more questions than answers, generating pleas for renewed efforts and ideas from the contractor community. Along with morale-boosting calls to arms from “thought leaders,” there were stories from the trenches not only about promising pilot programs but about good ideas that had been turned into bureaucratic monsters. As the speakers themselves admitted, a beginning has been made, but much work remains to be done.

Since the days of the first Gulf War, when soldiers used commercial global positioning system (GPS) devices and commercial telephones, and air tasking orders had to be flown out physically to Navy ships, the military services have stressed interoperability. But now, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, it has become imperative not only to talk to one’s neighbors in the bureaucracy, but also to share information with them.

And the military’s neighborhood has mushroomed to include not only the services and their parent, the Defense Department, but also the civilian agencies of the federal government; entities at the state, local and tribal levels; international partners; and the private sector. The new requirement to share information faces many technical and cultural hurdles. But in the interest of international security, government officials state that it is essential to find a way forward.

Ambassador Thomas E. McNamara, program manager, information sharing environment, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, describes the need for cultural change in government.
The September 11 attacks were a wakeup call. The 9/11 Commission cited the inability to share information as a principle reason for the debacle. The information existed but was not available to those who needed it. In the more than six years since that event, information sharing has improved, but not nearly enough. Quoting Winston Churchill, Ambassador Thomas E. McNamara, program manager for information sharing in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), told Solutions conference attendees that “we’re at the end of the beginning.”

Attempts to improve information sharing are being made at all levels of government. In the office of the Joint Staff, admirals and generals are learning to use Web 2.0 tools such as wikis. Information technology experts are focusing on the concept of service-oriented architectures (SOAs). Guidance has been developed, including an Information Sharing Environment Profile, or risk-management framework, from the ODNI. The Defense Department is developing an information-sharing plan, focusing on leveraging the power of social networks, removing barriers caused by incorrect data classification, managing the information environment, changing the culture and “operationalizing” information-sharing capabilities.

Cultural barriers—embodied by much-maligned “middle managers”—took the biggest knocks. As one moderator put it, “He who innovates usually has arrows in his back.” Lt. Gen. Charles E. Croom Jr., USAF, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) director and commander of the Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations, alluded to “middle-level managers” who are “concerned about control.” These people, he said, need to be trained “to measure on productivity, not attendance.”

According to Gen. Croom, DISA’s unclassified networks have grown by 500 percent in the past three years, so bandwidth per user is growing. But, when asked where the network was heading and whether DISA would adopt popular Web-based tools to enhance information sharing, the general hedged. “The first thing DOD has to do is decide what it wants the network to be when it grows up, and set requirements and priorities,” he said. Gen. Croom is working with the Joint Staff to establish those requirements.

If it is to be a warfighting network, Gen. Croom said, his first priority is to protect it. Right now the department has a dual-use policy toward online activity. It allows employees to use the network for official business and—on a noninterference basis—personal business. But that type of action is causing “extreme threat” to the network’s warfighting function, the general said. He added that, based on network analysis tools, more than half the users may be spending more than 50 percent of their time going off the network. But “more than half of the Internet sites we go to have malware on them,” he said. So these actions are bringing back threats to the military network and “impacting the ability to do our primary mission.”

DISA initially responded by blocking 13 recreational Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace, Gen. Croom noted, although exceptions have been made for entities such as Navy recruiting to use YouTube.

As a second pass at the problem, DISA is “socializing” the idea of declaring the network for government business only. He sees this as potentially just another rule—such as dress codes and prohibitions on stealing government pencils—which would be enforced by lower-level commanders.

DISA also is considering bringing some collaboration tools into the dot-mil environment. “We have to use these tools [because] that’s where the world is going,” the general said. It also enhances the productivity of the work force, and that is why restricting use is such a difficult argument to make, he conceded. The question is how to give 18-year-old “digital natives” these capabilities “without taking down the warfighting network.”

Dave Wennergren, deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology and the Pentagon’s deputy chief information officer (CIO), outlines the opportunities emerging in this new information era.
David M. Wennergren, deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology and the Pentagon’s deputy chief information officer (CIO), stated that this transitional time offers a “profound opportunity” to create core enterprise services, such as identification management, as information technology migrates from a systems-centric to a services-oriented view of the world.

Top-level interest has been stoked by opportunities glimpsed. Last year during the California wildfire season, a U-2 spy plane was willing but initially unable to provide streaming video to firefighters on the ground, according to Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, USN, director of command, control, communications and computer systems (J-6), the Joint Staff. She described how contractor convoys in Iraq had no means of communicating with security forces, and U.S. Marine and Army companies had to swap radios in order to communicate and execute a joint mission.

While Adm. Brown described how members of the Joint Staff save time by using wiki software to reach organizational positions and file reports, she also attacked the “culture of information hoarding.” Although “joint” is the expected way to operate, technology has outpaced culture, she asserted. “We’re still caught up in a service-centric environment.”

Adm. Brown called on the community to focus on how to manage the transport layer as an enterprise. Instead of managing all the pieces of the network independently, the challenge is to “manage terrestrial, space, spectrum, wired and wireless all as a single enterprise,” essentially “collapsing multiple domains into one.”

The admiral pointed to the joint base to be built at Guam as an opportunity to “get things right.” The infrastructure there, built from the ground up, could have one enterprise, one domain, even one logon. There also is the need for a federated development and certification environment, Adm. Brown said, so that services can develop and certify according to a standard means.

While the Defense Department is moving ahead in making data visible, accessible and understandable, it is not enough, according to Wennergren. “There are still a lot of issues of personal control that we’re going to all have to get over,” he said. He stressed that his goal is “information advantage … that manifests itself in persistent collaboration—always on, always able to share.” Everything is going to change, he warned the audience, “as we move to this service-oriented world.” But change will create new business. There will be a “huge opportunity to develop services that will allow us to quickly, and with great agility, share information, to get the right information to the right person at the right time,” Wennergren said.

How the shift will affect traditional, hierarchical command and control models is a persistent but unanswered question. Wennergren quoted from a recent journal article to the effect that: “Command and control, as we know it, is dead in a service-oriented world.” For our adversaries “are not encumbered with the benefits of a three and a half-million person organization.” While U.S. military technology clearly is second to none, he continued, massive organizations do not move very fast. The author of the article, Wennergren stated, made the argument that “the new buzzword should be about the ability to focus quickly,” about convergence and information advantage.

The ODNI’s McNamara described the National Counterterrorism Center, established in 2004, as the “central shared knowledge bank of known and suspected terrorists.” He also praised the establishment of state and urban area fusion centers and expressed the hope that these entities can be networked to create a new tool in the Global War on Terrorism. Several attendees, however, wondered whether these new centers would be turned into new information silos.

But it is early yet, McNamara said. Among the items on his to-do list are: allowing reciprocity for clearances; continuing the effort to define communications processes and data standards; maintaining the commitment to defend Americans’ privacy and legal rights; nationalizing, standardizing and simplifying the procedures for marking information, particularly in the sensitive but unclassified categories; accepting and managing risk rather than thinking one can avoid it; and instituting a culture of information sharing at all levels of government.

McNamara cited one example of progress in the area of suspicious activity reporting (SAR). His analysts mapped the “entire SAR process” at federal and local levels, which they then broke down into categories and subsets to see how best to grapple with the process. Eventually the group, working with other agencies, produced a series of standards that “satisfied just about everybody,” he asserted.

Despite such efforts, the private sector is “decades ahead” in information management, he stressed. One problem is that the current power structure is composed of “digital immigrants” rather than “digital natives.”

What is needed is change in the way people do their jobs, he continued. And for the federal government, that means “moving the thinking of the governance structures.” McNamara, among others, pointed to the real doers in government—mid-level managers.

He emphasized the need for rewards and punishments to “incentivize cultural change.” Awareness and responsibility for information sharing need to be built into training programs and employment documentation. McNamara said he is working with the Office of Personnel Management, for example, to add information-sharing elements to job descriptions and parallel incentives to administrative and personnel systems. But equally important is for senior managers to “preach the gospel,” he added.

Wiki technology reached the intelligence community long before it arrived at the Joint Staff. According to a writeup in Wikipedia, the Intellipedia, created in April 2006, comprises three wikis linking 16 intelligence agencies. Participants in one of the social networking breakout sessions discussed related technologies such as, a means of broadcasting 140-character messages to a subscriber list. Others include, a service for calling in text messages, and, a Web-based to-do list. Savvy users can take services such as these and join them to create “mashups,” which are quick-and-dirty, 80-percent solutions that yield new services.

Julia Hiland, a senior artificial intelligence engineer with The MITRE Corporation, explained how one could create a mashup to remove duplicate Google feeds or combine photo feeds with Google Earth to see where photos are coming from. From a digital native’s point of view, she said, it is important to “make it easier for people to find you so that information flows to you.”

Apart from their overriding security concerns, managers are worried about employee productivity. Workers may be using the networks for personal use too much, offered Tuana Smith-Cluff, an Army civilian.

The boundary between online personal and professional activity is blurring, agreed a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) representative at a technology seminar. But organizations ignoring the new technologies are “at great risk of dying and being completely irrelevant.” The hardest thing to do is to give up control, he conceded. But the benefits will be a “vast increase in creativity, an explosion of contacts and connections, and an explosion of knowledge capture.” Adding to that sentiment, Hiland warned of the risk in cutting people off. “The information you’re guarding is already out there,” she said, so you are only “crippling your team.”

The CIA representative likened the synergies produced by collaborative, online information flows to a “new organism … becoming more intelligent, adaptive and insightful.” So far, organizations have been better at aggregating knowledge, he said. “But with globalized consciousness, that knowledge is now usurping the ability of the organization to stay connected … the more we as an organization disconnect employees from that organism, the worse off the organization will be in terms of knowledge.”

Several speakers emphasized SOAs, loosely coupled information technology architectures designed to support more rapid development of business applications and more software reuse. DISA is developing its network-centric enterprise services on a SOA core. “It’s all about sharing information from those who have it to those who need it,” Gen. Croom said. “We’re trying to make the information available so we can discover and use it.”

The other services are building their own SOAs. The Air Force has adopted a SOA strategic architecture, according to Lt. Gen. Michael W. Peterson, USAF, chief of warfighting integration and CIO in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. The idea is to help the service share with partners outside of the Defense Department and to allow users to move more freely across the enterprise.

Nevertheless, information technology officials need to be careful about “how we sell SOA,” urged Ron Bechtold, director of the Army Architecture Integration Center. He argued for a federated approach. “You can’t build one [SOA] that will work for all environments,” he said, “because we have different cultures, different value systems and different security risks we’re willing to accept.” He suggested collaboration with DISA on developing specifications and implementing consistent interfaces.

DISA intends to provide core services, including: people and service discovery; metadata registry; collaboration; content discovery and delivery; portal; enterprise service management; M2M (machine-to-machine) messaging; mediation; and service security. DISA has adopted an Air Force content delivery solution and an Army portal solution. When the agency cannot adopt something, it will “go commercial,” as with its collaboration tools, Gen. Croom said.

The Net-Enabled Command Capability (NECC), which will replace the individual services’ Global Command and Control Systems (GCCS), will be under a SOA environment. This encompasses a loosely coupled system that will allow users to interoperate and to spend their money on new capabilities rather than on maintaining bridges between legacy systems.

Gen. Croom also touted the Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device (SMEPED), which was rolled out in March. It is similar to a secure BlackBerry, able to provide classified and unclassified e-mail, voice and browsing services. He also gave the audience a hint of improved ultrahigh frequency (UHF) satellite communications services that will be available through a new integrated waveform demonstration. Software modifications will allow nearly three times the number of users on a 25-kilohertz channel, he said.

The general added that the DISA core will be IPv6-capable by the July 2008 mandate, although the full transition will take many years.

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