Improving Information Sharing and Interoperability

March 10, 2014
By George I. Seffers
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Government agencies partner more effectively but still face challenges in working together.

Homeland Security Conference Show Daily, Day 1

Information sharing and interoperability have come a long way since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but challenges still remain, agreed speakers and panelists on the first day of the AFCEA Homeland Security Conference in Washington, D.C.

Adm. Thad Allen, USCG, (Ret.), executive vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, kicked off the discussion as the day’s keynote luncheon speaker. Adm. Allen cited the ever-growing complexity of the modern world as the major challenge for keeping the homeland secure. Whether the complexity of climate change creating havoc during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, the growing complexity of technology wielded by foes or the complications associated with governments working together, the world has grown increasingly convoluted, Adm. Allen illustrated.

“We have to start learning how to raise leaders, operate and be successful in environments that have greater degrees of complexity,” he said. He cited climate change as one example. “You could have a tornadic event 100 years ago in Kansas, and it might be a catastrophic event and result in a loss of life. But looking at the critical infrastructure and population density that we have right now, it certainly takes on a greater degree of complexity, and therefore, the consequences associated with it are more extreme,” the admiral offered. “We’re at a point in this world where there is no significant challenge or crisis that can be handled by one particular agency, one private sector company, one entity, one faith-based organization, because the complexity of these situations demands resources and performance that exceeds traditional boundaries.”

That places a huge premium on being able to “cooperate, collaborate and work in new methods to actually produce results," he said.

Border security, anti-terrorism and cybersecurity are all complicated issues requiring multiple partnerships. Additonally, technology advances too quickly for regulations and policies to keep up.

The first panel of the day also focused on interoperability and information sharing. Mark Borkowski, component acquisition executive and assistant commissioner for Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, said that homeland security is not the mission of the federal government alone. “It’s done by an enterprise, which consists of local and state, and tribal and non-governmental organizations. And in that enterprise, the federal government has a role, but often times the federal government role is underneath the prime player, which is law first reponders or law enforcement. When you talk about a federated enterprise like that, you can imagine the importance of interoperability and mobility. The real challenge is turning all that understanding into something actionable,” Borkowski said.

He cited data interoperability as a challenge. For example, the northern U.S. border is secured through partnerships with local and state governments and even the Canadian law enforcement. But to share images from the city of Detroit's traffic cameras with video surveillance cameras on the border for a more complete situational awareness picture presents interoperability problems.

Additonally, Borkowski reported, multiple agencies often have their own ways of doing things. “There are about 47 entities in the U.S. government that have to clear stuff that comes into this country. And they all have their own processes,” he said. Every one of them asks for information from shippers, largely on paper. A recent executive order, he said, calls for a “single window” into which multiple agencies can input and share data to facilitate more efficient trade.

Borkowski’s fellow panelist, Richard Reed, director of state plans, FirstNet, updated the audience on the FirstNet effort to develop a high-speed, nationwide network for public safety. FirstNet was initiated in 2012. “We need to make sure that this service is available and reliable and that public safety can count on it when other networks have become overwhelmed or fail,” Reed said. Last year the National Telecommunications and Information Administration approved a $194 million budget for FirstNet and authorized the pursuit of partnerships. “We know that a large portion of the country is going to require some type of mobile or deployable communications,” he added. “Lastly, we’re looking at the wireless device market.”

The final panel of the day focused on the nation’s fusion data centers, which have played a vital role in sharing information between local, state and federal agencies during recent tragedies, including the Boston Marathon bombing and the Navy Yard shooting.

Although information sharing was vastly improved compared to the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, challenges remain, according to Lee Wight, executive director the Washington, D.C., fusion center known as the Washington Regional Threat Analysis Center. Trust continues to be an issue, and once trust is established and information shared, it can be a challenge to ensure analysts are not overloaded with data. Data classification can hinder attempts to share with partners and allies. For example, Wight informed the audience, most first responders and local law enforcement agencies—who are often the most in need of data—do not have clearances. He also cited a need for better training for analysts and recommended that analysts be willing to write things that may make some people roll their eyes, as some certainly would have done if warned that terrorists might hijack planes and fly them into buildings.

Sandy Peavy, chief information officer, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, also cited the overwhelming amount of evidence in some cases. Thousands of people from around the world attended the Boston Marathon, for example, and they all went back home with digital evidence. Once they realized the need to provide that evidence, they began flooding law enforcement agencies with queries on how to do so.

Michael Brody, policy outreach communications manager at the Department of Homeland Security, said technology is not a major hindrance to information sharing. “Over and over again, we find that technology is not the issue. Our issue is having the right governance, the right policy, the right standards, the right relationships in place to bring all of the interested parties together,” Brody said.

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