Plans emerging for national security data sharing

They may not be the Continental Congress, but hundreds of IT experts from the defense and intelligence communities gathered here yesterday to share ideas and plans on emergency responses to a terrorist attack on the nation.

Only blocks from the spot where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, more than 900 government and private-sector officials met to discuss efforts to improve collaboration and information sharing among the hundreds of federal, state and local agencies in charge of emergency response in the event of future terrorist attacks.

On the first day of the three-day Information Sharing and Homeland Security conference, officials have been clear on what the overall strategy is for detecting and preventing future attacks: Create a nationwide information-sharing architecture by leveraging the billions of dollars in federal IT investments, rather than building something from scratch.

"We're trying to use the existing capabilities of the [intelligence] community," said Bill Dawson, a deputy intelligence community CIO for the office that advises the director of central intelligence on IT policy.

In particular, Dawson was referring to an IT project begun before the Sept. 11 attacks that has acquired a new sense of momentum. The system, known as the Intelligence Community System for Information Sharing (ICSIS), provides controlled and secure gateway interfaces between networks with different security controls and classification levels.

For example, ICSIS, which is still in the first phase of development, will enable analysts to share sanitized versions of top-secret intelligence reports with other analysts and possibly state and local officials who might have only a secret-level security clearance, said Dawson. The system will automatically remove information pertaining to sources and methods of intelligence collection, thereby downgrading the security classification of the documents, said Dawson.

Phase one "enablers" under development include a public-key infrastructure; a full-service directory for identifying experts and analysts throughout the 14 different agencies that comprise the intelligence community; a collaborative tool suite; additional trusted and controlled interfaces between agency-specific communities of interest; and metadata and interoperability standards to support data discovery throughout the intelligence community.

"What we're really doing is going beyond the baseline we have now with Intelink," said Dolly Greenwood, director of architecture at ICSIS, referring to the widely used classified intelligence community intranet.

Since its inception in 1994, Intelink has grown to the point where it isn't always effective, said Stephen Selwyn, director of knowledge management at the Intelligence Community CIO Office. "Searching Intelink is like shooting craps," he said, referring to the 2.4 million Web pages that now populate the classified intranet.

"We're trying to enable analysts to come from a native desktop without additional infrastructure and enter a collaborative space [online]," said Selwyn. He noted that a project known as the Intelligence Community Collaborative Presence (ICCP), which will be Web-based and rely on Secure Socket Layer and digital certificates, will be ready for full deployment by November. ICCP will rely on a software-based tool kit to enable cross-community, real-time collaboration.

Still, officials are working on additional VPN connections that will provide secure bridges between ICSIS and information-sharing networks managed by the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Defense and state and local agencies, said John Brantley, direct of the Intelink management office.

"Take AOL, Yahoo and MSN and link them to a bunch of classified data, and that's Intelink," said Brantley, calling the intranet the "basis for how people share information" in the intelligence community. And while he acknowledged that searching Intelink can be like shooting craps, Brantley maintains that despite the intranet's size, analysts shoot craps "with loaded dice."

That point hasn't been lost on the State Department, which is pushing hard to ensure that valuable intelligence information collected by foreign service officers overseas is communicated to U.S. analysts as fast as possible. In fact, Hunter Ledbetter, coordinator for the Department's Intelligence Resources and Planning division, said the secret version of Intelink is deployed at 125 of the State Department's 257 posts around the world. Plans call for it to be in all of them by the end of next year.

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