The US is failing to take advantage of its technology expertise to fight terrorism because government agencies are still reluctant to share terrorism-sharing information with each other, according to a report authored by leading IT and national security experts.
The Markle Foundation report, "Creating a Trusted Information Network for Homeland Security", released yesterday, recommends that President George Bush sets up a decentralised terrorism analysis network that would encourage government agencies to share information with each other and with local law enforcement agencies.
The foundation's recommended System-wide Homeland Analysis and Resource Exchange (Share) Network could, effectively, combat terrorism while protecting privacy and other civil liberties, claimed members of the foundation's Task Force on National Security in the Information Age.
Bush needs to make information-sharing across agencies a priority, and the Share Network would be the first step toward ensuring that the "Cold War mentality" of agencies guarding their information is broken down, said Michael Vatis, executive director of the task force.
The US needs to have a debate about how its government collects and shares information, added Zoë Baird, president of the Markle Foundation. US residents are wary of government data collection and data-mining projects, such as the Department of Defense's Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) project, because there is no government-wide standard, based on public input, on what information can be collected on residents and how it can be shared, she said.
"Not a lot of thought has been put into collecting the information we need and how to link it," Baird said. "If we don't have this debate ... it could cripple our use of technology to fight terrorism."
The report, a follow-up to an October 2002 Markle Foundation report, calls for the US government to give greater priority to sharing and analysing information. While the earlier report identified the ability to share information as the most urgent task facing the government's domestic security operations, the new report focuses on executing that.
"Our government should, effectively, utilise the valuable information that is held in private hands, but only within a system of rules and guidelines designed to protect our civil liberties," the report said. "Our nation can never hope to harden all potential targets against terrorist attack. Therefore, we must rely on information to try to detect, prevent, and respond to attacks."
US agencies are reluctant to share information with each other because of a continuing culture of ownership of information, and because of fears that US residents' privacy would be compromised by sharing information, Baird said.
The Share Network, as envisioned by the Markle Foundation, would be a combination of technology and policies that would encourage information-sharing among agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement agencies.
Share would be a decentralised, peer-to-peer-like network that would encourage employees of government agencies to share information with state and local governments as well as other federal agencies. Access control and strong encryption would protect privacy of individuals being investigated.
Such a network could break down the "dichotomy" between security and civil liberties, because protection of civil liberties would be built in, said task force participant James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
The Markle taskforce includes national security experts who served in the Carter, Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations, in addition to several technology experts.
The report is available at http://www.markle.org/.
Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service