U.S. Border Patrol agents arrest illegal aliens attempting to enter the United States after crossing the Rio Grande in McAllen, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2018. (Ozzy Trevino/CBP)

Data Can Transform Homeland Security – If Federal Agencies Can Find It

Interconnected data can unearth everything from terror suspects to the most operationally sound use for precious agency funding, but meticulous mining anchored by a whole-of-government approach – and private industry coming forward with innovative solutions – is necessary to pull together comprehensive, usable information.

Associate Chief Rodney Washburn, director of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Data Science Division, said his focus is to “not just build the tools but build a playbook” that can be utilized by sectors to track operations statistics and see how product procurements actually perform and impact agents in the field.

Washburn noted at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s CBP Data Analytics event that it’s “safe to say the data is everywhere” and the division is forging forward amid the realization of thinking “you have access to your data, but you don’t.”

Former Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis Francis X. Taylor said similar cyber challenges are seen in border security and counterintelligence: how to harness data in hundreds of unconnected databases and “how do we keep our components functioning and functioning well.”

“There has to be an integrated approach to this while not getting in the way of the operators,” he said.

In March, CBP captured on average, per day, 1,107 people between U.S. ports of entry and determined inadmissible 764 people trying to enter the country at the ports. Operations must be tracked and analyzed with more than 23,000 CBP officers (more than 19,500 Border Patrol agents) across 328 ports of entry, 135 Border Patrol stations and five substations within 20 sectors, including 35 immigration checkpoints.

Working closely with CBP’s Office of Information and Technology – critical collaboration that Washburn lauds as “amazing” – Data Science is trying to work through the challenge of making usable data that may not be in great condition along with connecting data for comprehensive access.

“I believe we can change CBP and the way we do business forever,” Washburn said, noting that’s why they’re starting small; ultimately, there are “very few people trying to get after this the way we’re trying to get after this.”

“The analysis you’re seeing not being done is not because we don’t have smart people doing it – it’s because they don’t have the tools,” he said.

And as the complex border security environment is ever-evolving, data is critical to capturing an accurate snapshot of CBP’s performance. Migrants surrendering to agents at the border, for example, are still counted in the broader category of apprehensions without the distinction that they voluntarily turned themselves in to law enforcement.

Data also lets Congress know where funding is needed to shore up border operations.

Social media analysis also needs to be part of the data picture and drive day-to-day decisions as these open-source postings give analysts “some understanding of the threat,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to find that after the fact – we want to find that before they get here.”

“The expectation is that you’re going to stop 100 percent of bad actors that come into the country,” he noted. “DHS will stop known actors who have professed their hate against America before they come into the country; the only way you’re going to find that is social media.”

“If there’s another terror attack in this country coming from outside the U.S., the first question is going to be what was the person’s social media profile,” Taylor said. “If you don’t have the answer, you’re going to be in trouble.”

And while DHS employees are “kicking butt every day, strategically what the department lacks is an integrated data philosophy or policy.”

“You’ve got 40 years of tactical changes to data… that you’re trying to use to make decisions,” Taylor continued.

He advised that contractors think about how they can help DHS data sciences in terms of “moving to a new reality… while not stopping the components from what they do every day” and understanding the specific issue needing resolution before making a pitch. “Tailor your solution to try to solve the problem,” he said.

Washburn said he wishes some private-industry relationships could be expedited as security across the federal government has sometimes “protected the data to such a level now that you can’t get to it.”

“I wish there was a way to get contractors faster clearances,” he told the industry audience. “You guys will get contracted to do a job, but you’re really doing mission impossible, in my mind, if you don’t have access to the data.”

That leads to his biggest frustration with contracting relationships: “If you don’t have the access when I’m bringing you on, then it’s doing me no good.” It’s critical that industry partners understand the data while making a pitch and coming on board a project, he said, otherwise a contractor can get overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge and look like they oversold their capabilities.

At the end of the day, with the proper support to construct the necessary system, data “tells the story of how policy and laws are affecting operations.”

“To get a data-driven culture is a huge change,” Washburn said.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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