Infosharing evangelists

“What’s the value of that information? The value is zero. It’s zero to me. It’s zero to my organization,” Meyerrose continued.
“Now put an explosive device in the Charleston harbor. Now what’s the value of that information? What’s the value of the width of the channel? What’s the value of knowing how many ships were docked? What’s the value of knowing what the inventory of goods on the shore is? What’s the value of knowing the number of souls within a 500-yard radius? What’s the value of knowing the approaches and exit routes to the harbor area? I could go on and on.”
The information isn’t classified, Meyerrose noted, but it becomes critically important during a terrorist attack on the harbor. Yet, he added, withholding information for security reasons is one of the biggest obstacles to sharing information that homeland security organizations may require.
“The need to share is the need not to be so secure,” Meyerrose said. “That sounds bad to people like us. In fact, if you want to leverage things, you have to be willing to manage risk in our area. An unwillingness to manage risk in our area, in my view, causes your organization to lag. This is hard for us to think about—our business being so dynamic as to change the value of information on a constant basis.”
It’s a new kind of thinking and one that’s difficult to absorb in professions steeped in secrecy and security. Meyerrose knows about such things: He serves as chief information officer to US Northern Command (NorthCom), the military organization established to assist stakeholders in domestic homeland security operations. He made his remarks at the Secure-E Biz CxO Summit in Washington, DC, on June 29.
The obstacles to the infosharing message he preaches are formidable. Some are cultural: the reluctance and suspicion of entrenched bureaucracies toward bureaucratic rivals. Another is procedural: A new application might not meet the security parameters of all of the networks over which it must operate or it might be unsecure.
The net result of all these obstacles is to potentially deny decisionmakers or first responders critical information to do their jobs in a crisis.
A key part of Meyerrose’s mission at NorthCom is to evaluate and pass on to DHS and other organizations whatever innovations in infosharing he finds. One of the best things NorthCom can do for DHS is to point out from its own lessons learned what works and what does not work in developing large information-sharing networks.
Picking and choosing
“Every line of locally developed code is a stovepipe to the rest of the world,” Meyerrose said. What works locally may not be transferable to the broader theater of homeland security.
He cited as an example the recent experience of the Terrorism Early Warning Group (TEW) in Los Angeles, Calif., composedof representatives of the LA City Police and Fire Departments, the LA Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.
TEW implemented an upgrade to the Joint Regional Information Exchange System (JRIES), an infosharing capability that significantly improved the group’s operating picture, as generated by the network. The Department of Defense (DoD) developed and deployed JRIES, which shares information between state and local police agencies and DHS.
But when Meyerrose evaluated TEW’s changes to the network, he found that they were not scaleable—they couldn’t be expanded to apply to all of DHS or the rest of the country.
“Those folks are heroes and they do great things, but you have to learn the right lesson,” the general said. “Learning the wrong lessons in scaling doesn’t help you. The changes work very well in southern California, and I’ve been down there and they’ve briefed me on it, but there are many challenges in scaling that to a national level.” There are useful lessons to be learned from the LA TEW initiative, Meyerrose said, but about half a dozen similar efforts nationwide have equal or more promise.
It’s the kind of difficult picking and choosing that Meyerrose must do as he improves infosharing across the country, across departments and across disciplines.
Obstacles to infosharing
The issues Meyerrose handles may seem arcane, but the way in which NorthCom shares information has a dramatic impact on national security. In separate incidents on June 29 and May 11, for example, lawmakers and other workers evacuated the Capitol building briefly when small planes entered restricted air space around Washington, DC.
NorthCom scrambled jets to intercept both planes and forced them to land in Winchester, Va., and Frederick, Md., respectively. But had NorthCom collected information on the privately owned planes and then identified them as threats, the Air Force jets could have shot them down.
“Certainly, there is a very different concept of operations for how this country handles events like that today, as opposed to years before,” explained Nathaniel Heiner, acting chief information officer of the Coast Guard, at the June 29 forum. “Previously, that would have been squarely in the domain of the [Federal Aviation Administration], period, that’s the end of it. If there were an escalation, it could conceivably have gone through the national command authorities and gone up through the same standard chain we still have in play.”
Today, NorthCom has command of such a situation, and it must work with agencies like the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and other parts of DHS to move information through the proper channels to keep authorities updated as situations develop, Heiner said.
The participating organizations are much better at sharing such information today than ever, Heiner said, but they must overcome a number of obstacles to improve further.
One such obstacle lies within the contracts that use various commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) products that do not communicate with one another between different agencies, causing a major impediment to information sharing, according to Heiner.
“There is no source of funds for a common solution to pull together all of the approaches to the various COTS that are entrenched in each of the services and multiple ones in the services, including the Coast Guard,” he noted.
Also, no common laboratory exists to test and evaluate new innovations under “battle” conditions to see how well they perform, which leaves agencies sharing information at different phases of rolling out desirable upgrades to their communications networks.
Finally, Heiner said, legal and regulatory restraints prevent data from moving through certain COTS systems.
In the case of infosharing between law-enforcement jurisdictions, NorthCom manages the Joint Protection Enterprise Network (JPEN), which shares threat and local observation notice (TALON) reports with law-enforcement agencies.
“It concentrates on the antiterrorism and force protection conditions and making sure that all 8,800 law-enforcement jurisdictions and every camp, post, base and station, have the same TALON reports,” Meyerrose said. “It was started very easily and cheaply within 60 days.”
It started small, with about 50 users, and scaled quickly, to hundreds of thousands, the general added. It is one of his infosharing success stories.
NorthCom shares information with about 55 organizations, 11 of which are elements of DoD, Meyerrose told HSToday. The information shared by these organizations paint a complete picture of “what the decision space looks like.”
“I just called it a decision space instead of a battle space. That’s because Jacksonville, Florida, doesn’t like to think of itself as a battle space. Neither does Boise, Idaho,” he said.
Despite the formidable obstacles to effective infosharing, people like Meyerrose and Heiner continue, through the constant preaching of a new infosharing gospel, to shape the national decision space in a way that one day may save lives and protect the nation. HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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