WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- A tiny software company has been tapped by the new U.S. spy chief to lead a "tremendous leap forward," in technology and policy that will enable the sharing of sensitive information between intelligence agencies and state and local law enforcement and other first responders.
The project aims to design and build a sophisticated platform that will allow counter-terrorism information -- including personal data about Americans -- to be securely shared in a variety of ways that reflect and respect the different rules in place in different agencies to protect individual privacy and information security.
"The aim is to create a trusted environment using the public Internet," said Charles Jennings, co-founder and CEO of the software company, Portland, Ore.-based Swan Island Networks, Inc.
"Day to day, state and local agencies, even law enforcement ones, typically use the Internet as their primary means of communication," he said, adding the platform would not carry classified information, which travels on agencies' own networks, but only "security sensitive" or "law enforcement restricted" data.
The project aims to "research and engineer a technology ... that will allow the two-way exchange of sensitive information between those (intelligence) agencies and frontline first responders at the state and local level," Jennings told United Press International.
Richard Russell, the official in charge of information sharing policy in the office of the new director of national intelligence said the research, if successful, would represent "a tremendous leap forward," enabling officials to overcome many of the problems that have dogged efforts to improve information sharing so far.
The challenge was developing an environment where every participant -- whether a traffic policeman or an intelligence analyst -- could have access to all the information they were entitled to, said Russell.
"There is a confusing tangle of rules" at the moment, he said, referring to the restrictions on the ways agencies can use personal information about Americans. "Every single state has its own privacy laws; every (federal) agency has its own regulations."
He said work was in hand to try to simplify federal rules, especially those governing the intelligence agencies, and make them more consistent, and that this effort would go hand in hand with the technological research designed to create a system that could honor them.
He said the project was an example of "spiral development" where, instead of the usual linear progression from requirement, to development and then to purchase, prototypes are developed as requirements evolve.
"Policy and technology are being developed in tandem," he said. But he acknowledged that the project could only be research at this stage. "You have to define the (policy) parameters before you can engage in significant (procurement) activity," he said.
Under the terms of the deal, a so-called Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, Swan Island's two-dozen employees will work alongside engineers from the NSA's Information Assurance Directorate both in Portland and at the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.
The directorate, which has the lead responsibility for information security among all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, is the implementing agency for the project, which is overseen by Dale Meyerrose, the chief information officer for the director of national intelligence.
The company will not be paid directly for its work, said Jennings, but hoped to benefit through licensing fees and other income based on the fact that any platform developed would be built using their software products.
The project is the latest push forward on an issue, which despite its importance, has proved hard to make progress on.
Every single consideration of the intelligence failures that allowed the Sept. 11 attacks to go forward, and many of those that looked at the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, have identified insufficient information-sharing as a key problem.
But the vision of a seamless, frictionless "network of networks," where law enforcement, intelligence and other officials can freely exchange information about threats and suspicions has bumped up hard against the reality of accreted laws and regulations, all designed to protect Americans from Big Brother by limiting what use government can make of their personal data.
"The state and local (officials, like mayors and governors) want to be sure that the privacy of their citizens is protected as this information is shared," said Jennings.
Among the 16 intelligence agencies, the legal basis for their activities, a presidential executive order numbered 12333, limits the information they can collect and hold about American citizens and other lawful residents. Each agency has its own regulations that implement the order, and differences in the regulatory regimes -- and between them and the differently based rules that govern law enforcement -- have created problems.
Another problem is the proliferation of different categories of exactly the kind of information the new network will be designed to carry -- unclassified, but restricted. A recent U.S. government audit found dozens of different such categories -- defined in contradictory and overlapping ways by regulations in different agencies.
The Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has pledged to take steps to deal with this issue, but in the meantime, Jennings said, the policy environment for the project is "developing."
"There are a number of working groups looking at the policy," he said, adding the project would "incorporate the policies as they've been determined and as they continue to develop."
"It's not a perfect system."
(Part two looks in more detail at the policy challenges facing the project and the role of the office of the director of national intelligence in leading efforts improve information sharing)