GAO affirms IT role in Homeland Security Department

Information technology can play a key role in facilitating information sharing and goal setting in the forthcoming Department of Homeland Security, General Accounting Office officials told Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., in an Aug. 30 letter.

Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on technology and procurement policy, had asked GAO officials to clarify and expand upon their June 7 subcommittee testimony about technology and information sharing challenges related to homeland security.

Davis asked what incentives are available to agency managers to facilitate effective cooperation and coordination of homeland security information, what barriers to information sharing exist and how shared information can be protected.

Making sure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time and making good use of technology is essential to the nation's homeland security strategy, and will be critical to the success of the new department, GAO official Randall Yim said in the letter.

Technology can facilitate interagency information sharing and help overcome "turf" issues, said Yim, GAO's managing director for national preparedness.

"New technologies for data integration and interoperability can enable agencies to share data and work cooperatively along informational lines, without the need for radical structural changes. Simply put, enhanced IT ... can allow agencies to work together yet retain a measure of autonomy, thus removing some barriers hindering agencies from embracing change," the letter said.

Private-sector firms also are reluctant to share information about the nation's critical infrastructure with industry partners and with government agencies, according to the letter. Some industry executives are concerned they could face antitrust violations for sharing information with other industry partners; face public disclosure of information they share via the Freedom of Information Act, revealing their vulnerabilities to the public; or face potential liability concerns for information shared in good faith.

H.R. 5005, the House of Representatives' bill setting up the new Department of Homeland Security, contains a provision that would prohibit disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of critical infrastructure information voluntarily submitted to DHS agencies. The Senate began considering the legislation Sept. 3.

Various technologies can be used to protect information in shared databases, Yim said. Electronically secured entry technology, for example, allows users or separate databases to cross-check or "mine" data securely without directly disclosing their information to others. This allows agency collaboration while meeting secrecy or privacy requirements, Yim said.

Once information sharing is enabled, the right information must be shared, he added. Mined and integrated information must be intelligently analyzed, and the results effectively presented, so that the right people have the right information necessary to act effectively.

"This may involve differentiating the relevant anomalies or 'needles in the haystack' from the mass of background data," the letter said. "Remote-sensing technologies and techniques may provide useful analogies, particularly when combined with digitization of data, allowing advanced computer modeling, geospatial system interfaces and areawide data visualizations."

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