Homeland security gets in the Groove

IT solutions in action

Project: Homeland Security Information Network

Agency: Homeland Security Department

Partners: Groove Networks Inc., Beverly, Mass., and ManTech International Corp., Fairfax, Va.

Goal: In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal, state and local agencies needed a way of sharing intelligence information in real time.

Obstacle: Any new intelligence network had to be easy to deploy and use. But more importantly, because of the nature of the information that would travel the network, it had to be highly secure.

Solution: In May 2002, Integrated Data Systems, now part of ManTech, built the Joint Regional Information Exchange System using peer-to-peer collaboration software from Groove Networks. The government-certified software allows agencies to share files and communications in secure, encrypted online workspaces.

Payoff: The system and Groove software are being adapted to run the new nationwide Homeland Security Information Network. Because of the application's secure, high-performance communications, Homeland Security officials in Washington can monitor situations across the country. At the same time, law enforcement, intelligence and public safety agencies can share what they know online to help prevent attacks.

Ray Ozzie, Groove's founder and chief executive officer

Groove Networks

Mike Kushin, senior vice president of ManTech/IDS

Henrik G. de Gyor

Peer-to-peer software helps public safety officials communicate securely

Imagine if the federal, state and local agencies tasked with protecting citizens could share information as easily as music pirates swap illegal recordings online. In the days surrounding New Year's 2004, they did.

While revelers celebrated in Times Square or enjoyed the Tournament of Roses Parade, law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security agents across the country were using peer-to-peer software from Groove Networks Inc. to collaborate and assess threats. In secure, online rooms, agents sent instant messages and swapped files in a unique form of real-time intelligence gathering.

For those involved, it was just another 24 hours in a new cross-agency communication effort established in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But what it represented was significant.

"They were breaking down many of the barriers they faced in communicating effectively with their peers," said Ray Ozzie, Groove's founder and chief executive officer. "Even though they may have been widely dispersed, they could work now as if they were co-located."

That communication system has evolved into the Homeland Security Information Network, which Secretary Tom Ridge announced in February to link agencies in all 50 states and several territories through secure workgroup software.

"Better information that is shared and understood faster between the federal government and our state and local partners is the way to achieve security," Ridge said.

The network's genesis came in May 2002, when the Defense Intelligence Agency asked the California Justice Department and the New York City Police Department to participate in a pilot program to identify ways that agencies could share sensitive but unclassified intelligence about homeland security threats. That program turned into the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, built on Groove software and deployed by Integrated Data Systems. IDS was subsequently acquired by ManTech International Corp., which continues to handle the integration.

[IMGCAP(2)]According to Mike Kushin, senior vice president of ManTech/IDS, the system started out as a simple Web portal where agencies could share intelligence.

"What we found was there were gaps in information sharing between relevant agencies to support the mission," Kushin said. "So we were asked to fill in those gaps."

Kushin came across Groove, which is peer-to-peer collaboration software that allows users to share files and messages in real time without the need for a centralized system. "It supports teams at the edge of a network," Ozzie said.

Groove's architecture was also a source of concern. Peer-to-peer computing brings to mind online file-sharing services, such as Napster and Kazaa, where users grab media files, including pirated songs, off each other's hard drives.

"At first, I was skeptical about the application," said Ed Manavian, a chief in the California Justice Department. "We've always been working in closed environments. Most of our communications are built in secure pipes."

Manavian said once he used Groove, he understood its inherent security and flexibility.

"Groove is actually the inverse of file-sharing apps, such as Napster or Kazaa," Ozzie said. "While these programs use peer technologies to openly publish and disclose content, Groove uses peer technologies to create secure, virtual workspaces. These workspaces are invitation only, with users being cryptographically authenticated. They are fully PKI-enabled, so users can be authenticated using their DOD Common Access Cards."

Just as important, Groove encrypts all data automatically, whether it's on a user's hard disk or traveling over a network. Groove was among the first software programs to earn certification for interoperability with version 2.0 of the Defense Collaboration Tool Suite. Last October, Groove's 192-bit encryption technology earned FIPS 140-2 and Common Criteria EAL2 certification.

"In some instances, the lack of these certifications were blockers in our ability to do business with the federal government, so they're extremely important," Ozzie said.

With Groove in place, the Joint Regional Information Exchange System team began using online workspaces to share intelligence information. Agencies primarily run the Groove software on command and control workstations, but Manavian said he's used Groove on a wireless-enabled notebook to monitor workspaces.

Around New Year's 2004, because of the heightened state of alert, several workspaces were online simultaneously. Some had about 15 participants from the federal, state and local levels. Others, such as the 138-member National Situational Awareness workspace, were much larger. Manavian said there were workspaces devoted to Times Square, the Rose Bowl, Los Angeles International Airport, the Las Vegas Strip and even the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

"In Las Vegas, if they stopped a suspicious person on the Strip, law enforcement could put that into the space, so everyone in the country would know about it," Manavian said. "And if they threw a name out there, everybody could assist by checking their databases."

For the Tournament of Roses Parade, officials loaded maps and aerial photos of the parade route in the Rose Bowl workspace so Homeland Security teams in Washington could understand the layout.

"The system allows DHS to get situational awareness around the country," Kushin said.

Over the coming months, the system will become part of the larger Homeland Security Information Network. Kushin said the rollout is fairly straightforward, because the Groove software takes advantage of existing infrastructures. Without giving details, he said ManTech/IDS adds "infrastructure countermeasures" that, in combination with Groove's built-in security, protect the entire communications network.

Kushin said he's also using Groove in other government networks. The software was deployed recently in Iraq so that Coalition Provisional Authority officials could share information.

"Because Groove is software that runs directly on your PC, it can be used whether people are on- or offline," Ozzie said. "This is important in austere communications environments such as Iraq, where people can't depend on always having broadband access to the Internet."

At home, Manavian said he'd like to see live video feeds in Groove workspaces.

"We're just scratching the surface as far as what its capabilities are and how we can plug into different applications within law enforcement," he said.

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Brad Grimes at bgrimes@postnewsweektech.com.

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