Justice issues fusion center guidelines

The Justice Department has released its first Fusion Center Guidelines making recommendations about the centers' law enforcement role, governance, connectivity standards, databases and security.

Related to IT needs, the report specifically recommends use of the Global Justice Extensible Markup Language (XML) data model, the Common Alerting Protocol messaging standards, and service-oriented architectures for improved information-sharing.

The 125-page document, released Aug. 23, was developed by the Office of Justice Program's Intelligence Fusion Center Focus Group, with representation from Justice, Homeland Security and FBI, and from state and local agencies. Additional fusion center guidance is expected in the coming weeks for public safety agencies and the private sector.

Fusion centers, which are collaborative efforts to combine and analyze anti-terrorism information from multiple sources, have becoming increasingly popular as part of homeland security.

A number of states, including Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York, currently operate so-called fusion centers, and many more states, such as Missouri, are considering doing so.

Maryland opened its Coordination and Analysis Center in 2003, bringing together representatives from more than a dozen state and federal agencies.

In December 2004, the Homeland Security Advisory Council's Intelligence and Information Sharing Working Group, chaired by Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), recommended that state-run intelligence fusion centers should be part of the nation's information-sharing efforts. However, the working group also noted that the focus and capacity of centers varies widely from state to state. "There is a lack of protocols regarding connectivity between centers and different levels of government," the working group said. It suggested minimum guidelines be established for establishing and operating the centers.

The fusion center guidelines released by Justice offer general advice on conforming to the National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan, setting up memorandums of understanding for collaboration and creating a representative governing structure.

The guideline document also recommends the fusion centers prepare for future connectivity with other state, federal and local systems. New databases should comply with the Global Justice XML standard developed by Justice. DHS this year adopted the Global Justice standard as the basis of its forthcoming National Information Exchange Model, expected in 2006.

In addition, the report recommends the Common Alerting Protocol standard for messaging ratified by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Sharing Systems, a standard-writing organization. The Common Alerting Protocol provides a common standard for writing messages pertaining to emergency events and disasters. It was developed by a working group of emergency managers and industry IT experts, and has been endorsed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Also, fusion centers should use service-oriented architecture for expanded information-sharing in the future, the guidelines said. "Service-oriented architecture incorporates six fundamental principles for the sharing of information in the criminal justice community," the guidelines state.

On the subject of distributed versus centralized systems, the guidelines describe advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but make no recommendation. Distributed models are reliable and scalable, but may have security issues and problems with resource distribution, the guidelines state. Centralized systems offer great functionality and speed, but can be complicated.

The document also offers detailed advice on developing privacy and information security policies.

Civil libertarians have been critical of the fusion centers because they fear a lack of government accountability about protecting privacy and civil rights in the centers' operation, especially with regard to use of personal data and use of surveillance images.

The Fusion Center Guidelines suggest that the centers use a variety of databases, listing drivers' licenses, motor vehicle registrations, criminal justice and corrections sources, and "public and private sources," but without further detail on those additional sources.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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