Social Networking Breathes New Life Into Info Sharing

SPECIAL REPORT: Information Sharing & Analysis

By Barbara DePompa, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media

Information sharing has moved up and down the food chain of important federal initiatives since becoming a critical imperative in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


Today, while many observers may cast doubt on the success of this initiative so far, others claim information sharing is gaining traction among a range of federal audiences via the advent of technologies such as social media/social networking, cloud computing and software as a service.


When the July 2004 9/11 Commission's report concluded that a failure to share information is what led to U.S. government's inability to stop the hijacking and bombing of the World Trade Center, Pentagon and United Flight 93, the initiative gained steam among federal organizations. By 2005, however, the Government Accounting Office placed information sharing on its 'high risk' list of programs facing significant management programs. Unfortunately, that's where information sharing remains in 2009, because as GAO officials reported in January, while agencies are developing an information sharing environment, the scope, projects and milestones for the future haven't been fully defined. And along with OMB, GAO also reported this initiative also lacks the metrics, or a system of accountability, which is required to ensure progress.


Enter Social Media
The advent of social networking has breathed new life into the information sharing initiative, observers maintain. According to industry estimates there are more than 270 million Facebook users today, with 15 million who update their status daily. There are also six million Twitter users. In the government sector, “several high profile projects, such as the intelligence community's Intellipedia and the State
Department's use of a wiki have peeled away the old 'need to know' mentality, and have built instead 'a need to share' culture," said Ross Mayfield, co-founder and CEO of Socialtext Inc.


Meanwhile, market research giant Nielsen estimates that one of every 11 minutes of online activity on a global basis is attributable to social networks, blogging sites and other types of member communities. Moreover, these social computing sites are visited by more than 67 percent of the global online population, which is a trend that shows no signs of slowing, according to John Burbank, CEO of Nielsen Online. “Social networking has become a fundamental part of the global online experience,” and will continue “to alter not just the global online landscape, but the consumer experience at large,” he added.

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Among the most notable examples of federal information sharing today comes from the intelligence community, which is responsible for the Intellipedia wiki. Wikis are online documents that allow users to edit, add or delete information, and leave comments as necessary, to share the latest
information on a given topic. Intellipedia is widely considered a resounding success because it has allowed users, including federal agents, to share information, intelligence, evidence, tips and background information across agency boundaries.


Other examples of information sharing include the Web 2.0 techniques and collaborative tools used by the Homeland Security Information Network, within the Department of Homeland Security. HSIN is a comprehensive, nationally secure and trusted web-based platform able to facilitate Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) information sharing and collaboration among federal, state, local, tribal, private
sector and international partners.


Also, the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) is a program originally created at the Department of Justice to standardize reporting and communication of data regarding law enforcement. Now run by the DHS, NIEM serves as a standards framework for message exchange across the entire Homeland Security community. At the same time, the Federal Emergency Management Administration has added blogging and stakeholder feedback to boost information sharing. And the Federal Health Architecture's Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) is working to connect federal health information systems (See related story in this special report.)


Despite the strides made so far, serious concerns remain about the privacy and security work that still must be done to improve information sharing. In March, the Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age reported that immediate action is needed, and President Barack Obama and Congress must reaffirm their commitment to information sharing as a top priority.


In a report for Congress and the president, the group said the sense of urgency about information sharing has lessened since the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Formed in 2002, the task force's previous recommendations served as a basis for laws and policies designed to improve information sharing. Since April 2002, the Markle Foundation Task Force, a diverse, bipartisan group of former policymakers from the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations, along with senior executives from the information technology industry and privacy advocates, have made numerous recommendations re: how to improve national security decision making by transforming processes and the way information is shared.  Early in 2009, the Markle Task Force interviewed multiple officials on the state of information sharing to identify priorities for the new administration. Among the top recommendations made in March:
*Make government information discoverable and accessible by increasing the use of commercially available technology.

*Enhance security and privacy protections.

*Employ metrics and incentives to measure information sharing.

* Help users drive information sharing by forming communities of interest.


According to the March report, Obama should transfer the Program Manager for the Information Sharing Environment, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, to the Executive Office of the President to ensure the post has the necessary authorities. The PM-ISE was established in 2005 and coordinates the federal government's Information Sharing Environment. The task force also recommended Obama order an initial 60-day review of the ISE's policy, privacy guidelines and processes, and conduct similar annual reviews. The reviews should focus on the overlap between law enforcement and domestic intelligence and apply best practices more broadly to areas such as cybersecurity and energy security. The task force also recommended Obama require national security agencies to use IT to make data more discoverable by tagging it when it's collected and contributing key categories of information to data indices. The group suggested having an authorized use standard so different details of the same information would be made available to different people, depending on their authorization. The group also recommended the administration link funding of programs to how well national security agencies makes information discoverable. The task force suggested conducting real-time audits of how users share information. Furthermore, according to the report, the administration should create government-wide policies on privacy and civil liberties to provide consistency, and the president and Congress should move quickly to nominate and confirm members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.


To follow through on the Markle Group's recommendations, the Obama administration will likely seek help from its new CTO. According to a recent White House statement, the new CTO “is responsible for overseeing all federal IT spending and for establishing a secure IT architecture that will facilitate information sharing and interoperability among systems.”


Industry observers anticipate information sharing social media platforms will continue to grow, and online information sharing and user-defined data aggregation (also known as mashups) will also continue unabated. As federal organizations seek more cost-effective alternatives to traditional, on-premise software solutions, the concepts of software as a service, cloud computing and other managed services will increase as agencies work to deploy applications more quickly. The growing trend toward ‘pay-as-you-go’ services, can help agencies offload various IT responsibilities to external providers so they can
redirect limited internal staff resources toward more pertinent mission goals.


Meanwhile, industry observers warn that as social media grows, privacy becomes an endangered species. Users must assume no expectation of online data privacy and should participate in online information sharing communities with a full understanding that they bear responsibility for protecting sensitive or classified information. Some observers claim the “experiments” in social networking cropping up within federal organizations today require a more full examination of privacy policies and security controls.