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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 August, 2004, 00:19 GMT 01:19 UK
Terror fight turns to technology
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

There is a growing consensus in the US that new technologies could help intelligence services do a better job at sharing vital information.

Armed officers in New York
US is on high alert of a potential terror attack
The 9/11 commission's final report paints a picture of 15 different US intelligence services using 15 different databases, with none of them able to interact with one another.

It is what could be described as a "dumb" network. It is based on a decades-old model in which information can be shared only within each organisation.

This lack of communication was highlighted by the New York-based think-tank, the Markle Foundation, and the 9/11 commission's final report relies heavily on its recommendations.

"Say there was a field agent in the Chicago FBI office, and a CIA operative in Kabul," explained Zoe Baird, Markle Foundation president.

"Each got different bits of information that if put together might point to a bio warfare attack in Chicago.

"Under the current system, the reports from these two agents are unlikely to ever find each other."

Linked network

Ms Baird assembled a task force two years ago to tackle that problem.

She brought together computer engineers, ex-intelligence officials, and privacy experts in a quest to figure out how to make government data sharing "smarter".

Technology isn't an answer for any of this. There's just no magic wand for increasing information sharing
George Smith,
Their answer was to link all of the existing intelligence databases into a network.

The idea is to allow that FBI agent in Chicago and that CIA operative in Kabul to find each other's reports, and foil that bio-terror attack.

"These reports would be linked by technology because they would contain similar words like virus or Chicago," said Ms Baird.

"And the people working on these problems could then seek out further information from each other, or form an informal working group working on similar problems."

It is the kind of technology used by businesses around the globe, and would even employ a Google-like search engine.

It could be put together quickly, with hardware and software straight off the shelf.

'No magic wand'

The 9/11 commission likes the idea. The final report suggests making the Markle Foundation's findings the centrepiece of any government network re-vamp.

The 9/11 report talks of agencies failing to share information
Sceptics, though, have heard it all before and question of the wisdom of focusing on technology alone.

"Technology isn't an answer for any of this," said George Smith, senior fellow at the security think-tank,

"There's just no magic wand for increasing information sharing."

Mr Smith says that the real problems the government must address are not so much technological, as social.

"The nature of bureaucracies, and the way people regard information, personality conflicts, identity conflicts between agencies, the fact that relationships may not exist between individuals spread across US services, and of course the great amount of secrecy accompanying the war on terror," he explained.

The Markle Foundation also favours new, top-down rules regarding the sharing of information.

ZoŽ Baird thinks that the nature of bureaucracy can insure the new technology takes hold.

"If government officials are clearly empowered with a new set of rules, we think that they're used to abiding by rules and that that's a cultural thing," she said.

"And if the rules are different now then people will be able to make that adjustment and that the technology will help them."

Protect the innocent

But some privacy experts worry about a system that makes the government better at spying and sharing information.

The key here is to really use the technology and the policy and build privacy checks and balances, accountability, into the system design at the outset
Jim Dempsey, Center for Democracy and Technology
Civil rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, fears that what the Markle Foundation and the 9/11 commission envision as a risk assessment tool could easily assess the wrong risk.

"Now, when you're generating suspicion about people, you ought to be doing it, at the very least, on accurate data," said Lee Tien, senior counsel with the San Francisco-based group.

"And yet the record of both federal agencies, as well as state agencies and the private sector, of having accurate records in their databases is really quite poor."

But the Markle Foundation taskforce says that privacy can be protected with the new network.

It could be designed with a set of privacy safeguards which would control access to certain bits of data, and keep other bits anonymous.

"The key here is to really use the technology and the policy and build privacy checks and balances, accountability, into the system design at the outset," said Jim Dempsey, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

"If we do that, I think we can both improve national security and protect privacy at the same time."

Call for action

Any technology upgrade of the US intelligence system would be a welcome one for some agents on the frontline.

Matt Levitt, who spent years in counter-intelligence for the FBI, remembers computer systems and networks that kept the agency virtually cut-off from the rest of the intelligence community.

George Tenet and George W Bush stand in the lobby of the CIA
The US is looking at ways of improving its intel network
He welcomes all the talk about improving information-sharing but is frustrated at the lack of action to make this a reality.

"What no one seems to be offer a satisfactory answer to is what is causing these delays, and why can't we make this happen," said Mr Levitt.

"In the private sector, this would simply never be tolerated, and here we're talking about something more than how to best and most efficiently make a buck, but how to best and most efficiently protect the nation."

Technology will not solve all of the intelligence community's problems.

But a lack of proper technological tools could well be the biggest single thing hampering US intelligence agencies from doing what they need to do.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production

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