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IT glitches in homeland security

Hewlett-Packard CTO Shane Robison says Washington?s ability to meet fast-changing priorities in national security is held hostage to outmoded ways of deploying technology.

3 min read
The United States prides itself in being one nation. Yet in terms of technology, we are not yet one, but remain a nation of many--many systems, many standards and many databases. In the realm of homeland security, this is not good.

Because the nation?s information systems are not standardized or interconnected, hundreds of millions of Americans are at risk. This is an aspect of homeland security we can and must change.

Information critical to homeland security needs to move like cars on an interstate highway, across borders and around the country with a common set of rules. It needs to flow horizontally among federal agencies, as well as vertically among federal, state and local governments. And perhaps most importantly, it needs to flow to those responsible for public health to provide us with early detection and to arm first responders with accurate information.

We have the power to make this happen. We do not need to invent something new. The right technologies exist. We simply need the organizational ingenuity--and the political willpower--to put our know-how to work.

So where do we start? Replacing the federal government?s core information technology systems is not an option. That would take at least 10 years.

A good place to begin would be with collaboration and data sharing across multiple government agencies, jurisdictions and disciplines. In other words, let?s share what we?ve got. The Homeland Security Department should help by enabling the integration of watch lists with federal and civilian databases. A small group of systems engineers within Homeland Security, building on existing civilian solutions by using cutting-edge programming techniques, could drive fast development and rapid prototyping. They could deliver a cost-effective solution within six months.

Replacing the federal government?s core information technology systems is not an option.
Longer term, we need to integrate relevant federal, state and local databases, so those who track terrorists can identify patterns of behavior that could alert us to possible attacks. Real-time data mining is already in use in retailing and readily adaptable to the needs of government. By applying pattern-matching techniques, this provides near real-time alerts when it identifies a particular pattern of behavior. This instant flow of information could be the centerpiece of our strengthened domestic-security efforts. At the same time, we must also respect a citizen?s constitutional right to protect his or her own personal information.

A long-term program must therefore be the re-engineering of the IT systems of all agencies responsible for homeland security. This initiative would require an updating, but not a complete overhaul, of the federal technology infrastructure. Security agencies must be able to create an information repository that can receive, synthesize and analyze unstructured data from many different sources--a task for which workable technologies already are available.

It is also time to change the way agencies buy the technologies they need. Most federal agencies lag private industry in securing the best technologies, in part because of cumbersome purchasing procedures. The federal request-for-proposals process is compounded by an ineffective and outdated federal procurement cycle.

These impediments hobble Washington?s ability to meet today?s fast-changing priorities in national security. Companies are often asked to provide the government with multiyear, end-to-end IT solutions, yet the skewed federal procurement process often tilts toward the cheapest individual product, rather than more advanced solutions that can fulfill the missions more effectively.

The Homeland Security Department should not be seen as a bureaucratic burden.
And because the procurement process works on year-to-year budgets, multiyear contracts--which lower the total cost of ownership--are rarely considered. The government and the private sector have a shared stake in streamlining the procurement process.

The Homeland Security Department should not be seen as a bureaucratic burden but as an opportunity to promote more effective uses of information technologies in ways that enhance Americans? security and liberty. The new department can help the nation join its many sources of information into one communications highway. The stakes have never been so high, and the technological promise has never been so great.

Shane Robison is Hewlett-Packard's chief technology officer and its senior vice president for corporate strategy and technology.