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We can win the information war

NCR President Mark Hurd says that starting from scratch, a homeland defense data warehouse based on already existing technology could become operational within months.

Since Sept. 11, seven misconceptions have confused the national dialogue about the role of intelligence and information technology in homeland security. But upon examination, the truth reveals that none of these seven are barriers to winning this new information-based war.

First, there is the notion that the technology we need doesn't exist today. Some pundits seem to think that the reservoir of intelligence data is so vast and so complex that today's technology can't handle it.

In fact, the problems of developing a government-wide information system have already been solved by thousands of commercial enterprises and even some state and federal agencies using commercially available systems that include data mining and decision-support software.

A second misconception is that commercial technologies are not suited for governmental purposes. It may seem that the U.S. government would process much more information than a single company, so let's put the information the government handles in perspective. Looking specifically at the problem of tracking foreign visitors, about 750 million people pass through the United States each year. Assuming a record of 1,000 characters of information for each person, that's still only three-quarters of a terabyte (a terabyte is one trillion bytes of data).

Many commercial systems handle more than 100 terabytes, equivalent to more than 130 years worth of immigration data. Some, such as those of telecommunications leader SBC and major retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart, accumulate a terabyte of data every few weeks.

In fact, these technologies help marketers answer questions that are similar in nature, if not in kind, to those that law enforcement agencies ask about suspects. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, is using these tools to sort data from the billion of documents it handles every year to develop better ways to ensure compliance--without compromising the privacy of the returns themselves.

Detailed demographic data derived from drilling down into its data is the IRS's answer to the problem of identifying noncompliant taxpayer segments. A research tool only, the IRS system is identifying and analyzing tax "market segments" in order to develop the educational, legislative and enforcement tools to improve compliance.

The third misconception suggests that new kinds of software will be needed to link law enforcement, immigration, airline and financial databases, among others, in order to ferret out the kind of information needed to detect and deter terrorist plots.

But the fact is that, in a relatively simple post-Sept. 11 analysis, 15 of the 19 hijackers were identified by the FBI, which was running some queries against an existing system that contains information relating to airline ticket purchases. Expanding that kind of database, which captures 80 percent of the travel reservations in the United States, to include resources such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and FBI watch lists can be done quickly.

Fourth, there's the misconception that relevant data cannot be delivered in real time. Major commercial applications operate in close to real time, reporting both the routine flow of business, but also flagging and reporting on sudden spikes or falls in demand virtually as they happen. As has been widely reported, Wal-Mart picked up the sudden demand in flags and other patriotic gear in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, making shipments and placing orders with suppliers in response in a matter of hours. Airlines use similar technology to respond to sudden changes in the weather and other factors that can delay arrival times and connections.

The fifth misconception is that government is lagging well-behind business in using state-of-the-art information technology. While there is some truth to this, mostly because of cumbersome procurement processes, government is closing the technology gap quickly and should leverage the current emergency to complete that process.

The sixth misconception concerns speculation that the information technology system we need won't be able to handle aliases or bogus passports, visas and credit cards. Dealing with counterfeiting is a problem with all commercial transactions, but the trick is to make it more difficult. Accurate reporting systems complicate the tasks that criminals, including terrorists, must handle.

The more steps they must take, the bigger or longer their information trail, the more likely they will be detected. Moreover, as we saw on Sept. 11, counterfeiting wasn't even an issue. Some of the hijackers, even those on government watch lists, were able to board commercial aircraft under their own names.

The seventh and final misconception is that wielding information technology for the fight against terrorism will be a lengthy process, perhaps requiring years. But the challenge of linking legacy systems into a terabyte-level decision support system, what is known as data warehousing, is one that hundreds of companies have already met, and is a routine occurrence with mergers. Starting from scratch, a homeland defense data warehouse could be operational in months.

A lack of the right technology is not the problem. Most of the technology to provide predictive intelligence exists today. What is needed is for us to cut through the misconceptions and put today's information technology to work for a more secure tomorrow. The nation needs someone in government to step up to this challenge, designate an agency to serve as the program executive, and put out the call to industry. America's information technology companies are ready and waiting.