FirstNet Cross-Agency Information Sharing

Federalized Yet Secure

FirstNet Cross-Agency Information Sharing
By: David Kahn

In 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Its goal was to provide law enforcement and emergency responders with a high-speed, nationwide network dedicated to public safety. 

True to the principals of federalism on which the United States is based, the law requires state, local and tribal control of the network operating within each jurisdiction. The shared management of a nationwide network presents many challenges, chief of which is security.

Speaking at the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder Meeting in Westminster, Colo. in June, FirstNet Board Member Jeff Johnson shared an ambitious vision for the network. He said public safety will need to catch up with and then leapfrog the applications available on consumer smartphones to provide situational awareness and command & control (C2) for public safety personnel.

FirstNet was also expected to improve communications with the public by extending the interactions beyond voice-only to include still pictures and video, text, location and eventually biometric information. As FirstNet rolls out, it will provide powerful new capabilities that public safety can use to perform its tasks more effectively and safely. 

Inevitably, first responders will become more dependent on complex C2 systems which will contain information that could be dangerous if it gets into the wrong hands or must be protected for privacy reasons. When agencies work together, they need to share many types of information. It is critical to limit the information that is shared to only those involved for the joint operation and to terminate sharing when the joint operation ends. 

Imagine how complicated it will be to share data among agencies when each has its own security policies and enforces them with software systems that are unique to their organization. Now imagine that these systems must continuously evolve for public safety to maintain parity or superiority to the systems being used by criminals. 

Finally, consider the complications introduced by different agencies using different hardware and in some cases allowing personnel to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) while having to interact with the public who uses next-generation 9-1-1 (NG-9-1-1) applications running on the latest smartphones.

Numerous public-safety Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) and C2 systems already exist and are often extensively customized. Their scale has been relatively small and sharing information with other agencies for coordinated actions was rarely seen as a critical requirement. 9-11, Hurricane Katrina and multiple other man-made and natural disasters have significantly altered that landscape. 

FirstNet is expected to enable unprecedented cross-agency information sharing to coordinate actions. However, if public safety is to use FirstNet for critical data and voice communications, it will have to simultaneously solve three issues: 1) data security, 2) interoperability, and 3) application compatibility.

Information assurance professionals identified these requirements years ago, and significant progress has been made in all three areas. The Department of Defense, for example, has long had security certification processes for its communications systems that are needed to coordinate warfighters who are members of multiple components serving the U.S and its allies. 

The lessons learned by the DoD could be applied to FirstNet to allow local control, as required by Congress, while assuring that our systems perform their intended functions while maintaining data security. The first lesson learned was organizational. While software applications are defined separately by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, technical and security reviews of the systems are performed by a central agency, the National Security Agency (NSA). 

Similarly, while FirstNet applications will need to be created independently by federal, state, local and tribal agencies, review and testing are required to assure that they perform their functions correctly without jeopardizing data security.  While the legislation creating FirstNet provided few details about how security would be implemented, it is critical that FirstNet set up a centralized review and certification process for public safety applications, similar to the DoD process.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is a member of FirstNet, recently announced a pilot program, a Mobile Applications “Car Wash,” that scrubs mobile apps for threats and vulnerabilities before they become available to public safety customers.

Another lesson from DoD’s work is that it is better to reduce the number of organizations writing critical software and where possible, reduce the lines of “code” that affect security. But how does one provide local control that satisfies FirstNet’s users while not compromising functionality and security, and how can we guarantee that systems interoperate so that when agencies need to work together, their systems will support rather than impede coordinated action?

One solution is a platform that contains a secure run-time engine, a “sandbox,” ideally with the added capability of providing binary portability and hardware interoperability. Security experts generally agree that “sandboxing” is a promising method to create secure systems. Past concerns that a sandbox would make applications unacceptably slow are no longer applicable due to the power of modern hardware.

A major advantage of sandboxes is that only the run-time engine—not the applications—requires FIPS 140-2 certified encryption certification, a costly, lengthy process required for updates to applications. This would enable small, innovative software developers and creative public safety personnel, who often understand their organization’s needs better than outsiders, to develop applications that do not compromise security or unnecessarily tie up resources and use them immediately. Sandboxes could open up innovation, drive down cost, and allow the local control required under FirstNet.

This is not a new idea. The Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a nonprofit research organization, has been working with its private sector partners to develop this sandbox for the Department of Defense. They have found that not only can data security be assured, but interoperability and application compatibility become possible.

This software technology would allow applications to be written and compiled once and then run on any device having the platform installed. C2 applications will run without modification on PCs, smartphones, tablets, Land Mobile Radios (LMR) and even inside of hardware such as surveillance cameras or drones. 

Public safety personnel can safely trust software developed by or for other agencies when information needs to be shared or actions coordinated because the platform guarantees application compatibility and data security. Local control becomes possible without creating chaos.

FirstNet is an audacious project. To make it succeed, the FirstNet board, management, and technical teams have committed to seeking innovative sources of new ideas and technology while closely consulting with the public safely community to make sure it provides the tools that first responders need and have been lacking for far too long. 

Public safety and its suppliers have huge stakes in FirstNet’s success and have committed time and energy to that end. It is now possible to create a nationwide network that is ubiquitous and reliable, which provides mission-critical capabilities that satisfy local needs. Our goal must be to make FirstNet so good that the only logical choice is to opt-in.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2013

Rating : Not Yet Rated



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