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Fusion centers: Where information, technology and policy intersect

Written by Richard Johnston

Technological advances in the acquisition, analysis and distribution of information over the past decade have fundamentally changed the way our society approaches life.

We “Google” everything, bank online, download videos, communicate instantly and continuously, and travel using GPS systems. Vast libraries of information are available on demand.

From informal communications to critical decisions, we have become more dependent on large volumes of information acquired and processed in a timely manner. This data is then used to achieve specific objectives—whether making public safety decisions, designing medical protocols or constructing public policy.

Expectations for Law Enforcement

Information sharing among law enforcement agencies is a priority both at the federal and state level. For 2007, the Department of Homeland Security has allocated more than $1.7 billion to its Homeland Security Grant Program to fund state and local counterterrorism efforts. Of this amount, $364 million is to be provided to law enforcement and public safety communities for the “establishment and enhancement” of fusion centers. Additional funds are also available to qualified urban areas to support their information sharing and counterterrorism efforts. The overall vision is for a national network of fusion centers that allows law enforcement, public safety agencies, non-law enforcement agencies and the private sector to seamlessly and easily share important threat information among federal, state and local officials. Managing these efforts is not without its challenges, and today’s law enforcement executives must be knowledgeable of the issues inherent in developing and participating in information sharing initiatives.

In light of the focus on information sharing and fusion centers, law enforcement agencies are expected to have and use the best technology and information available to protect citizens, respond to crises, conduct investigations, prevent crime and even identify potential terrorist threats. Therefore, law enforcement increasingly relies on advancements in technology to assist in this effort. Tools like automation and the use of advanced analytics provides law enforcement with the capability to analyze large quantities of different types of information based on specific needs or queries to more fully understand specific or potential threats. They also make it easier for public safety, law enforcement and homeland security agencies to share critical information in the fight against crime and to enhance counterterrorism efforts. Their efforts are best served when they can obtain timely, accurate and relevant information of different types in a way that provides an optimal amount of automated analysis. However, these agencies must also be cognizant of the public’s expectation of privacy. The public expects and demands that its information will be protected and used for authorized purposes only, particularly personal, sensitive information.

Law enforcement agencies acquire various types of information from a number of sources, each of which has its own set of rules about how, when and by whom it can be used. The agency head must implement policies that ensure proper handling of these various data sets, while not impeding access to and analysis of critical information. Most law enforcement leaders realize that in a world of limited resources, a high degree of efficiency is required in the approach to managing information. Today’s most important focus must be on merging these disparate pieces of information in an effective manner while also complying with policies and regulations governing the use of that data.

Data Fusion Environments

Simply put, data fusion is bringing together large amounts of disparate information, analyzing that information and using the results to make mission-critical decisions such as identifying and prioritizing targets, eliminating suspects, locating individuals who are evading apprehension, identifying hidden assets, linking associates, allocating resources, or simplifying complex elements of an investigation.

The concept of rules-based data fusion provides the best mechanism for law enforcement to meet its needs while addressing privacy concerns. Beginning in 2004, a concerted effort was placed on establishing guidelines for establishing and operating “fusion centers.” Designated a priority by the National Governors Association, about 40 fusion centers are either in development or operating throughout the country. The critical issues surrounding fusion centers have been intensely examined by the Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative, a project of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, through its Homeland Security Advisory Council (HSAC.) The resulting Fusion Center Guidelines, published in August 2006 by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, are an excellent resource for law enforcement decision-makers and provide a valuable framework for evaluating a number of critical issues involved in creating a law enforcement fusion center. In fact, DHS relied on the Fusion Center Guidelines when it defined what the baseline level of capability should be for a fusion center in its 2007 Grant Guidance.

States and local jurisdictions are relying on these guidelines as the minimum requirements for fusion center development. In addition to explaining the concept of data fusion and the associated fusion process, the guidelines cover 18 operational and policy areas—from governance and leveraging existing databases and networks, to interconnectivity and training.

Data Access, Information Sharing and Privacy

Managing intelligence, incident reports, investigative reports, public records, open source documents and other types of information from numerous agencies with independent missions in an environment of trust and security is a daunting challenge. The fusion concept offers an environment where these issues can be successfully managed. Critical, mission-dependent decisions can be made on solid analysis of information from intelligence, investigative and other agency files. Public records and open source information can augment this analysis, and within a fusion environment this can be facilitated with assurances of privacy protection if done with careful consideration and planning.

Among the recommendations made in the Fusion Center Guidelines, there are two that are perhaps the most critical for law enforcement to consider:

First, leverage the databases, systems, and networks available via participating entities to maximize information.

• Obtain access to an array of databases and systems. At a minimum, consider obtaining access to driver’s license information, motor vehicle registration data, location information, law enforcement and criminal justice systems or networks, correctional data and sex offender registries.

• Become a member of a regional or state secure law enforcement network, such as the Regional Information Sharing Systems® (RISS) / Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system, DHS’s Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), or the FBI’s Law Enforcement Regional Data Exchange (R-DEx) and National Data Exchange (N-DEx). Second, develop, publish, and adhere to a privacy and civil liberties policy.

• Develop, display, adhere to and train personnel on the center’s privacy policy.

• Consult the Fair Information Practices when developing a privacy policy.

• Ensure all other policies and internal controls are consistent with the center’s privacy policy.

• Establish a process for tracking and handling privacy complaints or concerns.

• Develop rules on the use of privately held data systems information.

• Adhere to applicable state and federal constitutional and statutory privacy and civil liberties provisions.

While the prospect of implementing these two recommendations may present many challenges for law enforcement executives, there exists within the private sector a wealth of experience and expertise that can assist in both of these critical areas.

Role of Private Sector Partners

A close partnership between law enforcement and key private sector companies is a basic component of any successful fusion environment. The private sector has unique experience in identifying and solving problems by leveraging advanced technology and commercial best practices. Another crucial private sector role in fusion centers is providing the technology, analytical tools and public and open source data required to assist criminal intelligence analysts in their mission. The ability of private sector vendors to understand and respond to specific law enforcement requirements is the key to successfully applying these elements in the fusion center development process.

When the functionality of the center itself and the completion of the mission becomes a shared responsibility, the private sector’s role takes on a new dimension. In the past, law enforcement officials may have been inclined to take on these challenges themselves, attempting to design, develop, and manage large, complex information collection, analysis, and sharing systems with all the attendant problems. Today, law enforcement agencies recognize the need for help in the form of highly credible, experienced private companies that can become working partners with law enforcement to meet information management needs.

As law enforcement officials work to implement the recommendations from the Fusion Center Guidelines that relate to data access, information sharing and privacy, there are numerous benefits to engaging the expertise of private sector businesses, including:

• Data: Electronic access to information acquired from public sources, reference data and other open sources of information, integrated and linked in a meaningful and relevant way, can be a powerful resource for fusion environments. This capacity to acquire, license, consolidate and deliver information enables the private sector to provide fusion environments with a capability for accessing critical investigative information in near real time that would normally take days for law enforcement officials to collect using traditional investigative methods.

• Innovative Technology: The private sector offers a variety of innovative technologies that can be leveraged within the fusion center environment for data fusion, collaboration, mapping and visual link analysis, as well as privacy-enhancing technologies. Fusion centers should optimize all available commercial technologies to help ensure their ability to protect people’s civil liberties and privacy interests, including use of such technologies as immutable audit trails to help ensure proper oversight and to deter the abuse of systems and sensitive information.

• Policies and Compliance: Working with private sector policy experts, law enforcement can benefit from understanding the relevant privacy and data handling policies that govern the use and sharing of investigative information and architect data fusion and information sharing systems in a manner that comports with these policies. These steps, perhaps more than any other part of the fusion center development process, are critical to the sustainability and long-term success of any fusion center, as they will help in fostering transparency and trust with the citizens the fusion center is designed to protect.

• Information Security: A private sector partner can also provide guidance and solutions for creating the high level of information security required in a fusion environment. When properly implemented in a comprehensive and layered fashion, security is a key enabler for privacy and policy compliance.

Conclusion

Data fusion is evolving as an advanced tool for law enforcement to address its mission, from public safety to counter-terrorism. Large volumes of information, rapidly acquired and analyzed in an automated way according to the specific needs of the law enforcement mission are no longer a luxury, but rather a required tool to conduct criminal investigations, locate sexual predators and fugitives, and protect critical infrastructures.

The success of fusion environments rests on careful consideration and implementation of many of the key recommendations of the Fusion Center Guidelines as well as identifying excellent private sector partners who can provide the technologies required and assist with the development of policy and procedures to ensure protection of the public’s rights and privacy.

Richard Johnston is the chairman of the Law Enforcement Advisory Board, LexisNexis Risk & Information Analytics Group. He retired as director of the National White Collar Crime Center, where he served for 14 years. He began his career as an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, where he was instrumental in the development of the bureau’s training academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC).


Published in Public Safety IT, Mar/Apr 2007

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