Data-sharing projects gain momentum

In what is part of a larger post Sept. 11 trend, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have begun to promote electronic data sharing in the name of homeland security.

During last year's anthrax scare, the EPA fielded scores of calls from vendors eager to push their detection and decontamination products.

"No one actually had a clearinghouse of technologies for that," said Thomas De Kay, manager of international outreach programs for the EPA's Technology Innovation Office. "As often happens, there was immediate reaction to say, 'Where is this?' "

The EPA has since centralized the information into a database that went online a month ago. But the EPA.is not alone. Federal, state and local agencies nationwide are building electronic databases and creating data-sharing initiatives to help them respond to disasters such as the terrorist attacks.

The Customs Service issued a request for information Feb. 15 on Fed.BizOpps.gov for commercial, off-the-shelf databases or software housing biographical information about airline passengers, such as current addresses, telephone records, criminal history and vehicle registration.

In a similar move, the Transportation Department is considering using existing technology to establish a network that links airline reservation systems to private and government databases to screen passengers, vendors said.

Possible changes in a profiling policy prompted the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Aviation Subcommittee to hold a hearing on the matter Feb. 27.

Both Customs and Transportation officials declined to discuss the plans.

On the state level, New York officials unveiled the Counter-Terrorism Network Jan. 29, which eventually will allow local law enforcement agencies to exchange information electronically.

"This pilot program will ensure that the critical and relevant data collected through our nation's vast intelligence network is filtered down to the cops walking beats from Buffalo to Binghamton to Babylon," New York Gov. George Pataki said in a statement.

In the nonprofit sector, the Oklahoma City National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism issued a request for proposals Jan. 25 for a Web-based repository of counterterrorism best practices and lessons learned. "We keep hearing it as a need," said James Gass, the institute's plans and special projects officer.

With many other databases in the works, the challenge is interconnectivity, said John Cohen, president and chief executive officer of Rockville, Md.-based PSComm LLC, which advises local and state governments on public safety and government operations.

"It's nice to say we're going to create these new databases, but if the information doesn't flow between the entities we're relying on for our homeland security, it's of limited value," said Cohen, a former California police officer who has federal law enforcement and intelligence experience.

Boston's Logan International Airport — one of 15 locations piloting technologies for the fledgling Transportation Security Administration — is testing a facial-recognition program, the first of its kind in the United States, that connects its security checkpoints and federal counter-terrorism databases, said Thomas Kinton Jr., Logan's aviation director and acting executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority, at the aviation subcommittee hearing.

But Cohen envisions information sharing on a larger scale. "It's not really a technology issue. A lot of it has to do with the culture of law enforcement," he said. "Just on the federal level, it's a relatively new way of doing business."

"We're emerging," the EPA's De Kay said about the agency's database for biological counterterrorism. "These whole issues are so new to the federal government in general."

The EPA hopes the clearinghouse will serve as a starting point for its users, allowing them to distinguish honest vendors from snake oil salesmen, he said.

The EPA awarded Tetra Tech EM Inc. a $28 million, five-year contract Feb. 14 to provide services that include supporting the initiative. "It's an opportunity to get ahead of the information after the anthrax letters," said Gayle Kline, a vice president with Tetra Tech.

Dibya Sarkar contributed to this story.

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New EPA database

The Environmental Protection Agency has wielded information-sharing in the fight against terrorism by developing a database of technologies for responding to biological threats.

"It saves us a lot of time and money in doing research," said Thomas De Kay, manager of international outreach programs for the EPA's Technology Innovation Office.

The private sector benefits as well. "It's an avenue for the vendors to get information out," said Gayle Kline, a vice president with Tetra Tech EM Inc., which supports the initiative.

The agency screens vendor- supplied data, then posts it on the World Wide Web with a disclaimer.

It advertises the site through its publications and at conferences. "It helps if everyone is using the same information," De Kay said.

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