Collaboration by consent

Almost three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation's federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies are still grappling with the political, cultural and technological barriers that prevent the seamless sharing of data stored in stand-alone computer systems.

But one state's officials have developed an integrated network that Homeland Security Department officials are touting as a model for the kind of information sharing and collaboration that are crucial to preventing future attacks.

Pennsylvania's Justice Network (JNET) is a secure system that allows users to access criminal data, mug shots, driver's license photos and other law enforcement data. It is available to federal and state agencies and local police departments.

Since its inception in 1997, JNET has helped locate a terrorism suspect days after the Sept. 11 attacks, track down individuals wanted in connection with the murder of two New York City detectives and nab a bank robbery suspect less than two hours after the crime was committed.

JNET is the type of system that might have helped officials connect information on the hijackers in the 2001 attacks, data that was housed in separate agency systems, said Lee Strickland, visiting professor of information studies and director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland. He is also a former CIA intelligence officer.

"We didn't have to catch [all] 19" hijackers, he said. "We only had to catch one to be able to unravel the network. This kind of system — especially if it was expanded — could go a long way to provide the seamless, integrated system the officer on the street needs."

JNET's developers insulated the project from the turf wars that have plagued other justice integration efforts by making it collaborative from the start. All relevant players had a say in the effort, which eased their fears about parting with closely guarded data. Pennsylvania officials formed a steering committee with equal representation from each participating agency to hammer out JNET details during twice-weekly meetings for four years. Committee members voted on how the budget would be allocated, how and what data would be shared, and how policy and technical issues would be handled.

That committee approach was crucial for JNET officials to adequately address the network's business needs while ensuring that the project did not get bogged down with endless planning cycles, said Kelly Harris, deputy executive director of SEARCH, the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics.

"They have strong technical folks, people who really understood the business of justice, and those people were working together to define what they were trying to accomplish

Technology fast facts

The Pennsylvania Justice Network is a TCP/IP-based extranet that connects agency servers to one another. At the center is the JNET hub, which provides the platform for housing limited content, namely driver's license photos and mug shots, and applications and communications services that belong collectively to JNET agencies. Firewalls are deployed between the JNET hub server, each JNET agency and the commonwealth's metropolitan-area network.

Custom applications support interagency data sharing, including both inquiry-based and message-based solutions. JNET is built on the Java Message Service, which allows application components built on Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition to create, send and receive messages. User querying of other agencies' databases via JNET can be done with Web browsers or Web applications that send requests to the messaging service.

BY Heather H. Havenstein
Published on Aug. 30, 2004

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