Unlocking the potential

The success of technology during the past decade is usually described

in terms of economics. The Internet and related technologies are largely

credited with increasing the efficiency of both the private and public sectors,

making it possible to deliver more goods and services at a fraction of the

traditional cost.

Now, in the wake of terrorist attacks, technology is being applied to

a new challenge: homeland security.

As investigators sift through the details of the events before and after

the Sept. 11 attacks, they see a picture emerging of where technology worked

and where it didn't. They are also identifying the many opportunities in

which new and still emerging technologies can play a greater role in responding

to terrorism and, ideally, thwarting future attacks.

Athough the need to improve cybersecurity has deservedly received much

attention, a long list of other technologies will also be called upon —

from systems that can improve communication and collaboration among agencies,

to ones that enhance electronic eavesdropping capabilities, to still others

that use biometrics to safeguard the nation's airports and borders.

As the government pours money into helping agencies recover from and

protect against terrorist attacks, much of that funding will make its way

to contractors, said Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal

Procurement Policy.

However, "it's difficult right now to predict exactly how federal contracting

needs will unfold," she told a group of vendors from the Northern Virginia

area in November.

For example, some agencies are focusing on bandwidth problems discovered

in the first hours after the attacks, when phone lines jammed, network connections

went down and cell phones became useless (see "To be redundant," at right).

Others are thinking long-term, seeking solutions that can help them manage,

communicate and share information better within their agencies and across


In fact, as the president clearly outlined in the executive order that

created the Office of Homeland Security, the basis of all such efforts is

information sharing, getting the right information to the right people at

the right time, said Mark Forman, associate director for information technology

and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget.

"At the heart of it is, how do we act as a team?" he said. "We need

collaboration tools."

Knowledge is...

In that spirit, most of the big procurement opportunities will come

in the form of systems integration, and knowledge management solutions "will

probably account for well over $1 billion in spending," Forman said.

Knowledge management systems vary in capabilities, but in their most

basic form, they work by shifting through large, often disparate collections

of electronic information, such as databases, e-mail messages, Web sites,

news feeds and even voice or video recordings.

The software then creates an index to that information, filling it with

cross-references between related records and, in some cases, between records

and the people who created them or use them often, the so-called subject-matter


The State Department is already working on a global knowledge management

system, called the Overseas Presence Knowledge Management and Collaboration

System, which will bring together information from almost 40 agencies into

a single network.

Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, is very interested

in determining how this system can help governmentwide, said Fernando Burbano,

State's chief information officer.

But other agencies are looking for collaboration solutions on a smaller

scale to help them share information within their own environments.

"We need to collaborate in house before we can talk about collaborating

out of house," said Mark Tanner, information resources manager at the FBI.

Even agencies such as the CIA are looking to the commercial sector to

help them in this area. "We're searching for ways to improve information

sharing," said Doug Naquin, deputy CIO at the CIA. "Much of our focus will

be on how to improve the intelligence community's collaboration."

The CIA will be working closely with industry to adopt products and

solutions that are already available, and to develop new ones through In-Q-Tel,

the organization founded by the agency to fund development of innovative

technology products, Naquin said.

"We have to be able to collect more [information], and we have to be

able to do something with it," he said. That involves not only getting the

information to the people who need it, but also somehow getting feedback

from those people about whether the information is of any help, he added.

Indeed, several executives at knowledge management companies point to

the apparent wealth of information uncovered by investigators about the

perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks — from their physical movements to

their financial transactions — yet they noted the frustrating inability

to make sense of it in time to possibly thwart the attacks.

"I think we have quickly come to a conclusion that this is a problem

of understanding and sharing what we know more than a problem of not knowing,"

said Peter Fuchs, chief executive officer and chairman of TheBrain Technologies

Corp., which develops knowledge management software.

Of course, that realization doesn't necessarily make the problem any

easier to solve. "This has got to be one of the biggest knowledge management

challenges that anybody faces in the world," Fuchs said.

The scale of the problem only grows as government officials begin to

recognize the number of agencies that have a role to play in homeland security

— as information providers, information consumers or both, said Dan Agan,

vice president of corporate market development at Convera, which develops

software for indexing and retrieving multimedia content.

More to Come

Agan said future technology developments will help in a number of areas.

Improvements in hardware performance, for example, will eventually enable

the real-time conversion of speech to text, which can play a key role in

gathering and analyzing information.

But the most important gains will come in software, which must start

to make sense of all this information. The job is daunting.

"Say you have some information in French and Arabic that seems to relate

to one another," Agan said. "That requires computational linguistics to,

first, translate the information and then, second, to understand how the

language is being used in each of those two instances. You might also want

to look at the density of concepts inside the material. What is each document

talking about? Does it make sense or is it code?"

Some of the algorithms for handling such tasks exist already, but they

are in rudimentary, stand-alone form, according to Agan. More advanced algorithms

are under development at universities and other research organizations,

and much of the work that lies ahead involves making those algorithms work

together efficiently by using some parallel processing techniques, Agan


"It's absolutely essential for the sake of scalability to be able to

take individual processes and peel them off and run them simultaneously....

[Otherwise], we will get answers, but eight years too late," he said.

Other, related developments, such as the growing use of Extensible Markup

Language (XML) and other Web-based technologies, will also give a boost

to knowledge management systems in the future, according to Mike Loria,

director of the advanced collaboration unit at Lotus Development Corp.

Currently, most knowledge management vendors have to write custom interfaces

to enable their systems to index data from different applications. "With

XML, the more standardized data will make it easier to integrate that data

into a knowledge management system," Loria said.

Likewise, to the extent that Web technologies such as Java, Simple Object

Access Protocol, and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration standardize

the way new applications are developed and managed, they too will make it

easier for knowledge management systems to ingest more information, which

will make them even more valuable.

Eyes, Ears and Faces

Using knowledge management to better understand information about terrorist

activities dovetails with a range of other technologies the government can

use for homeland security.

The FBI's Carnivore is a good example of a system that can be used to

eavesdrop on suspicious Internet-based communications such as e-mail messages.

But Carnivore — now known as DCS-1000 — is limited by the fact that special

equipment has to be deployed at the Internet service provider's facility

through which the suspect data traffic passes.

More preferable is a wiretap system that would already be deployed around

the Internet and could be activated and operated remotely as needed by law

enforcement agents. Such a system has been called for under the Communications

Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994, but the federal government

has so far not required its deployment, in part because of industry objections

about the price of compliance.

"Today, there is very spotty coverage because so few ISPs comply," said

Mike Paquette, vice president of marketing and product management at Top

Layer Networks, which is developing a system that enables this type of Internet

wiretapping. "This is one reason why Carnivore exists."

Paquette said improvements in price and performance will make it feasible

to more widely deploy the systems called for by CALEA. For example, current

wiretapping technology can handle only about 1 gigabit/sec of data traffic

per line, which is not much. Top Layer and other vendors are developing

systems that will be able to handle 10 times that much traffic and more,

changing the economics of deploying the equipment.

With more powerful hardware, "in the future, you might have equipment

located around a fewer aggregation points [for Internet traffic], as opposed

to having lots of smaller systems located at all the ISPs," Paquette said.

Once coverage is more complete, Paquette envisions a system that provides

law enforcement officials with full electronic access to targeted communications.

The officers would obtain warrants from judges authorizing a wiretap, then

use court-issued digital certificates to activate the eavesdropping equipment


Even with this ability, federal officials will not have an unimpeded,

omniscient view of electronic communications around the country.

"The ready availability of cryptography software is a problem," said

Daniel Ryan, a security consultant and former director of information systems

security at the Pentagon. "For those of us who want to do credit card transactions

on the Web, 128-bit encryption is good. The problem is that the bad guys

can do it, too."

It is generally thought that a computer powerful enough to crack 128-bit

encryption does not exist, said John Worrall, director of product marketing

at RSA Security Inc.

But scientists are working on one that someday might be powerful enough

to beat 128-bit encryption — a so-called quantum computer that relies on

principles of quantum mechanics to process enormous amounts of information.

But daunting design challenges must be overcome before such a computer can

be built on a useful scale.

Even if law enforcement officers can't read the contents of encrypted

messages, they can glean valuable information with traffic analysis systems,

Ryan said. By tracing data packets as they move across the Internet, they

can see who is sending and receiving messages, which can help them identify

people who might be involved in terrorist activities.

Diane Frank contributed to this article.


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards - https://governmentinnovationawards.com

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected