State tests info sharing

The State Department launched a pilot project last week in India and Mexico to share information across agencies, using technology to plug security holes such as the kind that allowed some of the Sept. 11 hijackers to obtain U.S. visas.

The network was in development before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but State sped its deployment after the attacks and amid disclosures that information about some of the terrorists had been available in law enforcement databases.

The project will likely receive even more attention following disclosures last week that intelligence information related to the attacks was available, but the government did not link the pieces.

"We started training, and people have started using it on a day-to-day basis," said Bruce Froehlich, a partner with Accenture, the prime contractor for the Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration/Knowledge System.

Congress has appropriated $17 million for the first two phases of the initiative — a prototype and pilot project — to create a collaborative environment that would enable federal employees worldwide to check information in real time. The pilot project is slated for completion by the end of September, and a full rollout is expected in 2004.

Accenture, with Booz Allen Hamilton and General Dynamics Corp. as its partners, is running a 20-week pilot project with about 2,500 users testing the system in Mexico, India and Washington, D.C.

Contributing agencies will be responsible for updating information in the system, which is the first government effort to share information about applicants before issuing visas at U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide. It will enable embassy officials to check the databases of 40 government agencies to see if the applicant has a record that could justify barring entry into the United States.

"We will be able to be more proactive and have the ability to prevent, rather than simply to react," said Tony Muse of State's Foreign Affairs Systems Integration program.

Nevertheless, it is only one tool in the fight against terrorism, according to government and industry experts.

"You are really talking about the way federal agencies do work with their people overseas," said General Dynamics' Glenn Yeaw, program manager for the project's collaborative technology services.

According to Froehlich, much work is yet to be done to connect communities and people in different agencies and change the government culture that has prevented information sharing.

"It's a big program," Froehlich said. "But when I need something, I have good tools to get it."

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Reaching out

The State Department will give 40 agencies with representatives at embassies and consulates overseas access to the information sharing system.

The technology involved includes:

* A private network with a portal and public-key infrastructure for authentication.

* A toolkit for a collaborative workspace that includes videoconferencing, a whiteboard, document sharing, e-mail and real-time communication.

* Authorized access to various intranets.

* The ability to search across platforms in nanoseconds. * A private Web site.

* Instant analysis and organization of documents.

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