Justice pools online resources

Law Enforcement Online

As the Office of Homeland Security seeks to create networks of networks to share information among federal, state and local government agencies, the law enforcement community is close to completing its own network connection.

The FBI's Law Enforcement Online (LEO) intranet and the Bureau of Justice Assistance's Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) program serve the law enforcement community's collaborative needs.

But bringing those networks together through a single Web interface will give users access to computing resources and experts across the entire spectrum of government, said George March, director of the RISS Office of Information Technology, speaking last week at the Government Symposium on Information Sharing and Homeland Security in Philadelphia.

One of LEO's biggest advantages is the ability to offer a secure online space for special interest groups to share information. And RISS excels in providing Web access to databases maintained by jurisdictions across the country, March said.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials at the Justice Department and the Office of Homeland Security started looking for ways to connect the entire law enforcement community. In the end, they decided to link the existing networks, March said.

Members of the law enforcement working group that serves as the point of contact between the intelligence and law enforcement communities are viewing the LEO/RISS integration as a potential starting point for connecting law enforcement agencies across the country.

Jeff Baxter, a member of the board of regents at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a consultant to the working group, advises local police departments seeking access to other jurisdictions' resources to look first to existing network connections, such as RISS, before attempting to create their own.

The hardware and software for the new network connections are already in place. Justice officials have tested the interface, which has also undergone full federal certification and accreditation, March said. He anticipates that final approval will come soon, and then the networks will be available for community use.

Both LEO and RISS will continue to exist as separate entities, because each has different users. In fact, March said, several enhancements to LEO are planned over the coming months (see box).

The Web interface that the LEO and RISS teams have been developing, however, will provide a seamless bridge between the two networks, he said.

Office of Homeland Security officials are considering using the same approach to create information sharing systems across government. However, that task is much more complex.

Agency officials work with a multitude of systems and must address complex questions of redundancy and interoperability, said Steve Cooper, senior director of information integration and chief information officer at the Office of Homeland Security.

It is not an easy solution, but until the many agencies and organizations involved in homeland security have the money to invest in single systems, the network-of-networks approach is the only one that makes sense, said Ken Piernick, senior director of the office's Intelligence and Detection Directorate.

"We can't wreck anything until that occurs," he said.

Officials at the LEO and RISS management offices are establishing an advisory committee to oversee the integration of the two networks. Part of the plan is to capitalize on the strengths of each network by making LEO the lead on advancing Web-based applications and RISS the lead on handling database applications, March said.

The combined system will also have a directory and an e-mail system, which will enable members of either network to contact the person or group with the appropriate expertise. To ensure full security, the directory will give access according to the individual's security clearance.

March sees many potential uses for the networks. For example, LEO could become the central point through which local law enforcement agencies receive homeland security alerts from federal officials.

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Upgrading LEO

The FBI has several enhancements planned for the Law Enforcement Online intranet over the coming months, including:

* Identifying new collaboration tools.

* Creating a special interest group for crisis management officials.

* Connecting other law enforcement networks, in addition to the Regional Information Sharing Systems program.

* Developing a national alert system that can track whether recipients receive the alerts.

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