Georgia county upgrades crime net

Columbia County, Ga.

A Georgia county is working to meet upgraded network security guidelines for state and federal criminal justice information.

Columbia County, a well-to-do suburban community encompassing the city of Augusta, apparently is one of the first municipalities in Georgia to employ the required TCP/IP for its six agencies, including the sheriff's department, which is helping lead the project.

That means the county's 108 users can securely connect with the Georgia Information Crime Center, which is part of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The crime center operates the state's Criminal Justice Information System Network, connecting more than 1,400 member agencies to computerized databases maintained by Georgia, other states and the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

To comply with the latest federal standards that will let agencies take advantage of enhanced features such as receiving and transmitting images, the Georgia center is requiring member agencies to upgrade their systems by July 1, 2004, said Todd Glover, director of Columbia County's management services division.

County officials last August chose Vibren Technologies Inc., a unit of NEC Corp., to build and design the new secure network, which is essentially separate from the county's other systems. A dedicated line will connect the county to the Georgia crime center through a router owned and managed by the state, said Stephen Phillips, Vibren's manager of enterprise sales. "If they want to get a hold of their e-mail or other county resources, they can traverse the firewall back over to the 'normal' [local-area network] and access the information," he said.

This will help the sheriff's 911 dispatchers receive and view information on one computer rather than two terminals as was done before. Under the old system, dispatchers had to manually transfer information from the county to the state system. "That's just not efficient," Glover said. "And when you're dealing with 911, every second counts."

Columbia County replaced 25 dumb terminals with PCs and is installing a biometric security system that asks users for a thumbprint and user name to log in to the system, as recommended by the state's security policies. The county could have opted for digital certificates, but officials believe the biometric solution is more affordable and equally secure.

"I think we're one of the first to implement the upgrades," Glover said. "I have heard through the grapevine that smaller counties or entities can't afford to do this. They're looking at ways to share information regionally to take advantage of economies of scale."

The new system will cost $200,000 to $250,000, county officials said. While a considerable sum for a small government, Glover believes the county has no choice because it needs access to state and national criminal data. The sheriff's department might also lose accreditation if it did not continue to link to such state and national databases, he said.

It helps that Columbia County is "fairly astute" technologically, with a robust existing infrastructure, Phillips said, adding that other counties are not as far advanced, which could hinder their progress in upgrading systems.

County officials' next step is to implement encryption standards so it can develop a virtual private network giving law enforcement officers and other users wireless access, he said. While the network's architecture can handle that, Phillips said implementation might still be six months away, depending on when the new state standards are released.

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