Information handcuffs: Counterterrorism IT needs support from the top, Congress told

Technical limitations stem from privacy, policy considerations, National Counterterrorism Center official says

There is no technological silver bullet for identifying would-be terrorists in the terabytes of information the National Counterterrorism Center receives each day, a deputy director for that center said today.

Russell Travers, NCTC’s deputy director for information sharing and knowledge development, said the center has many technological tools that sort, sift and cull through the swaths of information it receives each day from some 30 networks that feed the center. But privacy and policy considerations put boundaries on what officials can do with the data.

“The further you move in the direction of comingling foreign and domestic data in a single enclave where you can effectively apply tools, the harder the legal and policy and privacy issues become,” Travers told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Travers testimony comes as intelligence agencies work to remedy problems exposed by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to blow up an airplane en route to Detroit on Dec. 25. Officials have said the inability to foil the plot was a failure of integration and analysis rather than a problem of information hoarding.

Travers said the failure to thwart the attack wasn't due to a lack of information sharing, but rather the longstanding problem of identifying and integrating fragmented information in absence of an obvious threat.

"Notions of a Google-like search or a federated search are actually of relatively limited value,” Travers added. “We actually have significant Google-like searches that will go across many message-handling systems and we still would not have come across" Abdulutallab. Even with search capabilities, Travers said a challenge was conducting a precise query.


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President Barack Obama specifically ordered NCTC to establish a dedicated capability to enhance record information on possible terrorists in its Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), the government's central repository for international terrorist identities that includes data on about 500,000 people. Travers said NCTC is focused on making those improvements.

Abdulmutallab was listed in NCTC's TIDE database, However, Abdulmutallab didn't make the cut to be on the government’s consolidated watch list that includes data on about 400,000 people whom authorities know or reasonably suspect are involved in terrorist activity. Abdulmutallab also wasn't on the no-fly list, a smaller subset of the consolidated list with more stringent standards comprised of people considered threats to civil aviation or national security.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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