Data headaches

Thomas R. Temin

I have to agree with some of those pesky senators. The administration's plan for the so-called Terrorism Threat Integration Center seems half-baked, especially with the CIA as the planned host.

At a hearing last month, lawmakers grilled officials about how the center, known as TTIC, would work and how it would avoid redundancy and confusion.

To be sure, the instinct to create such a center is on target, given that it's hard to separate foreign and domestic intelligence when tracking terrorists. They have a solid record of using the United States' porous borders. But neither the CIA nor the FBI, another TTIC participant, has a culture of eagerly sharing information with other agencies. And everyone else with whom this pair would share is in the Tower of Babel known as the Homeland Security Department.

Beyond the data-sharing problems lie the application issues. Databases, repositories and warehouses are useless without applications. You can't build an app unless you have a goal'some event or transaction'in mind.

Homeland Security hasn't yet worked out what specific apps it needs to make use of all the data it wants at its disposal. Nor, apparently, have the agencies contributing data to TTIC figured out who will do what.

To those who can master the management of data nowadays, there is indeed wisdom to be mined. The secrets of market-leading companies, for example, can often be traced to their data-driven management of supply chains or distribution.

But in the absence of a specific application'say, sending a message, guiding a smart bomb or checking the employment and travel history of an individual'most data held by organizations is latent.

A third issue is how to logically tie together data that is hosted physically in one place. That requires deciding who has legal access to what data and whether some users will tap only metadata and then need a court order to view the data itself.

The whole database and integration debate needs more fleshing out. The intelligence folks must be able to provide overseers with more solid answers.

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