DHS wants its network to network

Action to correct long-standing interoperability flaws in HSIN

The Homeland Security Department is planning a technical makeover to get its Homeland Security Information Network into the data-sharing game. HSIN took shape about four years ago but has drawn criticism for its disconnected relationship with similar systems.

Department officials plan to pursue the HSIN technology shake-up in tandem with policy and organizational changes designed to harmonize their network's technological development with its users' needs.

The revamp is intended to mesh DHS' homegrown network with other law enforcement and intelligence information-sharing systems, parts of which HSIN duplicates.
The department started building HSIN in mid-2003, using a Microsoft SharePoint portal, an SQL Server database and Groove Workspace collaboration software from Groove Networks.

HSIN began as a spinoff of the Joint Regional Information Exchange System. That network also works as a method of sharing sensitive-but-unclassified intelligence and analysis.

JRIES links the intelligence operations of major metropolitan police departments such as those in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, among other organizations.

After HSIN's full-scale launch in early 2004, the low-level DHS network functioned as a somewhat information-poor shadow of the FBI's Law Enforcement Online (LEO) and the linked Regional Information Sharing System Network (RISSNet).
RISSNet has more than 75,000 subscribers who, in turn, provide information to hundreds of thousands of officials in law enforcement agencies nationwide and in selected foreign countries. HSIN serves a much smaller user base.

Customers lacking

Even though HSIN is deployed in dozens of fusion centers, its customer base is much smaller than those of RISSNet and LEO, partly because DHS hasn't provided training to potential users, according to the Government Accountability Office.
RISSNet receives funds via the Justice Department and uses a governance structure dominated by state and local law enforcement agencies.

The six RISSNet regional groups co-ordinate via joint committees that build technology policy, especially regarding connections with other networks. The FBI sets LEO's technology policy.

During the past three years, HSIN's leaders have conspicuously failed to link their network to the existing law enforcement networks.

That decision has generated a series of consequences that now put DHS technology managers in the position of playing catch-up in an effort to harmonize HSIN with the other networks.

Wayne Parent, deputy director of DHS' Office of Operations Coordination, recently described the department's plans for the HSIN technology upgrades
to the House Homeland Security Committee's Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee.

Parent highlighted major HSIN technology upgrades set for the next 12 months.

  • Develop metrics to assess the program's performance.
  • Identify users' technical requirements for HSIN.
  • Re-establish data flow between HSIN and RISSNet.
  • Expand the types of content HSIN and RISSNet will exchange beyond a narrowly drafted definition of terrorism-related information.
  • Connect HSIN to Intelink-U, an unclassified federal network provided by the Pentagon.
  • Start work to achieve federated identity management across HSIN, RISSNet and LEO so users will obtain role-based, single sign-on access to many secure Web sites and alerts.
  • Connect HSIN to the Data Exchange Hub that ties together the National Capital Region's emergency management systems.
  • Evaluate advanced capabilities such as collaboration tools and user access control to sensitive intelligence.

Parent told reporters after the hearing that DHS officials plan to mesh their HSIN development work with requirements of the Information Sharing Environment office, an entity that reports to the director of national intelligence.

An ISE working group is conducting an inventory of all the sensitive-but-unclassified-level systems across the federal government, Parent said.

ISE also has adopted an information architecture that is embedded in Office of Management and Budget requirements for systems built by agencies working in the counterterrorism field.

Parent said DHS would coordinate its technical work with the ISE architecture requirements.

'We operate with the ISE under the clear assumption that whatever the ISE adopts, we have to,' Parent said. 'So if we're not compliant, we will be.'

'Quite frankly, if we had had an ISE type of effort in 2003, it would have been easier to make the decisions,' Parent added.

Building the ISE architecture into HSIN so as to coordinate closely with its sister systems is paramount, he said. 'That's where our primary work is technologically with RISSNet now, putting in the data exchange.'

Improvement seen

By July, documents posted on HSIN will transfer to RISSNet for immediate posting and vice versa, Parent said. 'It's much easier to share information across HSIN and RISSNet today than trying to do that three years ago.'

One function that RISSNet provides to its law enforcement participants is access to Analyst's Notebook, a data analysis tool provided by Choicepoint.

'We don't have Analyst's Notebook on HSIN, but we have Analyst's Notebook [systems] scattered in a lot of different places' across DHS, Parent said.

'HSIN involves a lot of pods of people and communities of interest,' he said. 'We are still learning what each of those communities that we own actually have acquired and their capabilities.'

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