DOD funds research into info sharing

The Defense Department has awarded $7.5 million to six universities for a five-year research program to help solve the problem of sharing sensitive information while ensuring privacy and security.

The failure of intelligence and law enforcement organizations to share information was one of the problems that contributed to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the commission that studied the attacks. But connecting the dots has proved to be a knotty problem for organizations built on secrecy and control.

'Information sharing is something that is complex, with a lot of social and organizational dimensions as well as technical ones,' said Tim Finin a professor in the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). 'But there are technical elements that can help lower the bar to sharing and address some of the organizational issues.'

Finin is one of the lead researchers in the program, funded by a grant from the DOD Multi University Research Initiative. Other participating schools are Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, University of Texas at Dallas and University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Each school will receive a share of the $7.5 million grant.

The DOD initiative supports multidisciplinary basic research to bring together scientists, researchers and engineers from different organizations and disciplines.

'We are going to be talking about a lot of issues in parallel,' Finin said. One area that will be addressed is developing a flexible, robust language for expressing policies about information sharing to help automate the process. UTSA has been doing work on policy expression, and UMBC has worked on issues of sharing medical information electronically.

Other areas where a method of formal policy expression could be applied include personal information in public-facing online forums, such as social-networking Web sites, and digital rights management. Digital rights management has gotten a bad reputation because it has been approached in what Finin called a heavy-handed and crude manner. Better articulation of policy could help, he added.

Data mining while preserving privacy is another challenge. One Maryland researcher has been addressing the problem of gathering data needed for maintenance of the university's vehicle fleet without infringing on drivers' privacy.

One of the most fundamental problems is that of discovery. Ignorance of what data other organizations are holding can prevent sharing even when policy does not prohibit it. 'One problem is that an organization may have information it is willing to share with me, but they don't know it would be useful to me, and I don't know they have it,' Finin said.

Researchers will be looking at ways to identify useful information while preserving privacy.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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