All-points bulletins: FBI and Justice link, get the word out

Project at a glance

Who: The Justice Department's Counterdrug Intelligence Executive Secretariat (CDX), the FBI's Law Enforcement Online (LEO) Unit, and users of six federal, military, and state and local law enforcement networks


Mission: LEO and the linked systems serve as a network to connect law enforcement and intelligence resources such as the Regional Information Sharing System Network (riss.net), the intelligence community's Open Source Information System, the State Department's OpenNet Plus network, the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS) and the Defense Department's AntiDrug Network Unclassified.


What was: The LEO and CDX teams have built on earlier generations of law-enforcement-information-sharing systems, such as NLETS and the FBI's National Criminal Information Center. These systems could not communicate with one another and lacked the security that LEO offers.


What is: LEO has vastly expanded the reach of law enforcement information sharing among federal, state and local agencies by weaving together multiple networks.


Users: LEO has about 25,000 members at all levels of law enforcement; it is connected to riss.net, which has about 58,000 access officers representing some 700,000 law enforcement workers. They are located in agencies across the United States, Canada, England and Australia. In all, the six linked systems connect some 100,000 users.


Impact: The LEO network and its connection with other networks have allowed law enforcement officials to improve their operations by pooling information.


Duration: Planning for LEO began in the mid-1990s, and the network has continued to expand through this year. Officials expect to extend its reach in the future, especially by adding a wireless alert capability known as the National Alert System.


Cost: LEO receives about $3 million a year in federal funds specifically earmarked for it. The network also receives FBI funds.

The FBI's Craig Sorum says LEO gives law enforcement officials nationwide immediate access to the same info.

Henrik G. de Gyor

Justice's M. Miles Matthews

The FBI and Justice Department have supercharged law enforcement communications by weaving together disparate networks and creating technology to push alerts to officers nationwide.

The FBI's Law Enforcement Online Unit and Justice's Counterdrug Intelligence Executive Secretariet (CDX) linked six networks to create a supernetwork. LEO, which began as an FBI network, now serves about 100,000 law enforcement officers around the world.

The six sensitive but unclassified networks that now comprise LEO are:
  • The original FBI-only LEO

  • The Regional Information Sharing System Network (riss.net), funded by Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance

  • The National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), run jointly by several state agencies

  • The Anti-Drug Network-Unclassified, run by the Defense Department

  • The Open Source Information System, run by the CIA's intelligence community CIO organization

  • OpenNet Plus, provided by the State Department to about 40 federal agencies operating at about 250 missions worldwide and in Washington.

'We have added every secure law enforcement Internet system that has national reach,' said M. Miles Matthews, senior management counsel and executive officer of CDX.

'I have been an agent for 17 years, and this is something we should have done 17 years ago,' said Craig Sorum, supervisory special agent for the LEO Unit.

Before LEO came into being in 1995, law enforcement agencies relied on the NLETS, an organization-to-organization network similar to teletype.

'Because NLETS is organization-to-organization, it doesn't allow me to get a message to you and authenticate it to you,' Matthews said. 'I could just get a message to your department and hope you went by the inbox.'

Surviving in the jungle

In 2001, the LEO team implemented a virtual private network that provides encrypted channels between users and the LEO network.

Users install the LEO software on any Internet-ready computer and can log on to the VPN using an account and password provided by the FBI as well as standard browser and e-mail programs.

V-One Corp. of Germantown, Md., provides the SmartGate application level security technology for LEO and the linked riss.net.

Because the V-One tool operates at the application level rather than the transport level, it gives the FBI and Justice the ability to connect various kinds of systems, Sorum said.

'We have cops from all over the country, really all over the world, using the system. You might be running a Microsoft Windows 95 box and I am running a Windows XP box, and I am coming through a network, and you are not,' he said.

'We are the interface with the feds, and the state and locals. We can bring them to the same table through LEO,' Sorum said.
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'What is important about a VPN compared to other systems that may not use a VPN tunnel like we do, is that when the bad guys want to attack the system [via a denial-of-service attack], we are virtually invisible on the Internet,' Sorum said. 'They can't attack us as easily as a public domain site like cnn.com or fbi.gov and so on, because the routers don't see us. All of our traffic goes through the tunnel rather than being out for all to see.'

LEO and riss.net use Triple-Digital Encryption Standard security, and officials plan to upgrade to the Advanced Encryption Standard this fall.

Matthews said the security of the LEO-riss.net connection and the other network links is certified and accredited by the FBI and intelligence community agencies.

The VPN security is cheaper than public-key infrastructure technology, Matthews said.

'It is manageable, and it extends the collaboration opportunity to as many people as possible,' he said. 'If you want to have other types of encryption and authentication like PKI, knock yourself out. But it costs like hell, and it is hard to administer.'

Officials connected LEO with the riss.net system on Sept. 1, 2002.

The federal law enforcement network also works with the Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, a pilot program that will at first connect participating states' criminal and investigative file databases, driver's license and motor vehicle databases, and other public records for combined data query.

The Florida Law Enforcement Department developed Matrix with help from contractor Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla.

Riss.net also provides connectivity for the Antiterrorism Information Exchange, a Justice-funded system for sharing data and providing alerts to first responders but that does not include access to criminal databases.

The FBI is also exploring information sharing via the Gateway Information Sharing Initiative. FBI demonstration projects in St. Louis and San Diego combine local, state and federal criminal information, and investigative files in a data warehouse.

The Gateway ISI system also allows for link analysis and mapping of investigative information by members of the joint terrorism task forces that work out of the FBI field division offices in those cities.

LEO and Justice officials plan to extend the capabilities of their network by incorporating a wireless alert system into LEO and riss.net.

'The FBI director said, 'I don't understand why we don't have one system where we can push one button' ' to send alerts nationwide, Sorum said.

The FBI's LEO Program Office has chosen alert technology called mNET from Invertix Corp. of Annandale, Va., to implement the National Alert System.

The tool bridges the protocols of the Internet environment and the digital signaling environment of wired and wireless carriers.

The NAS will let the FBI send pop-up messages to LEO users directing them to sites on the network that contain detailed alert information.

'We are going to deploy this to all our 56 field offices and to every police department and law enforcement agency in the country,' Sorum said.

Individual agencies will decide who receives the pop-up messages on their screens.

'If you are on LEO, you will get a message saying 'We interrupt this broadcast, and here is the content,' ' Matthews said. 'But if I don't acknowledge that in three minutes, I get beeped on my cell phone or my pager.'

Roar of the crowd

Each LEO user can nominate as many as nine other officials to receive NAS wireless messages, Matthews said.

A chief benefit of the alerts is that they will provide a way to track who has information and when it was received, Matthews said.

'If the Fairfax County, Va., police department clicks on the LEO message, we know they got it,' he said.

Another plus is that the messages themselves are small, Sorum said. The message won't necessarily contain all the relevant information but will include a link to LEO, 'where we could put a host of information'pictures, videotapes, documents, a whole volume of stuff'so it is not limited to what you can cram into a message,' he said.

LEO planners want to expand data alerts by creating a National Criminal Intelligence Sharing Plan via Justice's Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative Intelligence Working Group. Matthews chairs the working group's Connectivity and Systems Committee.

The group will create data marts, from which some sensitive investigative and intelligence data would be removed, and the remaining data would be housed outside the participating agencies' central databases.

'Whenever you look at information sharing, you have to look at the costs and benefits,' Sorum said. Additionally, once you move into the area of sensitive data then the federal agencies must consider holding back some information they share with state and local agencies, he said.

'What's nice about being a network like LEO is that you have a portal environment where now, if you get a cool tool funded, everybody gets to use it,' Sorum said. 'The National Alert System is a perfect example.'

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