FBI unveils N-DEx rollout

Nationwide network to link law enforcement agencies

The FBI's Criminal Justice Information Service today unveiled the long-planned first increment of the National Data Exchange information sharing web.

"N-DEx will enable all law enforcement agencies to share incident reports, correlate crime data and collaborate on criminal justice investigations on a national basis," according to a Raytheon press announcement cleared by the bureau.

The bureau's Criminal Justice Information Division, based in Clarksburg, W.Va., sponsored the system. The network is intended to enable law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local level to collaborate on their investigative work by sharing information held in one another's data systems.

The FBI and prime contractor Raytheon have relied on advice from the fledgling system's prospective users in law enforcement agencies nationwide to set the priorities of the N-DEx capabilities that will be progressively rolled out over the next three years.

Raytheon said in its announcement that N-DEx relies on a service-oriented architecture designed eventually to support 200,000 investigators in up to 18,000 local, state, tribal and federal enforcement agencies. "The investigators will use N-DEx to gather and share incident and investigative information across disparate systems and jurisdiction boundaries," Raytheon said.

In such systems, important investigative data items such as information about crimes, locations, drugs, weapons, individuals, money in various forms and the like can be linked and correlated. Law enforcement investigators use tools such as the widespread Analysts Notebook application, which allows them to create conceptual, visual networks that reflect links among such data objects.

For example, one such visual image that relies on data drawn from several systems shows the links among Osama bin Laden and his various fellow terrorists, their sources of funds and travel documents, their communications links and weapons sources, as well as their known targets and hideouts. The system takes into account various ways the underlying systems might describe a given crime or weapon, for example, to clarify and combine known information about the data element.

Today's announcement described that function this way: "The first increment gives 50,000 users the ability to capture case data and conduct 'entity resolution' on incidents and arrest data. Entity resolution identifies possible candidates for known aliases, based on information (name, address, phone number, etc.) in multiple records. The system then correlates the data, resulting in the identification of candidates for consideration. The information is then presented to the user for further analysis."

Some observers of the N-DEx development process have noted that the FBI system fails to take into account the fact that over several decades, law enforcement databases have gradually incorporated quirks and inaccuracies that could hobble the entity resolution process.

Those analysts, speaking on condition of anonymity, note that law enforcement data systems in various states and cities rely on a dizzying array of code languages, some dating back several decades. They go on to explain the problem that law enforcement agencies frequently haven't been able to afford the software maintenance costs that would allow them to include data fields for emerging crimes and associated data elements, such as methamphetamine production labs, cell phones and laptop PCs.

As a result of the laggard software maintenance, law enforcement database users have progressively incorporated unorthodox workarounds, including the use of undocumented terms in various data fields to express new law enforcement data elements that have emerged over the years.

Technical leaders of the N-DEx project stated last month that the FBI and Raytheon have launched the system at a cost of about $3 million below its budgeted expense of about $41 million. The FBI announced its N-DEx contract award to Raytheon in February 2007. At the time, the FBI said it expected to launch the N-DEx first phase on or about Feb. 29, 2008. Last month, N-DEx project executives projected a launch date around March 19.

The project leaders likely will comment on the reasons for the two-month project completion delay and the criticisms of N-DEx's inability to take into account the inaccurate data that resides on law enforcement data systems later today.

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