FBI computers enter the 21st century

FBI computers enter the 21st century

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hoping to shred its paper-swamped reputation and maximize its crime fighting, has unveiled the biggest change in its workflow in 50 years: a US$600 million computer network called Trilogy that will help the agency sift the massive amounts of data it collects. A new database already used by 300 FBI agents and analysts will draw relationships between 26 million agency records, according to Wilson Lowery, an executive assistant director with the FBI. The agency aims to make its Virtual Case File, which tracks terrorists and other criminals, available to all appropriate employees by December. The database is expected to store 100 terabytes of information drawn from state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies as well as the news media. The system also accommodates multimedia elements such as audio, video, and 3D mapping.

Eye on Privacy

Civil liberties advocates are watching the effort, hoping the FBI appropriately balances its information gathering with privacy measures.

Government data mining may undermine privacy rights or falsely accuse innocent people of crimes, noted Lee Tien, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tien said he does not oppose "something that brings the FBI into the 21st century. We think the FBI should modernize." But, he added, "If it's done wrong, you're not going to protect privacy."

Because of the tremendous amount of data coming into the system, errors are easily introduced and then are difficult to eradicate, according to privacy advocates. In addition, some of the information in the system may come from the National Crime Information Center. The Justice Department recently exempted the NCIC database from the Privacy Act of 1974, which mandates that information be accurate.

Lowery said that only legally obtained information will be in the system.

Easier Access

The technology behind Trilogy has already been used by businesses for several years. The database is designed to be as user-friendly as online shopping, so FBI agents and analysts can easily enter and share data.

Its search engine accepts natural-language queries. For example, when asked what could prevent future terrorist attacks, the database instantly found a Phoenix FBI memo about suspected terrorists taking flight lessons--an item overlooked before the September 11, 2001, attacks that surfaced later amid criticism of FBI practices. It is widely believed that if this information had surfaced before the terrorists struck, the attacks might have been averted.

The system also draws maps and flow charts of the relationships between crime suspects. A search for hijacker Mohammed Atta, for example, yielded links from him to Osama bin Laden and dozens of other suspected criminals. Searches of foreign names and phrases will be easier because the database allows for a variety of spellings, according to FBI representatives demonstrating the new system.

Accelerated Efforts

Upgrading the FBI's technological tools has been a priority. Just two years ago, FBI agents could not access the Internet and used aged PCs with Intel 80386 CPUs from the late 1980s. An agent had to page through 11 screens to file or retrieve a simple piece of data, Lowery says.

In the past year, the FBI has purchased 22,000 new computers and established a network center to control and run the nearly 600 sites on the Trilogy system.

Lowery emerged from his retirement from IBM to spearhead the Trilogy effort because he wanted to help after September 11. He said the FBI had not "applied the technology of today to everyday operations."

While agents have long been skilled at gathering information, until now they have lacked the tools to make sense of the colossal amount of data.

The FBI began planning Trilogy in 1999, but revised the effort in 2001 to add more security precautions. Congress has criticized the bureau for running late and over budget on the project.

Lowery said the increased cost was due to additional security. He says the program cost $596 million, up by $138 million from original projections.

As the next step, the FBI will share the system's information with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesperson.

"Once they get it up and running, then the information will be there and available to the rest of the intelligence community," Bresson said. "We've always been able to share info, it's just not been very effective or timely. What we're hoping to do here is have an electronic means by which to communicate within a secure environment." -- PC (US)

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