Big Brother and FBI data sharing

After reading this week’s story on how federal, state, local agencies are beginning to share data, some readers voiced concerns that this amounts to a Big Brother watching everyone.

Although the story doesn't directly address this, I did speak with several officials on this subject when reporting the story. Here's what they said:

First of all, it's important to understant that the information being shared is about criminals and criminal activity. The records already exist. Incident report data has already been gathered by many different agencies but have not been shared effectively to allow investigators to connect the dots when illegal activity crosses jurisdictional borders. With the National Data Exchange (N-DEx) initiative, “We are sharing law enforcement information for law enforcement purposes. We’re not creating new information that didn’t already exist,” said a high-ranking DoJ official who spoke with me on the condition that he not be named in the story.

One area where such data sharing is critical is in tracking down criminals who cross state borders, he said. He points to the D.C. Sniper perpetrators, who had previous records in several other states before turning up in Washington D.C. That information was siloed and not easily accessible to investigators at the time. “If we had had N-DEx and OneDoJ back then all of those incidents we had back in Seattle, New Orleans and Mississippi would all have been in play.” If investigators could have connected the dots, they might have caught the pair a lot sooner, he said.

Another area where data sharing comes into play is with the US-VISIT program, which keeps a database of individuals coming into the country. This identity data is vetted against FBI database of known criminals, but the data is not comingled.

With N-DEx, the FBI requires each participating agency to sign a memorandum of understanding that they must vet those who have access to the system and must monitor the activities of users they authorize through access controls and audit capabilities.

Those authorized to access the system must also follow rules and policies about usage. For example, if an investigator finds relevant information on N-DEx, prior to using it he must validate it with the issuing agency and get permission to use it.

For a quick overview of the various database initiatives, click on this infographic, which accompanies the feature story.

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