The Power of Fusion
More than a year before 9/11, intelligence collected by the National Security Agency (NSA) could have identified one of the hijackers, but NSA didn’t distribute that intelligence, and no one knew to ask for it. In the years since 9/11, other failures to connect key facts available prior to the attack have surfaced. Local, state and federal agencies bottled up information that could have helped someone somewhere figure out what was coming and raise a credible alarm.
“One of the chief complaints of state and local officials is the lack of actionable information from the national intelligence community,” Norman Beasley, counter-terrorism coordinator with the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff’s office, said recently in a statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk. “This is exactly why state/local fusion centers were implemented.”
Fusion centers are little known agencies staffed by local, state and federal law enforcement and intelligence experts. The centers employ sophisticated technology that collects information, determines patterns and relationships hidden in the welter of data and distributes connected dots to appropriate local, state and federal agencies.
In Chicago, a recently opened Fusion Center called the Crime Prevention Information Center (CPIC) deploys microphones connected to a computer capable of recognizing the sound of gunshots, raising an alarm and calculating a street address for investigators.
Fusion center technologies of all kinds vacuum up information from the real and digital worlds day and night. In addition to microphones placed in crime-ridden hot spots, real world citizens send information to fusion centers by calling telephone tip lines or sending e-mail. Video cameras installed by local law enforcement, state departments of transportation and corporate security departments often provide visual data to fusion centers through memoranda of understanding (MOUs) and sometimes by request during emergencies.
At the same time, advanced software applications developed for fusion centers collect vast amounts of data from the Internet and from legions of official databases. “Fusion Center Guidelines,” a July 2005 document prepared jointly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), recommends obtaining access to databases containing state driver’s license and motor vehicle registration files; local addresses and phone numbers; law enforcement databases including the National Crime Information Center, the International Justice and Public Safety Information Sharing Network, the Terrorism Screening Center, the Homeland Security Information Network, sex offender registries and many more.
In West Trenton, N.J., for example, the year-old Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC, pronounced “rock”) employs personnel from the FBI, DHS, FEMA, the New York Police Department and New York State Police, as well as from state, county and municipal partners throughout New Jersey. ROIC technology collects and disseminates data from and to all of these agencies.
Whether a center is collecting or sharing data, the technical challenges are similar. According to “Fusion Center Guidelines:” “A fusion center is an effective and efficient mechanism to exchange information and intelligence … by merging data from a variety of sources.”
The guidelines recommend the Global Justice Extensible Markup Language (XML) standard for database and network development. In recent years, XML has come into wide use as a tool that enables unlike devices, systems and networks to talk to each other.
“It is technically challenging to move data from federal to state, federal to local, state to state, state to federal, state to local, and local to local and so on in all directions up and down the chain,” says Amy Kudwa, a spokesperson for DHS.
It’s an expensive challenge, too. In 2005, the Commonwealth Fusion Center, in Framingham, Mass., paid Raytheon Co., Waltham, Mass., $2.2 million to develop a software application to collect and share data from and with a host of diverse sources with disparate technologies.
Today, more than 50 fusion centers collect and disseminate information in 46 states. Generally located in non-descript buildings, fusion center interiors look like spaceships.
New Jersey’s ROIC, for instance, contains an 8,644 square-foot support room equipped with 100 interdependent workstations that can be assigned to any configuration of agencies involved in an event. Each computer can take the assigned agency’s input and send it to a 32-foot-wide by 12-foot-high video wall that keeps everyone apprised. Above the support room on the second floor is an executive conference room from which the governor and top-level decision makers can view the situation and also conduct video conferences.
Creating actionable intelligence
Collecting and disseminating data are mechanical fusion center tasks. In between the collecting and disseminating comes the analytical work, which aims to discover patterns in incoming data leading to conclusions that produce actionable intelligence.
Human analysts do this work. But there is so much data to evaluate that people need technological support. Fusion center technology collects information from innumerable Web sites; federal, state and local databases and networks; the media and unclassified intelligence bulletins.
Arizona’s Phoenix-based fusion center, called the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC) also taps into DHS and DOJ information systems including FBI classified systems and networks, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, INTERPOL and others. All in all, AcTIC draws on more than 100 law enforcement and public databases.
Once the raw data has been collected, technology makes the first pass at winnowing and shaping the data into information.
“We have software that will search for words and numbers through any kind of data in any kind of format,” says Lori Norris, AcTIC’s Watch Center Commander.
Called data-sifters, these applications might start with a phone number or a name and look for transactions. What phone numbers does that phone number call? What phone numbers call the first phone number? “You might see that one phone number calls another phone number 50 times in a week,” Norris explains. “That’s not normal, and it raises questions. Then you want to take a look at who owns those numbers and find out if those people have a criminal history. What if everyone calling this number has a criminal history connected with, say, narcotics? What if the person receiving the calls has no criminal history? At some point, you might want to get a warrant and listen in.”
AcTIC uses facial recognition technology to identify faces from photos or in videos. The application can search any of the booking photos in the law enforcement databases available to the center.
AcTIC also uses a geographical information system (GIS) application to map leads generated during searches. As pieces of data from various searches arrive, the pieces flow into a main database capable of producing a GIS map. Suppose some of the data are telephone calls received over different police tip lines. One call might report that a person was photographing a water treatment plant south of Phoenix, while other calls report that people are photographing water treatment plants east, west and north of Phoenix.
It would be pure luck for an intelligence analyst to pick four or five phone calls out of hundreds and notice that a lot of people are photographing water treatment plants. But AcTIC’s technology will notice and map out the locations reported and notify an analyst that a pattern has been detected.
Finally, AcTIC also has a direct fiber-optic connection to camera networks put out by the Arizona Department of Transportation and local street departments. “If we get a call about an explosion, we can pan a camera around to look,” Norris says. “We can see whether or not there was an explosion. If there was an explosion, we can see if there is a green cloud or not and what kinds of problems investigators might be up against.”
Fusion centers are changing the way local, state and federal law enforcement agencies go about their business. Centers provide means for collaborating that didn’t exist before. Working together eliminates the headaches that develop when several agencies work on the same investigation from different angles and get in each other’s way.
“Investigations are faster and more focused,” Norris says. “What normally might take six months to develop because of the need to get information from a federal and state databases can get done right away.”
Problems remain, of course. Some state and local officials complain that federal databases sometimes require security clearances that state and local people don’t have. “Federal guidelines require that certain information be classified at certain levels,” one official complains. “If we need that information for an investigation, we can’t get it in a timely way. We need a system where the kind of federal data we need access to doesn’t require a federal level clearance.”
Even though issues like that remain to be hashed out, the new collaborative system that is emerging with fusion centers has begun to transform information stovepipes into intelligence pipelines.
ALL CRIMES, ALL HAZARDS
Originally set up to combat terrorism, some fusion centers such as Chicago’s Crime Prevention Information Center (CPIC) have expanded into providing intelligence for local law enforcement, with cameras and microphones set up to monitor crime ridden areas.
In Phoenix, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC) also deals with crime and terrorism. “We call our approach all-crimes,” says Lori Norris, Watch Center Commander with AcTIC. “That includes terrorism because there are numerous types of crimes that are associated with terrorism: money laundering, fraud, money being put toward the support of terrorist acts.” When an AcTIC analyst encounters intelligence about a local crime, he or she turns the materials over to the local police.
Some fusion centers have been set up to deal with all-crimes and all-hazards. In West Trenton, N.J., for example, the Regional Operations Intelligence Center (ROIC) houses the state’s Office of Emergency Management and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). It will serve as the command center for all state-led emergency response operations, including natural disasters, chemical or nuclear emergencies or terror alerts.
Securing FUSION CENTERS
Fusion centers are filled with sensitive and sometimes classified data. To ensure that unauthorized people do not gain access to that information, fusion centers are locked down tightly. Located near two Interstate highway exchanges in northwest Phoenix, the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (AcTIC) is surrounded by a masonry wall equipped with an electronic gate.
Officers come and go during the day by swiping a smart card through a reader. After hours, they use the card and a key code.
It was hard for the state and local officers to get used to the system, says Lori Norris, AcTIC’s Watch Center Commander. “While federal government people have used access control security measures for a long time, it is new to state and local people,” she says. “It was a culture shock to have to go through security and wear an access card around your neck.”