FBI releases details of expansive data-sharing program

The FBI released details this week about a little-known information-sharing initiative known as N-DEx, or the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange, which lets agents search and analyze crime data on a secure Web site to help connect the dots between people, places and events.

The disclosure, released late Monday, precedes FBI Director Robert Mueller's scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

When fully operational in 2010, N-DEx will let investigators conduct nationwide criminal searches by "modus operandi" and for clothing, tattoos, associates, cars and other identifying factors from a single access point. The software will identify criminal activity hotspots and crime trends; offer virtualization and mapping; and conduct threat level assessments of individuals and addresses, the agency said in a briefing document.

The first phase of the project was made available last month by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division to a limited number of agencies.

Division Assistant Director Tom Bush told CongressDaily that N-DEx has been populated with data by officers in Delaware, Nebraska and Oregon as well as the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons and "many more are standing by" as the rollout continues. Some lawmakers have been briefed, as have privacy advocates, he said. About $26 million was requested for N-DEx in fiscal 2008 and the project needs about $38 million for both fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010, Bush said.

Mueller testified before the House and Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittees earlier this month but did not mention the initiative by name as he described the FBI's $7.1 billion fiscal 2009 budget request, which includes $434 million for Bush's division, whose campus is located near Clarksburg, W.Va.

Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Tuesday she has worked to boost funding for N-DEx and other programs, despite the Bush administration's antiterrorism focus and cuts to domestic law enforcement. "I will continue to fight for programs like this, which give law enforcement agencies the important tools they need to fight violent crime," she said.

On an operational level, N-DEx will compete with other systems like CopLink, which was born out of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Arizona, and the U.S. Navy's LiNX program, Center for Democracy and Technology Vice President Jim Dempsey said. Those efforts are "growing organically," while the FBI is trying to achieve a national system with a "big bang," he said. The end result is the allotment of substantial resources to multiple, overlapping efforts, Dempsey added.

According to the FBI, privacy and civil liberties safeguards are built into N-DEx and access to data will be controlled by the agency who "owns" the information. Each agency decides what to share and with whom and only a small number of users in each agency will have access to the program. The FBI has also pledged to keep N-DEx free of intelligence and commercial data, said Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology & Liberty Program.

Since all of the information in N-DEx is already in the hands of law enforcement or the judicial system, aggregating that data is a significant step that will create a powerful high-tech clearinghouse, he said. It is also certain to contain inaccurate or incomplete information and might be an attractive target for legal and illegal access, said Calabrese.

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