White House tech officials race to build security system

LAS VEGAS -- As the top information technology officials in the Bush administration are racing to build an integrated computer system for the new Homeland Security Department by Jan. 24, they face some obstacles, a top administration official said on Thursday.

Lee Holcomb, the White House Office of Homeland Security's director of information infrastructure, told government tech executives that the administration is facing a huge challenge to integrate disparate databases and systems into one or two civilian and military networks. He also noted that his group recognizes the technical and legal concerns in melding the networks of the 22 agencies that will fall under the Homeland Security umbrella.

"There are a lot of disparate databases ... law enforcement, immigration, bio-medical ... and there are legal restrictions from sharing information between those databases," Holcomb said at a Government Emerging Technology Alliance conference here.

He noted that the cultural differences among agencies "won't go away overnight" and are likely to be another hurdle to full integration of the department.

Holcomb also outlined several principles guiding the administration as it is integrates the systems. He said the No. 1 goal is to balance the desire for privacy of individuals with the need for security. The administration immediately rejected the ideas of one giant "data warehouse" of information because of privacy concerns and of giving people chips to track their whereabouts.

"Over the last six months, we have seen 4,000 to 5,000 companies come visit us with ideas such as these," Holcomb said.

The IT staff also is working to integrate existing computer systems rather than recreating entirely new ones. The computer system should "collect information once and then re-use it;" and the quality of the database created by the department "must have trusted information," Holcomb said.

In the short-term, Holcomb said the administration has been "buying lines" and developing a single e-mail communications system for employees that he "hopes" will be running by Jan. 24. The fact that no one knows yet where the new department will be located is hindering that goal, he said. As a result, he said employees of the six major agencies merging into the department probably will have only a single e-mail system, and the remainder will come online by March.

Besides an e-mail system, Holcomb said the administration is working to create a secure videoconferencing system to connect state officials with the new department.

Further, the administration is working on creating a list of critical technologies for homeland security, such as data-mining equipment, authentication systems, biometrics devices, wireless services, and simulation and modeling technologies.