When President Bush appointed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to head the new Office of Homeland Security, he reinforced the fact that confronting national threats will require a coordinated effort involving not only federal agencies but state and local ones as well. The effort includes giving law enforcement agencies across the country the ability to quickly share information about terrorists and terrorist attacks.
Former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger emphasized that point recently when he told an Oct. 17 forum on national security that data integration among law enforcement agencies should be the top priority. "Law enforcement officers and intelligence agencies need to share information in real time to catch terrorists," he said.
The challenge lies in the fact that there are tens of thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and thousands more officers constantly on the move. So how do you give them access to real-time information about the FBI''s terrorist watch list or data from the National Crime Information Center? The obvious answer is wirelessly.
Aether Systems Inc. of Owings Mills, Md., recently launched its own Homeland Initiative, combining several of its existing wireless data services for public safety agencies with a focus on security and investigation. Its services already have been put to use by several of the federal agencies in Washington, D.C., that are involved in the terrorist investigations.
Charley Vlcek, Aether''s vice president of strategic projects, says the nation''s law enforcement agencies have a well-established information network, but until Sept. 11, "there has been no need to have national coordination in real time."
Vlcek says he recently sat in on a national conference of mayors. Two of their main security concerns were how the federal government was going to coordinate state and local activities with those of federal investigators and how they were going to share the data being gathered. Vlcek believes the national wireless data infrastructure already in place using such technologies as cellular digital packet data, Mobitex and DataTac can provide that link.
In the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Aether set up a system for federal investigative agencies in the nation''s capital that ran through a server already in use by the Lake County Sheriff''s Department in Tavares, Fla.
Ty Roden, computer services coordinator for the Lake County department, says the office already was using Aether''s PocketBlue and PacketCluster Patrol products. PocketBlue is a handheld application, while the Patrol product is for laptops in vehicles. Both can be used for intra-agency communications as well as to check databases from organizations such as the NCIC.
The sheriff''s office was eager to cooperate with the Washington, D.C., deployment, Roden says, and because Aether''s server was scalable, adding 90 to 100 more users was no problem. When the Sept. 11 situation occurred, Roden says, federal agents "needed to be mobile and get the information they needed without calling people. PocketBlue was perfect for that."
Federal agents in Washington, D.C., use Research In Motion Ltd.''s 950 and 957 handhelds on the Cingular Interactive network.
"We believe the FBI is working on digitizing and installing a terrorist-tracking database and making it part of NCIC," Vlcek says. "Every officer is familiar with NCIC, which they can access with PocketBlue and Packet Cluster Patrol."
Other Aether services that are part of the Homeland Initiative include StopTracker, which was developed to monitor racial profiling but can be used as a field interview and investigative application, and the new PocketRescue and its companion PacketCluster Rescue for fire agencies.
"The national mobile data infrastructure that exists today is an incredible asset," Vlcek says. "Very often it was [RIM] BlackBerry that was operational when cellular phones were overloaded. Today, wireless data is dependable."