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Back to Archives | Back to June 2006 Contents 

N-DEx: The National Information Sharing Imperative

By Mark A. Marshall, Chief of Police, Smithfield, Virginia, and Chair, CRIMES/LInX, Hampton Roads, Virginia

nformation sharing has become a mission critical component of today's public safety mandate. A significant number of the law enforcement agencies in the United States use some type of computerized database to collect incident and investigative information in their respective jurisdictions. Moving this data across disparate systems and political boundaries into the hands of those who need to know has been and continues to be a significant challenge. Although the technology exists in many forms, the structure and process required to make it hap-pen has yielded limited results. As the 9/11 Commission Report poignantly stated, "The biggest impediment to connecting the dots is the human or systemic resistance to sharing information." A national program that addresses those deficiencies is vital. An ideal system would capture data from all participating law enforcement agencies regardless of size and convert it into actionable relevant information. This concept became the genesis of N-DEx, the National Data Exchange. This system, done right, has the potential to fulfill the promise.

Since September 11, 2001, numerous committees and commissions in the United States have studied the barriers to effective data sharing and information exchange. The scope of the problem makes solving it a daunting task. Naturally, there have been repeated calls for federal authorities to coordinate, develop, and implement a solution. Given the nature and context of policing in the United States, however, a federal top-down answer would not be effective. Local, tribal, and state law enforcement captures and retains the vast majority of data from which nuggets of information can be mined. Whether the crime is a local or regional crime spree or a more sinister plot that has international implications, the dots of data that need connecting most likely reside in various nonfederal.

Developing a national program on this scale requires a many-tiered approach that practices the art of inclusion with all of its partners. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and most particularly the FBI's CJIS Division are tasked with this assignment. To provide DOJ with a consensus statement about the project from nonfederal law enforcement, a nationwide position paper about N-DEx was developed and adopted by the IACP, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Sheriffs' Association, and the Major County Sheriffs Association in August 2005. This unified position expresses three central points:

Point 1: First, develop a statement of requirements for the N-DEx Program that is designed with local law enforcement input and use in mind. System requirements should be validated through a group of law enforcement practitioners, including representatives of the IACP, the MCC, the NSA, and the MCSA and coordinated by the FBI CJIS Advisory Policy Board (APB). Without an agreed upon and supported statement of requirements, the efforts of the FBI and DOJ will fail.

Point 2: Based on the agreed upon statement of requirements, prepare funding projections that reflect the anticipated costs for each phase of the project to include the development and implementation of N-DEx at all levels of law enforcement: local, tribal, regional, state, and federal.

Point 3: Based upon the statement of requirements and the funding projections, the FBI and DOJ should formalize a process through which they are able to effectively communicate a consistent message about the project's mission, goals, strategy, and status. Clearly documented roles and responsibilities of local, tribal, regional, state, and federal law enforcement partners, coupled with active participation throughout the project, will facilitate buy-in from all levels of justice and ensure a successful project. The IACP, the MCC, the NSA, and the MCSA, representing the leadership of the nation's law enforcement community, strongly believe that these issues are critical to the success of N-DEx or any information sharing project. If the FBI and DOJ also agree that these are critical issues that must be addressed before moving forward, we will work closely with the FBI and DOJ in the design and realistic testing of a coordinated information sharing project.

This document was adopted by the U.S. law enforcement organizations in August 2005. The CJIS Advisory Policy Board (APB), which had been tasked with sharing management of N-DEx with the FBI, agreed with the formula adopted by law enforcement. Most importantly, immediately after the position paper was published, the FBI CJIS Division's management also concurred with these points. Tom Bush, assistant director of the FBI, has stated that he considers the position paper to constitute "a contract" with the associations regarding the development of N-DEx. To help ensure the enculturization of the paper's principals, an N-DEx advisory panel representative of the law enforcement community and subject matter experts on information sharing was expanded to ensure a local and state design focus. These stakeholders and experts have been empanelled to develop the concept of operations (ConOps) that are guiding development and implementation of this national mission. The basic purpose of the N-DEx ConOps is to ensure that the project follows a "locally designed and nationally coordinated homeland security strategy."

At this writing, the concept of operations is being prepared. The goal is to provide clarity to N-DEx, defining its mission and goal statements, outlining how will it be implemented, and providing law enforcement managers with information on the benefits and relevancy of participation. This article borrows information and text from the draft ConOps to describe N-DEx and discuss the related issues. Additionally, given recent federal pro-gram budget cuts, it is essential that costs are identified and funding streams located for this project. Localities and states will be hard pressed to provide funding from their own budgets. A national program of this magnitude establishes a resource that enhances the safety of all citizens and it logically requires a federal funding stream. This article will define each of these issues and its status.

What Is N-DEx?
The vision of N-DEx is to share complete, accurate, timely, and useful information across jurisdictional boundaries and to provide new investigative tools that enhance the nation's ability to fight crime and terrorism. At its core, N-DEx allows law enforcement agencies to submit their incident data to a central repository where they are compared against the incidents that are already on file to identify linkages and similarities among persons, places, things, and activities. The incidents can then remain on file to be compared against all future incoming incidents. Submitting agencies will receive notice if linkages result from their submissions or from sub-sequent submissions by other agencies.

Local, tribal, and state law enforcement officers will be principal beneficiaries of this program. N-DEx will allow participating law enforcement agencies to detect relation-ships among people, places, things, and crime characteristics to link information across jurisdictions and allow officers to connect the dots between data that are not apparently related, without information overload. In addition, N-DEx will provide contact information and collaboration tools for agencies working on cases of mutual interest. N-DEx is not a statistical repository in which data is dumped into cyber-space. Relevance to the operations of local, tribal, and state law enforcement missions is a core function of the N-DEx program.

The Key Success Factor
All participants in the planning process agree that N-DEx is being built to support law enforcement investigations and that it is being built on the foundation of local law enforcement records systems. They also agree that ensuring that N-DEx meets the real-world needs of law enforcement is the key success factor for N-DEx and will continue to guide the program throughout its implementation and operation.

Not a Statistical Reporting System
The APB has indicated unequivocally, and the FBI agrees, that N-DEx is an information sharing system and is not to be used for crime statistics reporting. N-DEx will use the standardization provided by NIBRS data elements to describe portions of the incident data. The APB made the following things clear through approved motions:

  • N-DEx and the UCR/National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) are   separate systems.

  • Information submitted to N-DEx for information sharing will not be used to   derive or publish crime statistics.

  • An agency does not need to participate in NIBRS or change its current method of UCR summary reporting to participate in N-DEx.

  • Agencies that do participate in both NIBRS and N-DEx may submit their NIBRS data through N-DEx, if they so choose.

N-DEx is Not an Intelligence System
N-DEx is not an intelligence system and will not contain intelligence data. Logically, however, the N-DEx information and tools will provide value to the intelligence community and thus have intelligence value.

Ownership of Data
Each participating law enforcement agency that submits data to the program retains ownership and management control over its data. N-DEx will supply system controls to allow agencies to decide what data to share, as well as who can access it and under what circumstances. These controls will enable agencies to participate in accordance with the local applicable laws and policies governing the dissemination and privacy of their data.

Local Records Collection Practices Are Not Affected
N-DEx does not require that a police department or sheriff's office gather more information about an incident than it does currently. There is no minimum data set that must be submitted to N-DEx for participation. Although it is generally true that an agency will derive greater value from sub-mission of more complete data (statistically, more complete information results in a more complete analysis and comparison), each participating agency can choose what sub-set of data it wishes to share from their local records management system (RMS).

In addition, formats and methodologies for electronic submission are being designed so that N-DEx can provide a process by which agencies without an automated local RMS capability may participate and/or submit their data to the system. The principal design, however, is being constructed for electronic submission from local systems.

Leverages Existing Standards, Systems and Networks
Many police departments and sheriff's offices already partner in an existing trusted information sharing system at the local, state, or regional level. These systems already have governance models, procedures, and processes by which they are sharing information in their respective domains. Participation in N-DEx will complement and expand those capabilities, using a model of incident data aggregation that did not exist on a national scale. N-DEx will provide well-defined integration points that allow for inclusion of these already established groups and technologies into the broader N-DEx information sharing architecture. Leveraging these existing infrastructures can limit the demands upon local law enforcement agencies for multiple points of submission for their data. In summary, through a variety of options, N-DEx can link existing systems together while still serving agencies that desire to provide their data directly to N-DEx.

Incremental Deployment
The initial focus on N-DEx is to providing the basic and powerful capabilities associated with integrating disparate systems of incident and investigative data and providing tools for searching and sharing this law enforcement information. N-DEx will be designed to however to allow ser-vices, capabilities, and data sources beyond these basic police RMS data and analysis functions. N-DEx will be developed and deployed incrementally with additional capabilities, data sources, and uses implemented over time.

Only data classified as sensitive but unclassified (SBU) or below will be permitted in N-DEx.

Primary Benefits of N-DEx
N-DEx is scaled nationally by definition, but the system's greatest benefits could be realized regionally. Existing regional information sharing projects have proven the value of exchanging law enforcement data.

In the concept, planning, and design, N-DEx emphasizes the importance of connecting to existing regional systems for a variety of reasons. Foremost among these is the fact that regional systems already work and are relevant to the day-to-day operations of law enforcement agencies. Having these systems attached to a single point of interface is the simplest way to enhance the information capabilities of all participants. Streamlining a process makes sense when faced with constantly increasingly technology and resource complexities that usually equate to the need for more funding. These already built systems can now be connected to each other and to all the other agencies participating in N-DEx, retaining all of their current capabilities and obtaining significant additional capacity by linking to the expanded universe of data that will be present in N-DEx.

N-DEx immediately presents a brand new facility for any group of agencies in the country to create a virtual regional system. That is, the agencies in any geographic region can all connect to one other by virtue of their linking to N-DEx. This capability brings the proven value of regional law enforcement information sharing to every agency in the country. The standards, functions, services, and capabilities of each virtual system can be established by its user community. This capability should ensure that agencies get the information to those who need it the most, namely, investigators and other police officers.

Widespread participation in N-DEx will channel the myriad information streams up to the federal partners and fusion centers. It is essential that they have access to this database and are able to use its capabilities to fulfill their mission imperatives, particularly as they relate to terrorism. The flow of information is not a one-way tunnel, with local and state agencies as the only contributors. The Department of Justice has committed its agencies and in particular the FBI to the sharing of their sensitive, unclassified records. The cross-pollination of information will benefit all participants.

How Does N-DEx Fit into the Existing Law Enforcement Information Sharing Landscape?
As stated in the N-DEx position paper, numerous information-sharing efforts are under way throughout the country, pro-viding significant value to their respective participating agencies. Nationally, however, the void is obvious. Law enforcement executives need to know that connection and participation will be part of a universal strategy. N-DEx provides the potential of that well-coordinated effort.

These regional benefits will derive from the national N-DEx system located at the FBI CJIS Division. CJIS has a solid history of pro-viding these valuable coordination and correlation services. Through the APB process, the N-DEx system has already partner with the CJIS Division in their other national systems, most notably the following:

  • National Crime Information Center (NCIC)

  • Interstate Identification Index (III)

  • Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS)

  • Uniform Crime Reporting Program UCR and NIBRS)

  • National Sex Offender Registry

N-DEx will join this family of systems as well as form an integral part of the Department of Justice's "One DOJ" effort to provide a unified point of access to all information in the DOJ systems.

In the same tradition as the development of IAFIS, through collaborative efforts N-DEx will establish a set of standards and best practices that can be utilized for future procurements. Existing standards such as the GJXDM and the RMS standards adopted by the Law Enforcement Information Technology Standards Council will be incorporated in the development effort. Successful completion of N-DEx as one of the national CJIS systems can showcase a clear set of standards on the national landscape.

N-DEx Capabilities
The N-DEx capabilities are built upon an under-the-hood service that processes raw report data submitted from law enforcement agencies and analyzes it for relational characteristics and similarities against other submitted data. Specific functions that investigators can use include search, subscription, notification, visualization, analytical reporting, and collaboration.

Search: The search capability will be N-DEx's most prominent user-accessible capability. It will be designed to support the needs of a diverse user base with varied computer skill levels to locate, collate, and present information from throughout the system. N-DEx users will have the capability to search for specific entities (people, places, or things) by crime characteristics and key-word searches and to find records such as incident and arrest reports.

Users will be able to define the criteria of each search string. In addition, the N-DEx search capability will provide extensive sup-port for searching based on business rules and user-based relevancy where the results are tuned to a user-defined business need. This capability will use filtering and ranking of results to mitigate the problem of users receiving overwhelming amounts of data. Users will be able to define the geography of the search whether by adjacent jurisdictions, regions, states, or the entire database.

Subscription: The subscription capability will allow law enforcement investigators to register a search for future information about entities and subjects of interest. As information continually flows into the system, the relevance of previous searches that originally yielded few or no returns may change. Users will be able to establish subscriptions regarding existing entities in the system so that they will receive notices of any updates or changes to status on those entities that occur because of future submissions. Also, investigators will be able to register for notification of future events about entities, such as inquiries by other agencies. That will enable investigators to easily discover who else is looking for the same subjects or has interest in similar cases. This capability will provide a key foundation for supporting case deconfliction and will encourage case collaboration.

Notification: The notification capability will enable N-DEx to automatically deliver specific messages to specific users or groups of users. Under defined circumstances, N-DEx will generate notification or alert messages for delivery to a specific user, even if that user is not currently logged in to N-DEx. Take the following example:

  • Data are sent to N-DEx that match a subscription request previously   registered by the user.

  • The user is the point of contact (POC) on a record marked for restricted access, and another user's search request matches data contained in the record.

  • Automated processing will produce various messages based on correlations and applied business rules. Notification and alert messages will have an associated priority. Users can configure the manner in which specific types or priorities of notification messages should be generated. A user or group of users may determine which notification or alert messages they or their agency wish to receive. Possible means of delivering generated messages include a message displayed when user next logs on to N-DEx, an e-mail message, a page or text message (SMS), a message passed to user's local system, such as RMS, and instant messaging.

Visualization: The visualization capability will provide charting, graphing, and mapping tools to make it easier to understand and use the knowledge behind the vast amount of information in the system and to display the complex relationships that result from correlation, search and report functions. These tools will provide both tabular and graphical representations of data to allow navigation through relationships, trends, and timelines of crimes and activities as the user sees fit. These tools will also have the capability to overlay data on geographic maps with various views of the data.

Analysis and Reporting: The analytical and reporting capability gives administrators, analysts, and investigators the ability to generate reports from N-DEx data for analysis, distribution, and sharing. It will allow N-DEx to support law enforcement's investigative reporting needs from a central platform. Through this capability, N-DEx will generate online reports including graphical displays of data for use in predictive modeling, reporting, tracking, and trending of crime for operational purposes. This tool is for investigative uses only and will not be used for statistical crime reporting or publication. This tool could help an investigator in identify a hot spot of crime activity in a geographic region that war-rants further investigation. The investigator could then drill down into the underlying information forming the hot spot to deter-mine the relationships among the entities involved in that information.

Collaboration: Some of the underlying investigative information developed by the law enforcement community will exist out-side of N-DEx-in the agencies' case files, for instances, or knowledge held by investigators) and not included when the agencies generate data for submission to N-DEx. In these instances, N-DEx will provide users performing a search or other query with contact information where they can pursue details about the incident. This capability will be particularly important in the early stages of N-DEx implementation when data will not be as rich as it will be in later stages. N-DEx collaboration capabilities will allow users to electronically locate others working on similar cases, to dynamically create investigative teams, and to enable real-time collaboration and sharing of information, thereby leveraging the individual knowledge of police officers, analysts, and investigators.

Case Sensitivity Information
There will be occasions when the department will not want to share all data or certain cases in its RMS. Various privacy and case sensitivity considerations present a significant challenge to N-DEx planning and development. Presently, the following levels of access strategy is being considered to address these concerns using three tiers of accessibility.

Full Access (Green): If the owner of a data record (such as an incident or arrest report) has designated the record to be fully shared, then all N-DEx users with the appropriate access authority will have access to the full record and all data elements within the record.

Pointer-Based Access (Yellow): If the data owner decides that access to a specific record, or specific data elements within the record, should be restricted except under certain circumstances, then the data owner can designate the record accordingly using pointer-based sharing. With pointer-based sharing, any user who gets a hit on a record with this designation will be provided with information on the designated record owner's information (that is, the point of contact for the record) only. This enables the data requestor to contact the record to ask why the hit occurred and whether the underlying data is shareable. If shareable, N-DEx provides mechanisms so that the data owner can make that information accessible to a specific user or group of users as applicable.

Restricted Access (Red): There will be circumstances where a data record or a part of the record is so highly sensitive that the data owner completely restricts not only access to the record but also any references to it, except perhaps to a selected user or user group. The value of having that record in N-DEx is that the data owner can benefit from correlations made with other N-DEx records without compromising the owner's sensitive information. With restricted access, any hits against the restricted record will be reported to the owner of the record, while the owner of the other record that it hit against will have no knowledge of the correlation. The owner of the restricted record may then contact the inquiring agency, as appropriate.

This three-tiered strategy has the potential to provide the agencies with effective protected ownership of the record, but it may increase the cost of N-DEx participation, since existing records management systems generally do not have the capability to designate certain records or data elements as yellow or red. The N-DEx development team has recommended that the vendor be required to provide a system capability that allows submitting agencies to create rules to be applied against their data to classify their data with criteria-based access level designations. This capability concept could reduce the cost of the levels-of-access approach, especially in the early stages of system implementation.

A Work in Progress
A national program of this magnitude entails significant start-up costs and a need for ongoing funding. N-DEx establishes a resource that enhances the safety of all citizens; as such it logically deserves and requires federal funding. While sizeable commitments have been made by DOJ through the FBI, a full model of costs is still pending. As with other systems, such as NCIC, the Interstate Identification Index, and IAFIS, the FBI will assume all costs for the repository and corresponding analytical overlays. Getting to the repository remains a problem: the costs of connection to and exportation from N-DEx will require additional funding streams. Minimizing or better yet eliminating costs associated with N-DEx connectivity will be necessary to encourage a meaningful level of program participation. The system is being designed to minimize costs to local agencies by establishing standards and best practices that are repeatable from agency to agency. In addition, the N-DEx request for proposal will require the vendors to propose the most economical and practical means possible for submitting, updating and sharing data between local (or regional) systems to N-DEx. In the final analysis, a strategy, a mission, and a public safety mandate require a national solution. FBI and DOJ executives have pledged to work on national funding strategies that will support N-DEx participation by law enforcement agencies.

Ensuring privacy compliance is essential but complex, as there are thousands of affected law enforcement jurisdictions, each with applicable privacy laws, policies, and information-gathering protocols. The maintenance and exchange of shareable information must comply with all applicable privacy standards and legal requirements. Agencies must ensure and be assured that contributing information does not violate their standards, jeopardize their personnel, or adversely affect their missions.

A portion of the N-DEx privacy solution involves the successful implementation of features such as the levels of sensitivity described earlier. The elimination of intelligence data from N-DEx also removes some significant privacy issues. Early discussions have focused on the fact that information destined for N-DEx already exists in local systems, and that N-DEx will actually pro-vide a more formalized means for this data to be shared, with clear dissemination audit trails. An ongoing commitment to a high level of service in terms of privacy will help address the concerns of the privacy community. The FBI N-DEx team is creating a task force of privacy advocates to meet during the second quarter of 2006. Further, a federal privacy impact assessment is being prepared and will be published in the Federal Register as a standard for all federal systems of record.

Ultimately, local voluntary participation is central to the success of N-DEx, and that participation hinges on identifying and implementing appropriate privacy and funding solutions. All principals in the N-DEx project are working toward these goals.

A National System for Local Information Sharing
The development of N-DEx provides the opportunity to create a nationally coordinated law enforcement information sharing system to fill a critical gap in the ability to provide public safety and homeland security services in the post-September 11 world. DOJ and the FBI understand that a bottom-up model is required to pursue this worthy goal. The users must be equal partners throughout the continued development and implementation of this program. FBI executives and the N-DEx Project Management Office have committed to this partnership. This is not a question about technology. The technology is already here; it is incorporated into our daily lives. Instead, it is a matter of commitment and a realization that those with public safety and homeland security responsibility have an obligation to see the N-DEx mission accomplished with a sense of purpose and urgency. ■




From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 6, June 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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