Time to Get on the ‘GovBus’

I make my debut as a contributor to the Wall Street Journal editorial pages

Aly Sabra Galal Abdell can be forgiven for having assumed that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is a joke. After all, the INS did issue visas to two dead terrorists, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, nearly six months after they perpetrated the Sept. 11 attack. But on April Fool’s Day, Mr. Abdell, an Egyptian national, learned that the joke was on him — he was arrested at Miami International Airport, with box-cutters in his carry-on bag. A quick computer check revealed that he had been deported from the U.S. in January.

That’s exactly how our immigration control systems are supposed to work — but seldom do. After the cases of Atta and al-Shehhi were publicized, President Bush moved to overhaul the INS. But merely changing lines of authority won’t be enough. We need to fix the underlying technological problem.

The heart of the problem is that the INS and other agencies — including the Internal Revenue Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — lack the ability to share information easily with each other. After Sept. 11, the INS’s computers just kept chugging along, blithely impervious to current events, because it was no longer an INS matter. The terrorists, after all, were already in the country. As a result, no red flags were raised when visa letters were mailed out to their Florida addresses.

The government’s current situation is reminiscent of that faced by the private sector in the early 1990s, when a multitude of incompatible operating systems and software created a virtual Babel in the world of information technology. Open standards to exchange data solved business’s IT quandary, and they can do the same for the government. We need a “GovBus”: “Bus” is what geeks call the “Infobus” inside a computer, and “Gov” is Internet shorthand for government.

Think of a GovBus as a passport that allows government agencies to cross each other’s frontiers without having to slow down going through customs. Essentially, it is a highly secure and encrypted Internet that binds together all government agencies using a layer of specialized software called middleware.

At the heart of this strategy is better utilization of data that are already available to the government. Every year, the government spends billions on technology, mostly to maintain and upgrade the complex IT infrastructure that is its backbone. Various agencies such as the INS, the IRS, the Census Bureau and law enforcement outfits collect enough information to fill the Library of Congress many times over.

This information is stored in gigantic databases, which exist like silos in individual departments. This information, with few exceptions, is rarely shared, and access to it is a jealously guarded prerogative. Keeping a tight lid on this information can be squarely blamed on the powerplay strategies that are part of any bureaucracy. Using proprietary software and systems, key government officials and agencies can flex their imaginary muscles at any time. Perhaps that explains why something akin to GovBus is not in place.

Periodically, the information that has been gathered is processed and conclusions are formed. For instance, the Federal Reserve constantly gathers information about the economy, but it takes a few months to figure out whether a recession is coming or inflation is rising. This method of analyzing data is called batch-mode computing. It became popular after World War II when corporations first started adopting computers.

An exact opposite to this approach is event-driven computing. Here, a company’s information technology infrastructure and business processes are monitored around the clock, and — based on certain rules and policies — alerts go out to the managers informing them of changes in inventory, supplies and customer demand.

Now imagine a world where all data collected by our government was interlinked using a highly encrypted Internet. In such a scenario, a simple search against Atta’s name would have pulled visa application forms and photographs, retrieved newspaper headlines, and alerted the INS to his terrorist connections by accessing an Interpol or FBI database. Even in its most basic form, it might have alerted a minor functionary in the INS not to send out visa approval.

Many American corporations are adopting event-driven computing and GovBus-type infrastructure to become more efficient. A key proponent is Vivek Ranadive, CEO and founder of Palo Alto-based Tibco Software. He believes that technology to develop a GovBus is available, and affirms that it can be programmed in a way that handles different types of computers and networks without causing breakdowns, and does not prevent particular departments from retaining legitimate control over their information banks. For example, the FBI and CIA can be assured that their sources and information will not be available to every clerk — it will simply be used to wave red flags in doubtful cases.

So what’s the excuse for not having a GovBus? Some might argue that to do so would jeopardize national security, creating a backdoor through which our enemies could hack our most vital secrets. The response would be that these vital secrets already exist on computer mainframes protected by elaborate security and some of the best computer minds in the world, but which, being man-made, are not incapable of being breached.

Imagine a major corporation today, with offices across the country, that fails to allow its key personnel access to a central database where they could share and update information. Sounds anachronistic? Downright laughable? Of course. The smarter, more technology-savvy competition would crush such a company in no time. Since taking office, President Bush has been a champion of bringing the efficiencies of the marketplace to government. Here is one clear example where such efficiencies would not only help make the government work smarter, it would also help the country be safer.

Mr. Malik is a senior writer at Red Herring.

Updated April 3, 2002