Could Data Governance Help the War on Terror?

January 6, 2010
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In which Jill wags her finger at the silos—ours, theirs, and yours.

Obama_image_AP_GeraldHerbert
“Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.”
— President Barack Obama

President Obama addressed the Christmas day terror attempt in his White House briefing this afternoon. He acknowledged that the U.S. government had botched terrorist tracking and that the system had failed. He admitted that each agency took responsibility for its own stuff. He also confessed that there was a lack of information sharing, that various government agencies had failed to pull it together. The subtext was that current practices and the best of intentions aren’t enough when it comes to the war on terror.

Obama sounds like a lot of corporate executives I’ve met. They admit that the individual departments are working hard and may be meeting their individual goals. But then something stupid happens…

In which Jill wags her finger at the silos—ours, theirs, and yours.

Obama_image_AP_GeraldHerbert
“Our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.”
— President Barack Obama

President Obama addressed the Christmas day terror attempt in his White House briefing this afternoon. He acknowledged that the U.S. government had botched terrorist tracking and that the system had failed. He admitted that each agency took responsibility for its own stuff. He also confessed that there was a lack of information sharing, that various government agencies had failed to pull it together. The subtext was that current practices and the best of intentions aren’t enough when it comes to the war on terror.

Obama sounds like a lot of corporate executives I’ve met. They admit that the individual departments are working hard and may be meeting their individual goals. But then something stupid happens. The company loses its largest account or a competitor beats them to the punch on a new product. The hard fact emerges that the company could have used its information better. And that siloed organizations beget siloed data.

The alleged terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, had been in Nigeria, Yemen, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands before flying to the U.S. Each of these governments had a slice of information about him. The UK had enough information to put him on a watch list. But the information was never integrated into a rich enough profile of Abdul Mutallab for the FBI to mark him as a person of interest. As Informatica marketing vice president Chris Boorman wrote in his excellent blog post, this would have been an apt use of identity resolution software. Various government agencies could have matched partial information to form a holistic view of Abdul Mutallab, one that could have been shared, thus pinpointing him as a suspect. With the right collaboration, this could happen at both federal and international levels.

There are over a million names on the U.S. terrorist watch list, and in fact the intelligence community had information that an attack on the U.S. might be imminent. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that since apprehending Abdul Mutallab, they had gleaned “usable, actionable intelligence” from him. Given their track record, you can’t help but wonder how American intelligence agencies will use this information. 

“It is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged,” Obama conceded. “That’s not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it.” As much as you believe him, you’ve got to wonder what he intends to do. Sure, he inherited a bunch of crap, but it’s crap we hired, er, elected him to fix.

The conversation in the press has been the same conversation that occurs in corporate conference rooms across the world after a major screw-up: “Who did the oversight?” and “Who should get fired?” “Growing questions about if and when heads will roll!” trumpeted CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. In a crisis, attention seems to shift to the people issues.

Instead, the government should be addressing process issues. Indeed, the real conversation should be how to move forward. These questions should be asked now: “How should we bring identifying data together? What are the key sources? How should integration, access, and usage policies be formulated? What would a sustainable process look like?” Those questions aren’t “who” questions, they’re “how” questions, and they should be front-and-center in the national security conversation.

Maybe they should also be part of your next conversation with executives or business users? The Christmas day terror attempt is one of many, many examples that the opportunity cost of not having data governance could be high, and the consequences nothing short of catastrophic.
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