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Software // Information Management

Capitol Anxiety

Washington, the hub of public enterprise, is riding through an anxious period of change.

Washington is not a sleepy town. Even in the wee hours, squad cars sit under expressway overpasses, their rooftops lit by flashing blue lights calibrated to pierce the dark night. The maximum speed for the special expressway to and from Washington Dulles International Airport is set at 55 mph; squad cars patrolling the median quickly disabuse you of the natural temptation to step it up 20 or 30 mph faster. Under constant observation, even cabbies sit up straight and pay attention to the speedometer the whole way.

The edginess intensifies once you cross the Potomac. Here and there, D.C. streets are blocked off, albeit some due to construction. Surveillance cameras and other sensors seem to be budding everywhere, well ahead of the famous cherry trees when I passed through town during the first week of March. The monuments and grand buildings of the Capitol Mall remain majestic, but you get the feeling that this is not the time to pause and take in the wonder. The air veritably buzzes with watchful concentration.

While I was in town to participate in the Ninth Annual Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) conference, President George W. Bush commemorated the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) first anniversary. Reporting on the birthday of this massive effort to reorganize existing agencies full of employees and integrate their IT systems and investment around a unified strategic objective, most press sources also noted the results of an internal Justice Department investigation. "Continuing delays in the integration of FBI fingerprint files with U. S. Border Patrol databases were leaving the country vulnerable to terrorists," Dow Jones Newswires reported (March 2, 2004). "Inspector General Glenn Fine said the latest projections are that the two systems won't be combined and automated to check every illegal alien until at least 2008."

Information Crunch

News about Homeland Security's travails fell together with stories about whether to renew the controversial PATRIOT Act, which Congress enacted not long after September 11, 2001. It is due to expire in 2005. Led by the Bush Administration, Congress has added provisions to the Act, most recently in December 2003 with the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004. By significantly expanding the definition of a "financial institution," observed Fox News Channel Judicial Analyst Andrew P. Napolitano in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal ("Repeal the PATRIOT Act," March 5, 2004), "the Justice Department can learn where you traveled, what you spent, what you ate, what you paid to finance your car and your house, what you confided to your lawyer and insurance and real estate agents, and what periodicals you read without having to demonstrate any evidence or even suspicion of criminal activity on your part."

I'll leave discussion of the important Constitutional issues raised by the PATRIOT Act to more knowledgeable people, debating in other media — and hopefully giving an informed, reasoned discussion that will set the tone for the 2004 political season. After all, essential rights of citizens are at stake, as is security in a global village connected by digital networks. Ah, I guess I shouldn't hold my breath.

What we do know, in our sphere of applications that leverage information for strategic advantage, is that both DHS activity and the PATRIOT Act ultimately boil down to incredibly complex, data-intensive demands that count on high availability, real-time operations, and superb data quality and integration. The latest and greatest in software, hardware, networks, and storage are quietly being thrown at these intense challenges, supported by our collective deep pockets and layers of (competing) executive champions. Perhaps it was all energy devoted to multiterabyte number crunching that kept lights noticeably low in the big buildings after dark.

Offshore Politics

Will the government have the capacity to develop critical new stuff, all the while maintaining decades of legacy systems and the processes supported by them? The tempting answer to such a conundrum in the private enterprise world is, of course, outsourcing, and especially "offshoring." There's no bigger political football being tossed about by politicians and media commentators in this election year than the movement of major customer service, support, and IT operations to India, China, Eastern Europe, and other locales outside of the United States.

Congressional debate about the USA Jobs Protection Act, Defending American Jobs Act, and other proposed actions will cut in partisan directions during this election year. Corporations are watching other lawmaker moves, including adjusting tax codes to reduce offshoring advantages and establishing limits to federal money going to companies that move jobs out of the country. Beyond politicians calling them "Benedict Arnolds," business leaders also have to contend with media personalities such as CNN's Lou Dobbs, the normally mainstream business commentator who has turned the issue into a nonstop crusade. "Old admirers are aghast," writes The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger (March 5, 2004). "It's as if whatever made Linda Blair's head spin around in 'The Exorcist' had invaded the body of Lou Dobbs and left him with the brain of Dennis Kucinich."

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