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Feds Update Terrorism Data Sharing Guidelines

National Counterterrorism Center gets more leeway to access and analyze data collected about possible terrorist activities.

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The federal organization chiefly responsible for analyzing, collecting, and disseminating data on terrorist activities now has more leeway to do so.

New guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) relax previous time restrictions on datasets with information about possible terrorist activities. They also set up a framework allowing the center to share information with other agencies.

For the latter, the NCTC will work with agencies to set a timeline for retaining individual datasets based on the type of data, the sensitivity of data, legal requirements that may apply to the data, and other relevant considerations, according to the guidelines, which were signed Thursday by director of national intelligence James Clapper, attorney general Eric Holder, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director Matthew Olsen.

The guidelines update a set issued in 2008, and were approved after careful review by their respective agencies and the greater U.S. intelligence community. While they don't give the NCTC new access to information per se, they make it easier for the center to find data about potential terrorist activities more quickly, officials said.

[ Cyberterrorism is a growing threat. See U.S. Military Readies Cyber 'Rules of Engagement.' ]

The guidelines came under revision after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to set off a bomb December 25, 2009, on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. During the subsequent investigation, officials identified NCTC limitations on the ability to query multiple federal datasets.

The suspect was later found to already be on the terrorist watchlist, something that might have been discovered before he boarded the plane if the feds had a better way to search across multiple sources of terrorist intelligence data, officials concluded.

"Following the failed terrorist attack in December 2009, representatives of the counterterrorism community concluded it is vital for NCTC to be provided with a variety of datasets from various agencies that contain terrorism information," Clapper said in a statement.

The NCTC also now has five years to analyze and examine datasets that contain information about people who are suspected of being engaged in terrorist activities. This will give them a better opportunity to create a long-term picture of possible threats, officials said. Previously, the center had 180 days to do so.

The federal government created the NCTC in 2004 to act as a central knowledge base for intelligence information about known terrorist groups, individual terrorists, and technical information on topics like biological and chemical threats.

In addition to giving the NCTC better access to data, the feds also have made other improvements to sharing terrorist information since the Christmas 2009 incident.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI worked together to automate how it receives data from the Terrorist Screening Database and created a Watchlist Service to consolidate and replace manual processes.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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