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INTRO: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was in Las Vegas yesterday to announce multiple efforts to increase coordination among agencies regarding terrorism. One component is expanding a computer-based counter terrorism communications network to all 50 states. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: The Joint Regional Information Exchange System already acts as a clearing house for law enforcement records in Washington, New York, California and here in Las Vegas. Yesterday, homeland security secretary Tom Ridge announced that the abilities of the system will be expanded to include other criminal databases, creating a new Homeland Security Information Network.
RIDGE: Now if you could please throw the switch . . . there you go . . . looks good . . . give a computer to the governor . . .
PLASKON: He handed Governor Kenny Guinn a symbolic laptop computer.
RIDGE: Governor this is for you . . .
GUINN: Thank you . . . it's special.
PLASKON: He said Clark County and Carson city will be added to have access to the system along with another 50 major urban areas around the US by fall. With it, local law enforcement will input data and officials at a national 24-hour operations center can search it, build timelines, review media analysis, maps and eventually secret information all in the name of counter terrorism. They'll be looking for patterns in local communities Ridge says.
RIDGE: There is a certain rhythm, the policemen on the beat the firemen on the ground making their rounds, the emergency services, they notice when things are a little different. Now we will have a national information picture that will be painted for us on a day-to-day basis."
PLASKON: He called the expansion of this system to all 50 states an unprecedented and robust intelligence gathering and information-sharing network that will foster cooperation across all levels of government and the private sector.
RIDGE: By years end it is our goal to be able to provide classified information up to the secret level and provide training for sensitive information training and analysis."
PLASKON: Sheriff Bill Young explains what it was like before Southern Nevada had access to it.
YOUNG: And that is where it is confusing to local law enforcement is that we get lots of information from the FBI and the more we collate, the more we are better off"
PLASKON: While officials expect counter terrorism efforts will be enhanced by the system, there are also some risks. Gary Peck of the American Civil Liberties Union didn't know what the government would be putting in the system.
PECK: Whenever the government is creating and maintaining large databanks filled with a lot of information about people and their activities there is potential for abuse so it is important that the public be vigalent about what the public is doing in these regards.
PLASKON: A brief look of a screen provided to reporters showed dozens of officer requests for more information on suspicious persons at McCarren International Airport for instance. Ridge said that the information will have multiple uses, such as quickly determining when an event is not terror related. Whatever secret and non-secret information ends up in the system about people, Ridge says the department will try to restrict who uses it, for instance with different levels of access.
RIDGE: It will take us a little longer to put up the firewalls to make sure that secret information is only available and even within that network it won't necessarily be available to everybody."
PLASKON: John Harrison Assistant Professor of Computer Science at UNLV says it's hard to totally protect systems like these.
HARRISON: you can certainly block out the majority, but it is not that easy to block out the more sophisticated or an attacker with the financial wherewithal."
PLASKON: The Captain of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Homeland Security Department who's been using the system admits people will get in who aren't supposed to, but the department can also see who's logged on. The department of homeland security says only counter-terrorism certified agencies will have access. That means 1-thousand people around the nation have access to the records of Southern Nevada - by the end of the year it'll be 5-thousand people.
Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR