iGoogle, or something like it, could significantly improve border security

Guillermo Arias/AP photo

Retired Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen says Border Patrol agents must simplify the way they share information.

This story has been updated to clarify a number of points.

Southwest border authorities should be armed with iGoogle-like customizable home pages to exchange real-time intelligence -- just like the ones now mandated for Pentagon computers, says retired U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, the widely experienced emergency manager President Obama tapped in 2010 to lead the federal response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

A little-known provision in the 2012 Defense authorization bill requires the Defense Department’s chief information officer to make coding available for programmers to re-create and customize the National Security Agency-developed Ozone Widget Framework. Similar to an iGoogle personal home page that displays continuously updated news feeds, Gmail and other individually tailored information, the framework creates a Web portal that aggregates analytical tools pertinent to an official’s mission.

“If they can do it in the military it begs the question of why can’t they do this in places like the Southwest border,” said Allen, the former Coast Guard chief who postponed retirement to serve as national incident commander during the April 2010 BP disaster.

Now a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton, he pulled up his own iGoogle home page on a desktop in McLean, Va., to demonstrate the simplicity he says would offer authorities better intelligence on drug cartels, potential terrorists and other offenders who cross over from Mexico.

“If we don’t do this, we’re failing to take advantage of a strategic overmatch in computation and spectrum of bandwidth,” Allen said during an interview.

Today, Border Patrol agents must log on to many databases in different locations to track assailants. For example, data from license plate readers at border checkpoints is not being run against criminal databases to detect activities that the nation should be concerned about.

Still, modern information sharing has moved light years beyond the radio teletype -- “almost a version of the old stock ticker tape” -- that Allen used in the early 1970s after graduating from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Even in 1977, while assigned to drug smuggling cases at the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas, Allen and his colleagues compiled information using multiple machines. “Every workstation had four computers,” he said. The setup, however, helped engender trust, which is a critical part of effective information sharing in any generation, according to Allen. “Trust is an automatic byproduct of just trying to get together and get the job done. That is a working order not known in Washington, where everything is siloed,” he said. The exceptions include the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, an interagency program that works to dismantle major drug smuggling and money laundering operations, Allen said.

Today, in a world of e-democracy, that kind of trust must extend even further geographically. In 2007, Allen became the first military service chief to create a blog and regularly use social media to communicate with Coast Guard personnel and the public. “There won’t be a large, complex problem in government that won’t involve public participation,” he said. “Social media is part of the larger concept of public participation.”

On the two-year anniversary of the BP oil rig explosion, Allen recounted that, rather than let false rumors of containment or contamination go viral, he propped up a website and ensured BP’s live video streamed from the scene to counter misinformation. A joint information center tracked Tweets and other pertinent social media around-the-clock, as well. He said it is less painful to be transparent from the outset than, inevitably, forced by the online masses to disclose information later. “You can suffer, you can try to adapt or you can try to manage what’s going on,” Allen said. “It’s like the weather. It doesn’t matter whether you like it, whether it’s good or bad. It’s a permanent part of our lives.”

But packaging intelligence into widgets is an inherently slower process than releasing a Twitter app. Enabling myriad databases owned by multiple agencies to be searched through a touch-screen involves, among other things, changing the way agencies contract for software.

“We need to make it liquid,” akin to other valuable assets, Allen says of information. “We’re not going to be able to do this until we break down proprietary operating systems . . . Licensing is an impediment when you’re trying to share information.”