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Making Connections

GTEC Week, an annual gathering of public sector information technology (IT) professionals, brings forth leading expertise and technology solutions for all levels of government — including the defence sector.

Held during the first week of October, GTEC (which originally stood for Government Technology Exhibition) includes a week-long exhibition, an awards gala and a three-day Professional Development Forum, featuring seminars on a variety of topics. The event attracts IT authorities from around the world. With the theme, “Leading the Way — The Future of IT in Government”, the event is expected to draw 7,500 attendees to Ottawa this fall.

A Growing Audience
Executive Director Eric Davies says that the 13-year-old event has become a can’t-miss conference for IT professionals in all areas of the public sector.
“It’s one of the largest IT events in Canada,” Davies says. “It is strictly geared to government. There is a cross-section of presentations from federal, provincial, municipal and international (speakers).”
While Davies points out Canada’s impressive e-government track record, the conference also features international issues, including highlights of the state of IT in a particular country. Previous showcase nations included Australia and Finland. This year’s conference focuses on Norway, after a significant delegation from there made its way to a previous GTEC event.
“They have very similar challenges to what we do,” Davies says of Norway. “They’re a northern country, their climate is very similar to ours. It will be very interesting to hear what they’ve got to say.”
GTEC Week also intends to present Canada’s own progress in terms of IT and e-government.
“For the fifth year in a row, we (Canada) have headed the pack of all countries, so we should take a pat on the back for that,” Davies explains.
Several seminar topics — for which organizers received nearly 200 abstracts this year — apply specifically to Canada’s military and defence sectors. According to Davies, IT-related interest in these sectors continues to grow, as evidenced by the emergence of a security track at the conference.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away,” he adds, pointing to global interest in security. “You just have to look at what happened in London recently. I think governments worldwide really have to pay attention to it.”

Rebuilding With IT
An example of the military themed topics at the GTEC conference can be found in a seminar hosted by Antonio Carvalho, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland (College Park, MD) and associate director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.
Carvalho’s seminar, “Rebuilding War-torn Countries: The ICT Connection”, focuses on the importance of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the revitalization of nations that have been battered by war and civil unrest, such as Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Macedonia, Afghanistan, East Timor and Iraq.
“I will talk about the issue and show real case studies, (as well as) the work of CIDA, Canadian peacekeepers, and the impact of technology in those places,” says Carvalho.
Carvalho says that the biggest challenges facing countries torn apart by armed conflict include reconstruction, tolerance, war crimes, and the reorganization of government structures and services.
“Communications are essential to prevent remission of conflicts (and) for the efforts of decentralization,” he explains, noting that centralization of power is often one of the major causes of the original conflict. Carvalho suggests that restoring ICT “improves people’s lives, support business (and promotes) better governance.”
Carvalho, former chief information officer for the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, notes that communications firms are among the first non-government organizations to re-enter post-conflict countries. In his visits to Sierra Leone, Carvalho has seen first-hand the emergence of ICT in otherwise rugged conditions.
“There were no lights inside on, to save electricity that comes from a generator, but the computers were on,” he says of an Internet café in Bo, an otherwise poor neighbourhood in the war ravaged nation.
Carvalho, who has spoken at the GTEC conference twice before, has nothing but good things to say about the event — and its host country.
“I consider GTEC one of the best e-government conferences in the world,” he says. “This year, I would like to contribute by bringing attention to war-torn countries, and highlighting the outstanding work done by donor countries and multi-lateral organizations, Canada in particular.”

Sharing for Security
While the impact of e-government and IT on a global scale is important, other GTEC seminar topics address its relevance within Canada’s borders. It is those borders, in fact, that the Marine Information Data Exchange Project (MIMDEX) is trying to protect.

Alain Perry, Deputy Project Manager for MIMDEX, will profile this undertaking at a seminar entitled “Meeting the Terrorist Threat: The Marine Information Data Exchange Project”.
Perry says the genesis of the project arose out of concerns about marine security. In 2002, the Interdepartmental Marine Security Working Group, which involved representatives from several government departments, was faced with a problem.
“They were challenged to look at different ways to better coordinate activities, policy and information sharing between the various departments, to help mitigate a marine security incident,” he says. “It was determined that in fact there is a lot of information that should be able to be shared.”
MIMDEX, in part, tries to apply the lessons of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in an effort to prevent future security breaches.
“If you look at the 9/11 situation, it was a question of just putting two and two together, quite literally,” Perry says. “It was just a lack of the ability to not even share information, but share that there were other individuals looking for out for common information sources.
“That is really what MIMDEX does,” he continues. “It allows (people) to share information that we already collect, and allows us to flag interests in vessels and in special locations of interest on the coasts.”
A major goal for the MIMDEX team is to improve upon sharing systems that are currently in place — in effect, taking full advantage of the information available and getting it out to all interested parties.
“There was sharing of information, but it was done in a rather ad hoc way,” Perry says of the pre-MIMDEX days. “We had access to that data, but it wasn’t done in a cohesive way. What MIMDEX is all about is to be able to do what we’ve been doing, but more efficiently and effectively.”
Of course, Canada is only one half of the border security equation. Though Perry regards integration and cooperation with U.S. authorities as important, MIMDEX remains focused on Canada for the time being.
“Collectively, MIMDEX has no current mandate to share with the U.S., although that is being investigated and may change in the future,” he says. “It would be subject to, of course, the ability to share that information and other constraints.”
Perry points to issues such as the upcoming renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act as a potential stumbling block towards fully integrating MIMDEX with the U.S.
“That’s a hot topic of discussion — there are sensitivities revolving around that,” he says. “I don’t think we’re there yet. website uptime I think we may be looking at that, but that’s going to be as part of a larger look, not just for MIMDEX, but other larger initiatives.”
Perry says MIMDEX should reach initial operating capability by March 2007, when it could be used on a day-to-day basis, drawing on about 70 per cent of the information systems that will eventually be employed. These complete capabilities are expected to be in place by March 2008.
That may seem like a long time to wait, but Perry insists that the complexity demanded by MIMDEX requires a realistic timeline.
“I think people often underestimate the effort it takes to coordinate amongst (so many) departments,” Perry says, noting that up to seven departments were involved at one point — not to mention all the ancillary departments involved, such as the Privy Council Office, the Treasury Board, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Public Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“The amount of activity to coordinate is significant,” he adds. “I think that’s one of the lessons learned.”

One Step at a Time
This lesson is not lost on Dr. Steve Zeber, whose seminar, “Working Towards a Security Solution for an Integrated Defence Network”, also deals with a complex, defence-based IT project. The project deals with accessibility of information to multiple users with varying security clearances.
“When you have a particular user that belongs to more than one community and he has to have accounts on the different networks, there are problems when this user needs to see information from two different communities at the same time,” Zeber explains.
Those two communities are typically Canadian and American, with users running into difficulties when they seek information that is nationally sensitive.
“At the moment, there is a separate network for the ‘Canadian eyes only’ information,” Zeber says. “(The) user would have to go to that separate network to look at that information, then go back to what he’s doing. What the military would like, at this point, would be to have this user on this Canada-U.S. network to be able to see this ‘Canadian eyes only’ information, but still keep it isolated and protected from other users on the network who wouldn’t be entitled to see it.”
Currently, that is easier said than done. The first step towards this goal, according to Zeber, was to create a security architecture — a system of security functions and services that would assign certain access and capabilities to users based on a set of pre-determined parameters.
“You have to have things like authentication, which means that when the user is on the system, there is some kind of trusted authentication — some link between the user and their identity in the system that we actually believe in,” Zeber explains. “When the user asks to see some information, you then have to make an evaluation-based (decision). There’s an engine in the system somewhere that includes this decision function.”
The technology needed to further a project like this is still relatively immature, largely because private companies do not see a widespread demand for this kind of sophisticated approach. Consequently, the military sector has no choice but to maximize its security, given the sensitivity and importance of its information. Any solution that can address the extreme challenges faced by DND, therefore, should be applicable government-wide.
“It’s a complicated problem, but what we’ve been doing is just working on it on a sort of a step-wise fashion,” says Zeber, adding that industry partners were still being sought to accelerate the development of such a solution. This search led to Addison, Tex.-based Entrust Inc., whose products were already a staple in Canadian e-government. The company’s vice-president of technology, Chris Voice, will be co-presenting with Zeber at GTEC.
“The Government of Canada already has committed to using Entrust for their authentication and encryption technology, so we said ‘let’s see what we can leverage’,” Zeber says. “We wound up using just about every product they make. By integrating that into an overall system, we were actually able to demonstrate this capability.”
Zeber, who plans to extend this demonstration to the GTEC conference, says there is still a capability gap between what the military needs and what the system is currently able to offer.
“The problem is, from a military point of view, it is not very solid,” Zeber says, emphasizing that the project is the first of its kind. “There are a lot of pieces (that are) not trusted or not secure. Even though all of the individual technologies have been there and people have been studying and evaluating them individually, nobody seems to have actually built the entire system together the way we have.”
In fact, he credits the project’s success to avoiding this daunting task of assembling a global system. “We took a really simple approach and said ‘Let’s just try and solve one small piece of it’.”

 

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