Canada's justice supercomputer plan hits snag

By JIM BRONSKILL
Canadian Press   Monday, April 19,2004

OTTAWA Canada's growing desire to share information with the United States in the fight against terrorism has complicated plans to build a national justice super computer.

An internal review obtained by The Canadian Press calls on federal officials to devise a strategy that will ensure the planned Canada Public Safety Information Network can communicate with systems in the United States and other countries.

"World events and new realities have brought international information-sharing to the forefront," says the mid-term review of the $420-million digital megaproject, launched in 1999.

"Originally intended as a national system, (the safety network's) technology must now consider the needs of the international community."

A copy of the report, completed last June, was released by the Public Safety Department under the Access to Information Act.

Technological headaches, a lack of continuing funding and privacy concerns are among the many obstacles to creating the ambitious "network of networks" that will link key justice databases, the review warns.

"It's complicated beyond belief," acknowledged Carrie Hunter, a deputy director general at Public Safety. "On the other hand, it's so important and will make such a difference."

Release of the findings comes just weeks after Auditor-General Sheila Fraser reported that federal agencies do not share some vital information, and not all of their systems can communicate with one another.

An initial version of the computerized safety information system will be used routinely by the RCMP, Correctional Services Canada, National Parole Board, Justice Department and Canada Border Services Agency. It is scheduled for completion next year.

The network will include criminal-record histories and scanned fingerprint images, among other data.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have prompted officials to look at expanding the system to include additional government agencies concerned with public safety, as well as consider the "ever-growing requirement" to exchange information with the United States, the review says.

Otherwise, "valuable information, such as ship registration and Canadian passport information might go unshared with agencies that could use it to better protect Canadians."

The complexity of establishing the justice super computer "should not be underestimated," the report stresses. It notes that fewer than 20 per cent of large computer-system developments are successful and, of these, only half are finished within the allotted budget.

A "lack of resources" at some agencies involved in the project has hampered progress, the review says. It urges senior officials to come up with a means of funding the network on a continuing basis.

Ms. Hunter said agencies are searching for a solution that won't break the bank. "If you want to just keep spending money on technology, you can, and we're not recommending that. We're recommending it be very strategic."

Federal research has found support among front-line justice workers for including such sensitive data as iris scans, travel destinations of individuals and information about current criminal probes on the digital network.

Given the protections afforded under privacy legislation and the Charter of Rights, the review recommends creating a new law governing information exchanges via the new system.