The U.S. government is doing a decent job sharing information among federal agencies and international partners, but the relationship with private industry still needs work, according to a recent report to Congress.

The Program Manager Information Sharing Environment annual report for 2012 noted that
law enforcement inter agency groups are doing particularly well at sharing information. They’re doing so through the state and major urban area “fusion centers, the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative and the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group.”

The report said these groups are maturing and have extended their information sharing tentacles into many new communities since last year’s report was issued.

The information sharing report has been required by Congress ever since September 11, 2001, largely because information about the potential 9/11 terrorists existed in various place throughout government and the private sector, but was never shared with appropriate agencies. For example, some of the terrorists aroused suspicion when they took flying lessons but declined to learn how to land an aircraft. While that attitude raised red flags with flight instructors, that information basically went nowhere.

In the report, the ISE said that law enforcement agencies, particularly the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which coordinates efforts among, federal, state and local law enforcement, have made progress in sharing information. That, “coupled with the use of new technologies, such as facial recognition by frontline officers, are making the vision of eliminating administrative and jurisdictional obstacles to information sharing a reality.”

But private firms are still reticent to share information with the government, including firm that make or administer sensitive technological equipment used in anti-terrorism efforts. And the government is also reluctant to share critical details with industry.

“Private sector information sharing is lagging – particularly the communication of threat information from the government to the owners and operators of critical infrastructure, and the ability of the federal government to leverage the knowledge and analytic capabilities of these owners,” the report said.

The report, released this week, comes as Congress is trying to balance information sharing with stopping leaks of unauthorized information to outside entities. The cybersecurity bill — currently stalled in the Senate — was introduced in the wake of leaks of classified information to organizations like Wikileaks. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., co-authored the bill. It appeared to be dead in the wake of privacy concerns, but after modifying the bill to assuage those concerns, the bill is likely to pass the Senate at some point.

Collins and Lieberman, in a joint statement backing the bill, said the solution to leaks is not to go back to the pre-9/11 mindset when “agencies hoarded information.” They said that since reforms were implemented “we know that several major terrorist plots have been thwarted because federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies have successfully shared information with state and local law enforcement, as well as with our overseas allies.”
However, Collins and Lieberman said, that fact should not obscure the fact that unauthorized leaks have occurred. Their legislation is aimed at plugging those holes, while not impeding information sharing or needlessly invading privacy.

Lieberman said the bill gives federal agencies the specific authority to share information with the private sector, while protecting sensitive material. He said those protections would encourage more sharing with private firms. He said those authorizations would allow agencies and private industry to share information “without fear of liability.” He also said the bill’s provisions to create standards for information sharing and then to give business “the voluntary option to abide by those standards … are desperately needed now. The fact is they were needed yesterday. They were needed last year.”