Homeland Security Filing: Secret Service IT Systems "Prone To Failures"

Given that global cyberthief rings tend to be well-financed and use the latest in technology, it's critical that the lead federal law enforcement agency responsible for chasing them—the U.S. Secret Service—be at least as well equipped. Indeed, its Web site reports that the Secret Service "uses the latest in high-tech equipment to deter, detect and respond to criminal threats." Unfortunately, when the Secret Service went seeking technology help from the vendor community, it told a very different tale.

"Currently, 42 mission-oriented applications run on a 1980s IBM mainframe with a 68 percent performance reliability rating. Networks, data systems, applications and IT security do not meet current operational requirements," said an Oct. 16, 2009, Secret Service contracting memo, according to an ABCNews.com report. "The IT systems lack appropriate bandwidth to run multiple applications to effectively support USSS (U.S. Secret Service) offices and operational missions around the world."

The Secret Service's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, in its budget justification for this year, also told of inadequate IT systems.

"The Secret Service data environment is fragile and cannot sustain the tempo of current or future operational missions. The existing hardware infrastructure is more than five years old and is prone to failures," said the filing, according to a copy on the DHS Web site. "The operating system software code is a couple of versions old and is soon expected to be no longer supported by the manufacturer. A loss of a server or a software component corruption would result in extended downtime and a potential loss of mission-critical data. The current hardware capacity to support any new applications and the increase in volume of data is very limited. The database server hardware is at the end of its lifecycle."

The money DHS requested was supposed to fund the ability to "replace or upgrade existing, outdated database hardware and software components for enterprise-wide database systems and introduce high availability, fault tolerance, optimal performance and scalability at all layers in the technology stack. The core database upgrade will provide the Secret Service with a robust infrastructure to handle growing data processing needs. The expanded infrastructure will have new database servers, new ETL (extract, transform and load) servers, database and system monitoring tools, more storage to handle a growing volume of data for existing applications and newer data marts and Business Intelligence repositories."

The mainframe capabilities from the Secret Service are crucial, given the heavy number-crunching needs of cybercrime tasks. Many retailers rely on the Secret Service to detect patterns in payment card transactions when they are trying to track down cyberthieves. As more chains—and card brands—cooperate globally, the petabytes of data to be analyzed will feature trillions of payment and bank transactions daily.

That type of pattern recognition across vast data warehouses is the specialty of big iron, which is why it's crucial that the Secret Service have as much CPU data-crunching power as practical. We know they'll be routinely outgunned and outspent by the bad guys. It would be nice to believe they aren't chasing after thieves while crunching numbers on an abacus.