- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

It is by now conventional wisdom that improving information sharing is a critical homeland security task for our government in the 21st century. A risk we cannot afford is national security agencies ignorant of one another’s operations.

Our vision of U.S. information sharing, however, should go beyond traditional government-to-government communications. Imagine an information-sharing network that allows all Americans to avoid natural disasters, help victims of crime or even prevent the next terrorist attack.

Sound good? Now, what if it cost the American taxpayer nothing?

We have the technology to provide real-time digital displays along our nation’s highways that can make any driver a potential solution to our homeland security needs. A network of high resolution, color displays placed along our highways — where billboards already exist — could make an ancient advertising technique useful for up-to-the-minute public-safety purposes.

The idea is a public-private initiative under which corporate partners provide funding to build, operate and maintain a network of digital message boards. The main purpose of the display is to meet homeland security needs. In return, each sponsor receives recognition on a separate board below the digital screen.

The estimated cost of the nationwide network is between $500 million and $900 million, with all of the funding coming from the sponsors — not the taxpayer. In a time of deficits and job loss, Washington needs to leverage private solutions to public problems.

The digital message boards would be useful in a host of homeland-security and law-enforcement situations. During a natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood, the boards could provide warnings and traffic routing directions. The same principle would apply during terrorist attacks that might disrupt our physical infrastructure.

Both natural disasters and terrorist attacks can render normal communication systems useless, whether because of infrastructure damage to nodes or user overload (recall September 11, when caller volume clogged the cell phone network).

The boards could also help find abductees or dangerous criminals. Kidnapping victims are usually harmed within three hours of their abduction. Instead of waiting for the evening newscast, the morning newspaper or a picture on a milk carton, a digital message board system offers the chance to disseminate real-time information to the public within minutes of the crime.

The message board posting could include a color photo of the child, the abductor and the car. It could also show the latest known location and direction of the vehicle. Like “America’s Most Wanted,” the average citizen could help catch a violent criminal or save a victim — but on the car seat instead of the couch.

Such a system could be a truly shared asset, used by local, state and federal law enforcement; the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation; and missing-children advocates. We have the opportunity to make the system joint from the beginning, before parochial interests and bureaucratic turf wars get in the way of information sharing.

Not often does a private-public partnership offer so much to so many. This is a rare case of innovation and creativity meeting the needs of multiple agencies and most Americans.

Who knows? Maybe a digital-displays message board along our nation’s highways could teach federal agencies a thing or two about the usefulness of shared information.

Rep. Rob Simmons, Connecticut Republican, is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

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