COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - It's a task that would challenge even the sharpest of computer geeks: set up a hacker-proof computer network for 190,000 government workers across the country fighting terrorism.
That's the challenge facing computer experts building a new system for the Homeland Security Department while keeping the existing network operational and secure.
Technology will be a key to the success of the new system, which is expected to take years to complete, said Edward Kinney, director of information technology for Customs & Border Protection.
Kinney spoke Wednesday at a conference that put government and private computer company representatives together to discuss security. He declined to provide specifics about the network.
The Homeland Security Department became operational in February in the largest government reorganization since 1947. It merged 22 agencies scattered across the nation and in some foreign countries.
The new department is charged with patrolling borders, analyzing U.S. intelligence, responding to emergencies and guarding against terrorism, among other tasks.
Computer experts have had to figure out ways for employees to share critical information while protecting that information from prying eyes that could compromise national security and trade secrets, Kinney said.
"Now we can communicate securely and we can share information and documents with confidence," he said.
But watchdog groups remain worried.
The government needs to make sure information is protected because the new network creates serious privacy issues by allowing "virtual dossiers" to be compiled on employees, said Wayne Madsen, a senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"Until they have a mechanism to make sure there are no abuses, they should go slow putting this information into a database," he said.
Department officials routinely test the networks to make sure they are hacker-proof, Kinney said.
They also are focusing on government employees stationed overseas, such as U.S. Customs workers who must inspect cargo headed for the United States.
"If we cannot bring goods and services across our borders, our economic security will be significantly impaired," Kinney said.
Officials said it also has been a challenge to change the computer culture among government workers. For example, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, computer managers had to tell federal workers to stop e-mailing pictures of waving flags from unauthorized sites to their colleagues.
"It was a bad habit people got into, downloading from unauthorized sites," Kinney said.