Next, They'll Blame it on Terrorists

According to CNN, the FBI’s anti-terror computer system is slipping. An official even says that it might have to be ditched, which is Bureaucratese for “The low bidder on the contract screwed us bad.” Us meaning, of course, you, dear reader, if you happen to be a tax-paying US citizen. [You can also take the view that a working, well-oiled FBI is a bad thing, and that by being screwed we’re being saved. Go ahead, I won’t stop you.]

I’ll make some guesses here. A beltway bandit saw a great opportunity to pitch in on a politically loaded workflow / collaboration system for tracking crimes and information about them (e.g., evidence, transcripts, sound files, pictures, etc.). Either the FBI either didn’t realize how hard the problem was (and didn’t spec it well enough) or they really didn’t realize how hard the problem was, and specced it totally wrong. Either of these situations make a beltway bandit’s eyes go “ka-Ching!”

The funny thing is, I’ll bet that the software industry has a number of off-the-shelf or even free packages that do very nearly what the FBI wants. It’s called bug-tracking software.

The bug tracking packages that I know of are essentially note-taking systems [check] that let you attach evidence about bugs like screen shots, debug output and further analysis to an incident [check]. There’s an audit trail so you can’t easily revise history [equally good to have in a courtroom as well as a bug war-room]. Usually there is workflow, and rules about who can do what to a document at any particular point in time. You can set priorities on issues and decide who gets to work on them. There’s almost always a security story, because you don’t want just anyone looking at or mucking with your bugs. And so forth.

The packages that I’ve used at Apple, some of the off-the-shelf packages, and possibly some of the systems used to track bugs in open software would probably work fine for the FBI, with a little tweaking. What’s missing?

Well, “ka-Ching,” for one thing. And of course, COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) could never meet the high-tech demands of a modern FBI, nosirree (in other words: political turf). And the embarrasment of handing a fistful of money back to Congress, which is something that you just don’t do. (Run naked through the hallways waving communisk literature, or blow up civilians to save ’em from their religious convictions, but do notjesuswhatareyouthinking? — blow your appropriations by not totally using them up).

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