The Department of Home Affairs has shifted Australia’s new national criminal intelligence system (NCIS) off its in-house infrastructure after a “change in technical direction”.
iTnews can reveal that the long-awaited national system, which remains in development, made the jump to Microsoft’s protected-level Azure public cloud environment earlier this year.
The NCIS will eventually replace the legacy Australian criminal intelligence database (ACID) to provide federal, state and territory policing agencies with a “unified picture of criminal activity”.
It has been on the cards since at least 2014 due to the declining effectiveness of ACID, which was first introduced in 1984.
The funding followed a two-year program that saw a pilot system trialled by 800 users from 20 law enforcement, law compliance and regulatory agencies.
Since 2018, Home Affairs has taken a lead role in the build of the NCIS using its technology stack, while the ACIC has remained responsible for the system’s delivery.
Change of tact
ACIC chief Michael Phelan first alluded to the change in hosting direction at a parliamentary inquiry hearing in May.
“We moved from taking it off the stack with us in the Home Affairs agency and moving it into a protected cloud approved by the Australian Signals Directorate,” he said at the time.
“That makes it far more robust and easy to use, particularly with compute power - you’re talking here about, at any one time, potentially having 60,000-odd users.
“Consistent with other government projects and the like throughout the world, we wanted to get off the stack and get ourselves out of data centres,
“Particularly when we’re doing mountains of data and crunching it, it has to be updated daily, so we need the computer power.”
While Phelan mentioned the switch to protected-level cloud in passing, he did not disclose which of the six then Australian Signals Directorate certified providers would host the system.
Now, more than 15 weeks later, iTnews can reveal Microsoft will host the system under its existing Azure protected cloud hosting and services contract with Home Affairs.
An ACIC spokesperson said the decision was taken by the NCIS program steering committee in December 2019 to ensure the system could cope with demand.
“Cloud infrastructure delivers enhanced disaster recovery capabilities, provides ongoing agility in program development, and enables the adoption of emerging security and analytical services as soon as they become available within industry,” the spokesperson said.
“The use of secure cloud infrastructure aligns with broader government policies and the Home Affairs portfolio’s strategic ICT direction.”
Home Affairs has also recently put out the call on the Digital Marketplace for three application developers experienced in Microsoft Azure to work on the NCIS build.
Baseline platform now live
After building a proof of concept as part of a two-year NCIS pilot program and trialing it with federal, state and territory policing agencies in 2017, the NCIS has also progressed to production.
The first ‘alpha’ release was delivered in October 2019, followed by a ‘baseline’ release in March, both of which are “new builds of what will be the production system”
The spokesperson said the alpha release provides “a ‘Google like’ search interface” across the National Police Reference System, which policing agencies use to share information.
But the baseline release goes further, “connecting early adopter agencies and providing the technical and business foundations for the system”.
Consisting of a “generic developer user interface and search functions”, it allows users to “view results of searches in an updated party, object, location and event data model.
This enables “enhanced person of interest discovery”, it said.
Users are also able to “navigate dashboards that monitor NCIS data inflows and system usage for both business and audit purposes”.
However, due to the change in direction, along with resourcing challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the first tranche of the build won’t be delivered by this month.
In May, Phelan said it was likely that the NCIS would arrive six months later than envisaged, with some of the delays down to the need for contractors to work on more immediate projects.
“There is the necessity, of course, for some of the government contractors that are working on it to swing around and work on Australian government projects directly attributable to COVID-19, particularly within the Home Affairs department,” he said.
Despite the delays, the ACIC believes this is not likely to have any material impact on the $118.2 million budget for the first phase of the build.
The government doubled its original investment of $59.1 million in late 2018 to fully fund the build of the system, though three proposed tranches are currently unfunded.
“We’re not seeing any cost blowouts, but it’s probably going to push the timeframe out,” Phelan said in May.
Phelan also noted that he was particularly “happy” with the project, given the infamous biometrics identification services (BIS) project, which the ACIC was forced to terminate in 2018.
“A lot of the lessons learnt from the BIS project … have been overlaid across this project, and the structural problems we had with that are not being felt in this particular project,” he said.