Tech tools lead homeland security plan

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to put the fight against terrorism in the palms of many hands–literally, through wireless devices and other new technology.

Spreading information quickly, to both citizens and law enforcement, by using wireless technology is a major priority, said Steve Cooper, chief information officer of the Department of Homeland Security. He gave a keynote address at the 2003 Federal Office Systems Exhibition here this week.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to serve all citizens as customers, Cooper said. “Our goal is to make it work all the time,” he added. “We want to be faster, better, cheaper.”

The Department of Homeland Security also faces an organizational challenge: how to efficiently house 22 agencies with hundreds of thousands of personnel under one roof.

Yet the world’s largest bureaucracy expects to furnish itself with state-of-the-art technology to protect the nation from terrorism and natural disasters. The agency is looking to private companies for the most advanced tools possible.

Online Alerts Tested

One such tool is a crisis alert system now being tested in Virginia, and demonstrated here at the technology exhibition by Mark Penn, captain of the Arlington Fire Department.

It offers local residents free subscriptions to emergency alerts, which are delivered to personal digital assistants or mobile phones. Penn said eventually the technology will tailor messages to specific zip codes, alerting residents to dangers in their own neighborhoods.

Penn said the alerts are an example of getting “data and people to talk to each other,” which he said is key to public safety.

Similar wares are being shown by dozens of firms, many of which are already providing computer gear to the government, and others hoping to win contracts for homeland security.

Other software being exhibited, but not currently used by the government, includes:

— a database linking governmental departments to maps that plot disasters as they happen;

— tools to allow agencies to bypass the Internet when sharing information, such as streaming video files;

— software that identifies people by scanning the retina of the eye.

Administrative Challenge

The Department of Homeland Security is still early in its first job: assembling a vast array of federal agencies and their varying functions and responsibilities under one umbrella and then linking them to state and local governments. Cooper said the challenge is daunting but feasible.

Technologies used by some federal or local governmental agencies include a number of technical safeguards in lieu of (or in addition to) passwords. For example, biometric devices check fingerprints for entry to some military bases and government PCs, and facial recognition software allows entry to some systems. Also, medical surveillance software has been implemented to track hospital records to detect potential bioterrorism.

Eventually, state and local law enforcement agencies will be able to share terrorism information in real time, Cooper said. He expects to implement this using wireless technology and computerized maps, and to use data-mining software to study e-mail and other communications that could reveal terrorist threats.

However, Cooper said the department is balancing these efforts with the concerns of privacy advocates and others who fear an erosion of civil liberties. The government does not aim to be Big Brother in its zeal for security, he said.

“We are not interested in trashing what this country is about,” said Cooper. “I don’t know exactly what the tipping point is. I don’t know exactly what the balance is.”