Dropping Our Guard

Protect America's infrastracture? Congress has better things to do


Three years ago, a Connecticut-based technology company called Walker Digital developed an innovative system—named US HomeGuard—that promised to place thousands of the country's critical infrastructure sites under round-the-clock surveillance, economically and quickly. Walker offered the system to the government for $1. The company never planned to make a cent on HomeGuard commercially. It never even expected to recoup the several million dollars it spent on the effort. "We did that as good citizens," says Jay Walker, the company's chairman. "We just don't focus on the dollar amount."

Offered HomeGuard on a silver platter, the government did nothing. The system remains available but untested and unused. Many of those thousands of infrastructure sites remain wholly or partially unwatched.

Walker Digital is a research company that invents and develops business systems. On September 11, 2001, the employees in its Manhattan office, in the Woolworth Building, watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers fell. Looking for a way to contribute to the war on terrorism, Jay Walker and his staff searched for a problem they could help solve. They settled on infrastructure surveillance.

According to Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack, a new book by former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, the United States has 66,000 chemical plants, 2,800 power plants, 1,800 federal reservoirs, 80,000 dams, 5,000 public airports—the list goes on and on. In a recent speech, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the result of a successful attack on certain chemical plants "would be tremendous—tremendous in terms of loss of life, tremendous in terms of property damage, and then also tremendous in terms of its impact on our national economy."

Hiring people to stand guard full-time over all but the most sensitive sites would be prohibitively costly and cumbersome. Walker's solution was what he calls distributed surveillance. HomeGuard posts webcams on the peripheries of no-go zones around critical sites. Cameras, of course, are old hat. Here is the innovation: Regular people, not high-priced security professionals, monitor the sites over the Internet. If a camera detects motion, it transmits a picture to several "spotters," ordinary Web users who earn $10 an hour for simply looking at photos online and answering this question: "Do you see a person or vehicle in this image?" A yes answer triggers a security response.

The details are ingenious, and you can read about them in my 2003 column on HomeGuard. (See http://tinyurl.com/jp6ox.) Suffice to say that, in principle, the system is cheap and almost infinitely scalable. In practice, however, the system needed field-testing before private industry could consider it. Having built a prototype, Walker Digital approached the government in the spring of 2003.

On the recommendation of Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., Walker and his staff met with a series of officials, first at the White House and then at DHS, where they spoke with people from then-Secretary Tom Ridge on down. They were not selling anything. "We were very clear we would give it to a contractor in a heartbeat," Walker says. "We were reluctant to build a field trial. It's not our thing. We're systems designers." Having designed the system, they were trying to give it away.

Months went by. The company heard nothing. Abruptly, in late November, DHS asked Walker Digital to design a trial. The company worked around the clock for about three weeks. "It was all-consuming for a significant portion of people in the company," says Steven Hofman, a Washington-based policy consultant who advised Jay Walker on the project.

And then? Nothing. DHS never took formal action on the plan. Informally, an official told Hofman that a trial would be too expensive. But DHS had never discussed costs with the company. The budget was flexible, and Walker was prepared to raise private funds. The department, however, never responded to the company's request to see if cost objections could be met.

At that point, Walker abandoned the project. "We don't feel our mission is to try to prod Homeland Security or the federal government if they feel, for whatever reason, it's not the right time to do it," Walker says. "Especially since it's not a commercial project." By the end, he figures, Walker Digital had spent $2 million or $3 million on the project, plus investing maybe a couple of million dollars more in labor.

"We went in believing it would be incredibly hard, and it was incredibly hard," Walker says. "We expected real difficulty in the process, with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of chaos, and there was."

In March 2004, Shays, who chairs the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, asked DHS what happened with HomeGuard. The reply didn't come until August and was, Shays replied in turn, "only partially responsive." There the matter rests to this day.

One can imagine many good reasons not to deploy HomeGuard on a broad scale. For one, it might not work. But failing even to test it is harder to justify. Cost? The price of a trial was in the tens of millions of dollars—hardly a budget-buster by federal standards—and Walker would have helped line up private capital. Better, faster, or cheaper alternatives? None has been offered or implemented, at least none that could cost-effectively monitor, say, the perimeter of an airport.

Another possibility is that the government is already adequately dealing with the problem. Ervin, the former DHS inspector general (now the director of the Aspen Institute's homeland-security initiative), scoffs at that notion. "As a general matter," he says, "our nation's critical infrastructure is almost as unprotected as it was five years ago, after September 11." In December, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, following up on the 9/11 commission's recommendations, concurred. It gave the government a grade of D on "critical infrastructure risks and vulnerabilities assessment." Chertoff is still pleading with Congress for authority to set security standards for chemical plants, which are just one piece of the problem.

In a recent interview by e-mail, Shays said, "We have had other Connecticut-based companies contact our office with complaints about similar treatment from the Department of Homeland Security." He added, "We clearly have a long way to go." Ervin says, "The Walker example is not unique. Anecdotally, I hear there's tremendous difficulty for the private sector even to get the phone answered" at DHS.

Chertoff has set about reorganizing the department. Scott Weber, who was Chertoff's senior counselor at DHS until February and is now a partner at the law firm of Patton Boggs, says, "I think the department is more responsive now. I saw it become more responsive in my own tenure there." He adds, "People need to be realistic in their expectations as to how quickly an agency can mature."

In an interview, Robert Stephan, the DHS assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, said that he had no knowledge of HomeGuard and that anyone who worked on the case has since left. The department, he said, did successfully pilot a more traditional webcam program that pipes surveillance images to local law enforcement centers; that program will start being deployed this year. For key facilities such as dams, pipelines, and nuclear and chemical facilities, "there's a very extensive use of surveillance technology across the board," he said.

Moreover, the department maintains a comprehensive inventory of key assets and resources, sorted by sector, location, and risk. (For obvious reasons, it's not made public.) Later this month, Stephan said, the government will release its National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the fruit of a two-year strategic effort. And, since the HomeGuard days, DHS has established a science and technology directorate that seeks and evaluates homeland-security innovations, matching them to real-world needs. "The right brains are much more connected than they ever were before," Stephan says.

"I think we've been able to build a much better interlocked defensive web than ever before," he adds, "but we still have a considerable way to go."

He might want to give Jay Walker a call. Walker says that the intervening years have only improved HomeGuard's technology and that he and his company would "step right up" if the government decided to look at HomeGuard again. "We didn't go away saying, 'We'll never deal with the federal government again,' " he says. "We went away saying, 'They've got a tough job; they've got to evaluate a million things.'"

Perhaps they should evaluate this one.

© Copyright 2006 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.