Social Studies May 2006

How the Government Let Down Its Guard

After 9/11, a Connecticut technology company offered its homeland-security services to the federal government for $1. What happened next doesn't speak well for the government.

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 NJ, 4/12/03, p. 1129.) 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.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In