Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 9, 2011

This Is Only a Test

Filed under: Events,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on November 9, 2011

Today at 2:00 pm EST/11:00 am PST the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System was conducted. Many wonder why it took this day so long to come, but I suspect most who experienced it wonder whether it did any good.

These days, EAS like its predecessor, the Emergency Broadcast System, seems more like a relic of our Cold War past than an essential element of a resilient national telecommunications infrastructure designed to keep people informed. With so many people receiving information on demand through smartphones, tablet computers, their desktop machines, and other “screens,” it’s worth wondering how many people missed the test entirely and remain as blissfully unaware of the system’s efficacy as they were yesterday.

Plans to conduct today’s test have been in development for months (many more months, that is, than we have in a year or maybe even several years). As the date approached, many broadcasters complained the date was coming too quickly. In the end, when it came, the test did little to prove that the technical investments made in recent years to upgrade the system to the latest digital technology and make it compatible with the Common Alerting Protocol will pay dividends, since many participating broadcasters have still not fulfilled the FCC mandate to make changes to their equipment.

I am sure that many of those who did hear today’s test thought it was the same one they hear every week or every month and paid little attention. These local and regional tests, although mandatory for most broadcasters, have never ensured that the system will perform one of its primary functions in the event of a major disaster or national emergency. This test remedies only part of that problem.

Broadcasters are under no obligation to carry most local and regional messages. Beyond installing and testing EAS equipment, participation — with the exception of relaying messages from the national command authority — is essentially voluntary. As such, today’s test really was the first practical test to see whether these investments might really pay-off.

Broadcasters and cable companies have 45 days to report results of the test. Early returns suggest mixed results. That said, it is not too early to ask, what next?

Efforts to rollout a next-generation Commercial Mobile Alert System via wireless (cellular telephone) carriers is already well underway. At least one service provider, it seems, has leaked test messages into the wild. Does this suggest the EAS test is too little and too late?

As citizens become more comfortable exchanging information via smartphones equipped with SMS, MMS, social media, streaming video, and GPS technology, the capacity of public safety and homeland security agencies to both transmit and receive important messages by means other than voice is increasingly outmoded as well as outdated. Investments to catch-up will likely run into the billions of dollars.

Public expectations already exceed public safety communications capabilities, especially when it comes to 911 and public warning and notifications systems. In the current fiscal and political environment, we should be asking not what we need to do about this situation, but how we will get the needed work done.

September 20, 2011

Maslow’s Hammer and the Double-Edged Sword of Security Cameras

Filed under: Private Sector,Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on September 20, 2011

Nick Catrantzos wrote today’s post.  Mr. Catrantzos is an adjunct professor of homeland security and emergency management for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a recently retired security director who, post-9/11 oversaw a $30,000,000 capital investment in security technology, including surveillance cameras, for a large public institution.


Specialists see the world in terms of their specialty.

Every time an attorney specializing in litigation or a vendor specializing in camera sales opines about the relative merits or perils of security surveillance, their natural bias competes against respective areas of ignorance to limit the value of their attending pronouncements. Either may have colorful things to say. Both omit points important for a deeper understanding of the issue.

Beginning with the lawyerly lament about too many cameras not only impinging on individual privacy but potentially leading to profligate spending in a time of fiscal constraint, the useful analytical point submerged in this hackneyed observation needs only a little more digging to unearth. The unstated point is that any flawed implementation is likely to waste money and produce unintended consequences undermining its desired benefits. Too much of a good thing can kill, hence the double-edged sword of elemental boons like fire and water, which await only arson or storm surge to turn from life-savers to life-extinguishers.

So, yes, too many cameras multiply the potential for abuse, for someone using them to nefarious purposes, whether in adjusting fields of view to look not at the parking lot where assaults occur at night but at a nearby residence in whose yard a teenager is sunbathing immodestly during the day.

Waste is also likely, particularly if the absence of intelligent oversight means that a security camera vendor receives carte blanche to clear the warehouse of every high-end, pan-tilt-zoom, infrared, weatherized camera in an installation where three quarters of the cameras could have easily been fixed-position devices costing a fraction of the price and requiring significantly less maintenance. The vendor gets a bonus for exceeding sales targets, while the customer gets an impressive quantity of modern devices to demonstrate how serious the end user is about security. Win-win, or lose-lose? More on this soon.

As for Maslow’s hammer…

It comes from what the psychologist and founder of the hierarchy of needs once observed when noting that if one’s only tool is a hammer, one sees every problem as a nail. Rare is the special product vendor who can see or propose any solution other than his or her stock in trade. Thus, to the average security camera vendor, there is no security problem that cannot be solved without the addition of another surveillance camera. By comparison, an average purveyor of guard services tends to do precisely the same, only with services instead of products. Thus, to the latter, every security problem is just another guard assignment away from being solved. Each provider is selling only a hammer, therefore each sees the security problem only as a nail.

What is the real solution to this institutionalized myopia borne either of over specialization or limited range of implements in one’s tool chest?

The answer is the kind of infusion of mind into the swirl of events that requires a seasoned managerial or security perspective, and preferably both.

What do seasoned professionals do when facing security surveillance as a management issue? They begin with objectives, focus on the results their organizations need to achieve, and defend against scope creep or one-off distractions that enfeeble the chances of attaining identified objectives. This approach, incidentally, applies equally to technology implementations unrelated to security. Why? Because champions of new systems invariably oversell and continue to offer product and service extensions, often with little regard for whether their initial offerings have satisfied original criteria.

If your security camera implementation has done nothing to limit parking lot assaults, for example, the vendor may well propose adding more cameras to more places, including hidden cameras outside of reception areas and extra ones at entrances and exits. Similarly, if your guard force contractor has failed to deliver on advertised loss reductions, he or she may suggest more guard posts and patrols, and even using uniformed guards as lobby ambassadors in reception areas.

See more nails? Get more hammers.

Here is why this cycle of repetitive failures turns into a lose-lose situation.

Both provider and beneficiary have lost sight of original objectives and, quite often, neither had thought these objectives through in the first place.

What needs to happen instead?

Begin by deciding the larger objective.

Are the security cameras intended to prevent loss or to apprehend adversaries after the fact? A serious answer to this question guides the entire scope and investment of the surveillance camera implementation effort, and it is only a fool who will ask the hammer seller for a tool selection that also includes screwdrivers, pliers, and saws. Of course the vendor will offer to do it all. Turn on the blue light; the man wants a blue suit. But the reality is that attempts to do it all invariably end up diffusing effort, overextending systems, budgets, and schedules, and delivering flawed implementations, resulting in strained customer-provider relations. You can do one thing well or all things badly. What does your organization need?

Assume your organization is more interested in prevention than apprehension.

This is the private sector security model as contrasted with the public safety model. The latter has a societal objective of chasing down offenders to capture and punish them and, by doing so, demonstrate to society at large that crime does not pay.

[Incidentally, this public safety bias limits the ability of most police to operate surveillance cameras solely for prevention. Their invariable tendency is to use them more for investigation. Also, because they hired on to chase malefactors, watching cameras or defending assets are unattractive to cops in their prime.]

In the context of running a business or even a public institution, however, few organizations can afford the resources for this hunt. Instead, their security functions earn their keep by preventing losses – which cost significantly less in time and staffing than trying to shadow the responsibilities of a police force without the same powers of arrest or investigation.

How does this assumption affect security camera implementation?

First and foremost, if you are interested mainly in prevention, then you optimize your surveillance system for intrusion detection, period. This means that you place cameras along perimeters and entry points, and reduce to an absolute minimum the impulse to stockpile data unrelated to intrusion. This means you do not warehouse video images for months or years at a time because they may come in handy in some event reconstruction or one-off investigation into something at some point in time. Someone in the organization will always make the case that such capabilities are nice to have. But that someone will be an individual or department that has no idea of or responsibility for the burden of keeping such data, in terms of staff hours and capital investment. Absent a regulatory [or other] requirement that compels you to do otherwise, you must decide whether you are in the prevention business or in the monitoring-to-help-everyone-else-out business.

If in the first, you overwrite your video files at the first logical opportunity – perhaps a week or two – and keep only what you flag for retention – perhaps within a few days of a loss or suspicious incident. This protocol puts you squarely in the prevention business rather than in the internal snooping business. It limits the audit trails that institutionalized snooping occasionally seeks, however. This means that the supervisor too inept to monitor or discipline an underperforming employee will not be able to look to your surveillance system to say, “Aha, Harry isn’t showing up on time and is always leaving early on days when I have to go out of the office.”

What will such supervisors have to do if the surveillance system is unavailable to supply evidence to back disciplinary action? They will have to do the same thing they had to do in the days before such a system was around: supervise. Indeed, an employee relations manager told me that any time a supervisor wants to rely on security audit trails to catch an employee in some kind of routine performance deficiency, this proclivity signals a lack of supervision.

It is no surprise that specialists seeing the world in terms of their specialty offer up flawed solutions, without necessarily doing so in bad faith.

They have hammers, so they see nails.

The finesse in vaulting over this common hurdle, when it comes to security surveillance cameras, is in looking past the myopic vision of the hammer sellers to understand the bigger picture. Although it is rare to find this capacity in specialists, it is not entirely absent.

I have worked with the occasional security systems vendor – usually a seasoned one who is secure in tenure and sufficiently senior in the organization to be insulated from sales quotas – who can and will advise against more cameras than anyone can usefully monitor. Such advice benefits the client and serves the enlightened self-interest of the provider.

Every customer appreciates a hammer seller with the nerve to refuse to sell you another mallet when you clearly need a screwdriver.


September 6, 2011

The hidden budget costs of CCTV security cameras

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on September 6, 2011

Today’s post was written by Lynda A. Peters.  Ms. Peters is the City Prosecutor in the Chicago Corporation Counsel’s Office.  As is often the case when Homeland Security Watch has a guest author, the usual caveats apply: the opinions expressed in this post are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views — in this instance — of the City of Chicago, the Corporation Counsel’s Office or any other organization.


The number of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras used by security professionals in the law enforcement community has dramatically increased since the attacks on America’s homeland on September 11, 2001.[1] Recognizing the need to leverage technology to improve public safety, increasing numbers of state and local law enforcement agencies have employed cameras.[2] Since that time, CCTV cameras have been used in a wide variety of public safety efforts, including to combat terrorists, secure downtown commercial areas, secure critical infrastructure locations, prevent crime in high-crime areas, manage traffic flow and enforce traffic laws, and provide guidance to first responders during emergency response.[3]

The City of Chicago has an extensive network of homeland security, crime prevention and private cameras, and the footage is available through its Police Department and Office of Emergency Management & Communications.

There are several legal requirements that increase the lifetime budget of a camera program because they necessitate the retention (i.e., storage) of footage.  There are consequences of failing to budget for footage retention, including monetary penalties.  These legal requirements should be considered before the decision is made whether to implement or expand the use of CCTV cameras as a public safety tool.

Trying to gain support for additional expenditure during the course of a CCTV camera program, as opposed to at its onset, is often difficult.[4]

Typical Budgetary Considerations

In my experience, the capital investment associated with a CCTV camera program occurs at the start of the program.  Expenditures include the initial purchase, installation and maintenance of cameras, and upgrades to existing technology equipment, such as monitors, so the footage can be viewed.  The capital investment also should include a salary component to cover the cost of employees who are needed to monitor the captured images.[5]

Electronic records management, retention and preservation of footage are not typically factored into the budget equation, though they should be.[6]

Legal Considerations that Impact the Budget

Financial expenditure to cover the retention of camera footage is mandated by several legal requirements when the footage is in the possession of, or under the control of, the unit of government running the CCTV camera program.

The first requirement, and one which impacts all states in the country, is open records laws.[7] These laws are patterned after the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Illinois’ FOIA statute, for example, mandates that, with few exceptions, “all records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection or copying.”[8]

The definition of “public record” is very broad and covers all materials “pertaining to the transaction of public business, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body.”[9] The language of Illinois’ statute clearly includes camera footage since it applies to, among other things, “recorded information.”[10]

The purpose behind FOIA laws is grounded in public policy.  For example, the legislature in Illinois decreed

[p]ursuant to the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of government, it is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of this Act.[11]

The conclusion reached by the Illinois legislature is similar to that reached by other state legislatures: access to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of government.[12]

Retaining Records Affects Budgets

Record retention laws impose an additional legal requirement on many state and local units of government, necessitating the expenditure of monies to retain camera footage.  Not every state has a record retention requirement based in statute, though it may exist through policy.[13] Illinois is one of the states which has a statutory retention requirement and a review of the law’s language is helpful to understanding the concept of record retention.

Illinois’ Local Records Act decrees that all

public records made or received by, or under the authority of, or coming into the custody, control or possession of any officer or agency shall not be mutilated, destroyed, transferred, removed or otherwise damaged or disposed of, in whole or in part, except as provided by law.[14]

The definition of a public record in this statute, similar to the one found in open records laws, is very broad and includes those things

made, produced, executed or received by any agency or officer pursuant to law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation … as evidence of the organization, function, policies, decisions, procedures, or other activities thereof, or because of the informational data contained therein.[15]

The obligation to preserve camera footage under Illinois’ Local Records Act is absolute.  The statute states in no uncertain terms that no public record can be disposed of except pursuant to a formal retention policy which has received prior written approval of the appropriate Local Records Commission.[16]

Preserving Evidence Also Has an Impact on Budgets

The third legal requirement that imposes a financial burden upon state and local units of government for the retention of camera footage is known as preservation of evidence.  A duty to preserve evidence will be owed if a reasonable person should have foreseen that the item of evidence was material to a potential civil action.[17]

Spoliation is the destruction or significant alteration of evidence, or the failure to preserve property for another’s use as evidence in pending or reasonably foreseeable litigation.[18]

The duty to preserve applies not just to parties to litigation.  The duty applies to anyone, including an employee of a state or local unit of government, who is in possession of or exerts control over an item of evidence that a party may want to use in litigation.  The duty to preserve has even been extended in one jurisdiction to cover the scenario where a party to litigation cannot fulfill the duty to preserve because he or she does not own or control the evidence:

the party still has an obligation to give the opposing party notice of access to the evidence or of the possible destruction of the evidence if the party anticipates litigation involving that evidence.[19]

Ignoring Legal Obligations Can be Costly

The consequence of failure to abide by the legal duty to preserve can result in a wide range of penalties.  When the person who or entity that failed to preserve an item of evidence is a party to the litigation, the penalty can result in or increase the likelihood of a finding of liability.[20]

Alternatively, the penalty can include dismissal of the case, an order by the court restricting the defenses that can be claimed or an order by the court restricting the evidence and testimony that can be presented during trial.[21]

The penalty can also include an instruction to the jury that the party’s intentional destruction of evidence relevant to an issue at trial supports an inference that the evidence “would have been unfavorable to the party responsible for its destruction.”[22]

Whether or not the person who or entity that failed to preserve an item of evidence is a party to the litigation, the result can be the imposition of a monetary penalty, including a fine and attorneys fees and court costs associated with bringing the issue to the court’s attention.[23]


NASCIO, a national organization representing state Chief Information Officers, likewise recommends including the cost of retention and preservation in the overall budget for a technology project:

The better approach is to examine requirements for digital preservation at the time a business need is identified, management initiatives are planned, and systems for supporting those initiatives are designed and developed.  In other words, digital preservation as well as electronic records management issues need to be planned and budgeted part and parcel with any initiative that will create data, information or knowledge.  When information will be created by an enterprise, the lifecycle of that information must be determined.  Further, it must be valued at each phase of that lifecycle.  Those economics along with regulatory requirements determine how long information will be retained by the enterprise.[24]

What impact does the added cost associated with retention and preservation have on a state or local unit of government’s decision to embark upon or expand a CCTV camera program?

While I cannot provide an answer to that question, I can point out the obvious.  In light of the limited budgetary resources presently available to most, if not all, state and local governments due to the current economic climate, consideration of the total costs associated with CCTV cameras is a duty that is clearly owed to the citizens law enforcement strives to protect.


[1] CCTV: Constant Cameras Track Violators, NIJ Journal (July 2003), No. 249, p. 16.

[2] Nestel, III, Thomas J., Using Surveillance Camera Systems to Monitor Public Domains: Can Abuse be Prevented, March 2006. p. 5.

[3] Id.; Zoufal, Donald,  ‘Someone to Watch Over Me?’ Privacy and Governance Strategies for CCTV and Emerging Surveillance Technologies, May 15, 2008. pp. 1-2.

[4] NASCIO, Electronic Records Management and Digital Preservation: Protecting the Knowledge Assets of the State Government Enterprise, 2007. p.2.

[5] Id.

[6] See generally: NASCIO (2007).

[7] Open Government Guide, http://www.rcfp.org/ogg/index.php, retrieved July 3, 2011

[8] 5 ILCS 140/1.2.

[9] 5 ILCS 140/2(c).

[10] Id.

[11] 5 ILCS 140/1.

[12] Id.

[13] NASCIO (2007). p.3.

[14] 50 ILCS 205/4.

[15] 50 ILCS 205/3.

[16] 50 ILCS 205/7.

[17] Boyd v. Travelers Insurance Company, 166 Il.2d 188, 652 N.E.2d 267, 271 (1995).

[18] West v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 167 F.3d 776, 779 (2nd Cir.1999), quoting generally from Black’s Law Dictionary.

[19] Silvestri v. General Motors Corporation, 271 F.3d 583, 591 (4th Cir. 2001)..

[20] Hirsch v. General Motors Corporation, et al., 266 N.J.Super. 222, 260 (1993).

[21] Id.

[22] Kronisch v. United States of America, et al., 150 F.3d 112, 126 (2nd Cir. 1998).

[23] Mosaid Technologies Incorporated v. Samsung Electronics Co., LTD., 348 F.Supp2d 332, 339 (2004).

[24] NASCIO (2007), p.2.



August 24, 2011

Calling the Capitol

A seismograph near Middleton Place showed a sudden burst of activity just before 2 p.m. (see hours at left of graph).

More than a few people in the public safety and homeland security sectors are hoping yesterday afternoon’s shallow M5.8 earthquake shook some sense into politicians, bureaucrats and Congressional staffers. The temblor, the largest recorded in the national capitol region in more than a century, caused a large-scale disruption of cellular telephone service when it struck shortly before 2:00 PM EDT. Cellular operators attributed the failure to overloads rather than physical damage to system components. Landline services, including the copper-wire-based public switched telephone network, remained operational and under-utilized.

The growing dependence of Americans on cellular telephone services, especially the extent to which reliance on these devices has displaced older technologies, has raised concerns among regulators and the regulated alike. Phone companies are now having trouble keeping up with the increasing capabilities of the devices we crave. Despite our seemingly elastic appetites for each new generation of wireless technology, our willingness to pay for the infrastructure to support these nifty services has remained relatively constrained. Meanwhile, pressure on companies to improve profitability in an atmosphere of constrained revenues and stiff competition have limited infrastructure spending to such an extent that one wonders whether the price and performance curves will ever be reconciled, even if the economic recovery takes hold.

This harsh reality has fueled pressure from the public safety industry on regulators and legislators to designate and release a large chunk of radio-frequency spectrum known as D-Block for development of a national broadband public safety network. It didn’t take long for advocates of this move to capitalize on the quake to underscore their concerns about the status quo and renew calls for immediate action on the D-Block petition.

You might wonder why overloaded cellular networks are much of a concern to public safety agencies. After all, don’t they have their own radio frequencies already anyway? We’ve invested lots of federal, state, local and tribal government money in the decade since 9/11 improving interoperable communications capabilities. Hasn’t this paid off somehow?

Well, Virginia, thanks for asking. Yes, public safety does have a lot of spectrum and some pretty fancy equipment. This equipment and the slices of spectrum already allocated do a pretty good job of relaying voice communications and a small amount of data. But because of the limitations of these proprietary technologies and the institutional inertia of the agencies who own and operate it, police, fire-rescue and EMS services rely pretty heavily on the same cellular services the rest of us do for high-speed, broadband data applications and services. And like the rest of us, they often use cellular telephones when they only need to relay a message to a single person. That means when we lose cellular service they do too.

But wait a minute, don’t public safety officials have priority access to cellular telephone services? Clever girl, Virginia. Yes, they do. But that doesn’t help much when the number of priority calls alone are sufficient to swamp the system. Imagine, if you will, how many people in Washington, D.C. and along the eastern seaboard consider their need to communicate with someone right this second more important than anyone else’s. Besides not every public safety agency has configured its equipment and paid the fees necessary to obtain this sort of priority access.

Cellular network operators say most services returned to normal within about 20 minutes of the earthquake. One suspects that the decision to release many (so-called) non-essential government workers early was predicated at least in part on a desire to alleviate further strain on the region’s already overburdened systems and services. At the same time, one has to wonder what this cost both in terms of lost productivity and public image.

By most accounts, the earthquake, despite its surprising intensity and duration, caused relatively little physical damage. But the fiscal damage of the decisions yet to come remains to be seen.

August 3, 2011

Useless or Faceless?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on August 3, 2011

John Quincy Adams is often quoted as having said, “One useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a Congress.” Another unnamed sage quipped, “Congress is continually appointing fact-finding committees, when what we really need are some fact-facing committees.” This past month’s acrimonious debt debates have done nothing to disprove either theorem despite their success in passing legislation to avert the nation’s first-ever default on its public debt.

It’s easy to see the tortured process of the past month and the polarized politics propelling the participants as a product of a deeply ambivalent body politic. But that would be too convenient and untrue to boot.

As Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation explained in a recent article, surveys indicate that the public at-large is much more reasonable and responsible than its representatives in Congress. Clear majorities of self-identified Republicans supported higher taxes and fewer spending cuts than those adopted yesterday. Likewise, a substantial proportion of self-identified Democrats were more than willing to amend entitlement eligibility criteria and make broader and deeper cuts to prevent default.

Politicians that pay too much attention to the polls are often derided by their rivals, who like to allege that this tendency suggests a lack of leadership ability closely akin to a moral failing. Direct democracy has its proponents, but few of even the most ardent advocates of participatory democracy would argue that it serves as either an efficient or effective way of making complex and critical decisions like those surrounding the federal budget and deficits. But how much messier would it really be than what we have all just witnessed?

The dynamics of group decision-making intrigue me. In his 2005 bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki, addressed the strengths and weaknesses of group decision-making to three particular kinds of problems:

  • Cognition problems, which require decision makers to infer unknowns from known conditions;
  • Coordination problems, which require decision-makers to achieve efficient outcomes under uncertain, competitive conditions; and
  • Cooperation problems, which involve getting “self-interested, distrustful people to work together, even when narrow self-interest would seem to dictate that no individual should take part.”

I think it’s self-explanatory which type of problem deficit-cutting most closely resembles. Surowiecki argued that effective group decision-making in all of these situations depends on three conditions: 1) diversity, 2) independence, and 3) (a particular kind of) decentralization. Congress fails on all three counts, and the process proposed in the legislation for goading our representatives into action does little if anything to improve this sorry situation.

Surowiecki notes that diversity and independence matter — particularly when solving cognition problems — “because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Decentralization on the other hand mediates the influence of disagreement and conflict because “Groups benefit from members talking to and learning from each other, but too much communication, paradoxically, can actually make the group as a whole less intelligent.”

Balancing the three decision-making prerequisites is clearly a challenging endeavor, and sometimes more difficult than the problem itself. As a result, some of the best decision-making methods use mechanisms like market-pricing and intelligent voting systems to aggregate individual judgments to produce more accurate representations of the collective mind than would otherwise emerge from direct communication among participants.

These observations may or may not suggest the need for Constitutional or procedural reforms to make Congress function more efficiently and effectively when dealing with such contentious issues. But they should inform our assessment of what it takes to improve the performance of programs and activities affected by the looming budget cuts resulting from yesterday’s Grand and Smelly Compromise.

How might we engage the wisdom of crowds to improve the performance of homeland security and domestic intelligence operations? What applications of these or related concepts are already bearing fruit?

June 22, 2011

Are Clouds Getting in the Way?

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on June 22, 2011

Judging solely from the tweets emanating from the Urban Area Security Conference this week, two topics were at the forefront of discussion in and between sessions: cuts in the number of metropolitan areas receiving funding (and indeed the nature and extent of homeland security funding cuts generally) and issues attending advanced technology. I find it hard to separate the two topics, especially in light of the fact that much of the discussion about technology at the conference seemed to focus on the central role vendors played in the conference proceedings.

In some circles (certainly not here) the term networking almost always involves sophisticated technology and considerable cost. You know one of these conversations is spinning out of control when terms like “cloud” no longer refer to the things that shield us from the sun and occasionally deposit rain on our heads.

LIke real clouds, these terms and the discussions in which they get exchanged often obscure much more fundamental problems. My favorite example of this is the ongoing discussion about public safety communications interoperability, especially the push now on in Washington to get a sizable chunk of 700 MHz  spectrum allocated to a nationwide public safety service, the centerpiece of which presumably will include secure broadband data.

Now it’s quite possible that I have already lost a few of you, because, as I said, these terms often have meanings far different from what you might expect. Let’s start with interoperability. I once thought this meant making it possible for police, fire, EMS, public works, and other agencies at all levels of government to exchange information about an incident to which they had all responded and to do so in whatever way was most appropriate. The key was sharing information.

An optimist would tell you I was at least partly right about that. But I am not that optimist, since I have yet to see any evidence that such a system exists in the wild.

Instead, interoperability has meant marrying up sometimes terribly outmoded or outdated technologies so people from different agencies can get together and talk about an incident if they happen to remember to use the technology in the way someone set it up when the time comes to use it. In most cases, the systems have become too complicated for the users to understand, and because they cost so much they rarely keep pace with the commercial-off-the-shelf equipment people buy and use for their own personal communications.

How many of you have been to an incident where a frustrated officer has pulled out her iPhone and texted or called a colleague rather than using a radio? If you haven’t seen this, you have surely seen someone at an incident pull their smartphone out and snap a few pictures of whatever is happening.

These days you don’t have to look very hard or listen very closely to see and hear arguments about how D-Block spectrum will revolutionize public safety communications and make it easier than ever before to communicate in a crisis. While I have no doubt that devices and services designed for this new spectrum will have impressive features, I am much less certain they will improve communications.

My reason for skepticism comes back to the first problem receiving attention at the UASI conference: money. The people who have it and can afford to spend it will determine what the rest of us can buy later. Perhaps fortuitously federal fingers are finding it harder to reach the wallet in Uncle Sam’s deep pockets just as this issue comes to a head.

Oddly enough, the dark clouds of fiscal austerity might be just what we need to whisk away the airy, bright and lofty clouds of “technological progress” impeding or at least obscuring our efforts to communicate. When money is scarce, people have to be a lot clearer about what they need now as opposed to what they want later. In addition, they have to be more open to alternatives and willing to adapt as opposed to simply adopting.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: The argument presented here emerges from my own first-hand experience and a quick reading of a handful of messages consisting of less than 140 characters sent by a handful of friends using an essentially free technology accessible to anyone. That strikes me as pretty effective communication for a very limited investment of time, money and effort.

May 12, 2011

Advances in Public Messaging: Great Idea – Curious Reaction

Filed under: Catastrophes,Technology for HLS — by Arnold Bogis on May 12, 2011

A seemingly great technological step forward in disaster communication with the public is thrown under the political bus:

President Obama could soon have the ability to personally text message every single cell-phone-toting American — whether  they like it or not — with “critical emergency alerts” under a new federal program that civil libertarians and political opponents say is a Big Brother-like intrusion posing a high risk of political abuse.

Federal officials in New York yesterday unveiled the three-tiered emergency alert system that would blast messages about Amber Alerts, impending weather disasters and terror threats to mobile devices.

Cell-phone users could opt out of most alerts if they want to, but not the texter-in-chief’s presidential pages.

“It’s like the state rep sending out mailings about how wonderful they are,” said Tad Kasperowicz of the Quincy Tea Party. “President Obama says,’Here come the high winds and the thunderstorms’ and it’s not really an emergency, but, hey, he gets his name out to every cell phone in the area. I can see that. Absolutely. There’s potential for abuse there.”

Sure, there is potential for abuse…if you believe the party affiliation of the people currently in office will always hold that office.  In other words, where is the political advantage for Obama to start such a system if it can be politically exploited when a Republican will at some point come into control of it?

Perhaps this is just the natural, and extremely positive, evolution of a public advisory system that had been lagging behind technological developments. However, I may just be naive…


May 10, 2011

Controlling domestic UAVs wirelessly through a cellular network: major policy challenges

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on May 10, 2011

Seven decades ago,  C. P. Snow gave a lecture about a communication breakdown between two cultures — humanities and science.  Their inability to understand and value the way each viewed the world inhibited the search for solutions to the world’s problems.

Public policy in general — and homeland security policy in particular — may suffer from the same divide.  I know few homeland security policy makers who understand or appreciate the technical dimension of the enterprise; and even fewer homeland security scientists and technicians who value the daily dilemmas of policy makers.

I was brought rudely to this awareness some weeks ago when a journal I’m involved with published several technical articles related to homeland security.  I did not find the articles especially easy to read.  But as I struggled through them, I found them to be models of organized discourse and presentation.  Eventually, with some effort, reading them paid off for me.  I saw a side of homeland security I had been closed to.

Today’s post was written by a colleague who bridges both the scientific and the policy worlds of homeland security.  For organizational reasons, he prefers to remain anonymous.


Recently the Journal of Homeland Security Affairs published an article called “Policy, Practice, and the Search for Alpha” by Dr. Robert Josefek.  The article provides an overview of five papers that were judged best-in-track and best-in-conference from the 2010 Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Homeland Security Technology (HST) Conference, the tenth annual meeting of this group.

In addition to his review of the scientific papers, Dr. Josefek points to the chasm that often exists between the detailed concerns of scientists and the broader focus of policy makers:

While both ends of the spectrum are important, my observation is that it is sometimes a challenge for these groups [scientists and policy makers] to understand and best benefit from each other. Yet innovations in science and technology can enable policy options that were not previously available and policy goals can drive scientists and technologists to find ways to reach heretofore-unobtainable objectives.

Among the papers reviewed one in particular illustrates in my mind the intersection of policy and science for homeland security related research.  Daniel and Wietfeld’s article, “Using Public Network Infrastructures for UAV Remote Sensing in Civilian Security Operations,” was selected best for the category of Attack and Disaster Preparation, Recovery and Response.

The paper proposes a method of employing multiple Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), controlled wirelessly through a cellular network, to monitor atmospheric plumes from events such as large fires, industrial accidents, and CBRN terrorist attacks.

The authors’ central idea is to use cell towers because the public safety spectrum is extremely limited, and unlicensed frequency (ISM band) is often unreliable.  A GAO report in 2008 (pdf file)  corroborates their claim and cites wireless communications “security and protected spectrum” among one of the critical requirements for integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace (NAS).


My first impression of their idea was skepticism.  Public safety organizations have come to be wary of the reliability of cell phone systems during times of disaster due to the cell towers being disabled or call volume simply overwhelming the ability to even access the system.

Despite Full Motion Video (FMV) being excluded from consideration in the paper, FMV will be an important aspect of the system and provisions will need to be made to accommodate the bandwidth required.  Coupled with this will be the need to develop a seamless handoff amongst different carriers as the UAV traverses a geographic region.

The Federal Aviation Administration rightly views safety paramount and protocols will need to be developed to allow manned and unmanned aircraft to safely coexist.  The public will certainly have privacy concerns over information that is collected and stored.

Finally, there remains a suspicion by public safety of the cellular industry due in part to problems experienced from Nextel building out a network in the 800 MHz band in the 1990s that ultimately caused significant interference with existing public safety communications.


Feeling there was more to the issue, I reached out to a friend to get another perspective.  He is a former Coast Guard pilot and now runs a company that operates a fleet of surrogate unmanned aerial vehicles. His company provides ground based users UAV capabilities without any of the restrictions associated with operating in the National Airspace System, and has accumulated over 2,000 operational hours in the last 2 years operating nationally over both congested and rural areas.

Last year during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, his company’s  systems operated 12 hours per day for more than 100 consecutive days and provided command centers with real time full motion video over a 10,000 square mile area covering the waters off Mississippi and Louisiana.

His perspective of Daniel and Wietfeld’s paper differed from mine.  He supports the authors’ position advocating greater leverage of existing cellular infrastructure and reinforcing it with mobile ad-hoc networks (MANETs) and satellite links in order to maintain connectivity in dead spots.  He mentioned that as a Coast Guard officer he supported operations following Hurricane Katrina and told me:

During Hurricane Katrina wireless air cards in helicopters provided limited airborne connectivity and the solution worked remarkably well at the low altitudes and airspeeds most helicopters were operating at during the response.  In the years since Katrina, we have learned a great deal about the strengths and limitations of using cellular networks to support operational missions and found that augmentation with MANETs and satellite communication is critical to ensure mission reliability.  We have found that use of the 2.4GHz ISM band in rural or open ocean areas works very well, but it is significantly degraded in urban environments or disaster base camp settings.  We have also found that using 5GHz in those same areas adequately addresses the interference issues experienced at 2.4GHz, which serve to reinforce Daniel and Witfield’s findings.

He and I did find common ground in that the call for small unmanned arial vehicles operating at low altitudes is going to multiply exponentially over the next few years over our states and cities.  Assigning each an IP address and managing them through existing and augmented wireless infrastructure is the only manageable path.


In order to incorporate UAVs into both civilian and emergency response applications many groups are going to have to come together.  Some of the most critical components include the FAA introducing Next Gen Air technologies to accommodate the coexistence of manned and unmanned aircraft.  At the same time that legislation is progressing on FAA Reauthorization, Congress is also moving forward to modernize Public Safety Communications.

Spectrum policy will have to be revised to allow safe and reliable control of unmanned vehicles. Among the proposals is to build out a nationwide cellular communications network for public safety in the 700 MHz spectrum recently vacated by TV stations.  I do not know if technically it would be feasible to link the two together but it might be a consideration for the public safety UAV industry to investigate using the new network while in the planning stages.  The alternative is to “beef up” the existing cellular networks in order to provide daily unmanned vehicle operations and ensure operability during times of disaster.

At the very least, part of the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization (S 223) tasks the National Academy of Sciences to study the unmanned aircraft spectrum issue. (Not everyone is pleased with this initiative, however.  See this link.)

Daniel and Witfield have helped identify a primary technical issue that homeland security leaders will have to contend with as the UAV industry attempts to move forward.  Policy makers will need to address these issues in developing a workable solution for daily use as well as during times of emergencies.  Daniel and Witfield’s paper will help policy makers understand the components of a technically sound plan.


April 11, 2011

Happy National Robotics Week

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Jessica Herrera-Flanigan on April 11, 2011

This week marks the 2nd annual National Robotics Week. The celebration,which technically started on Saturday and runs through Sunday, is designed to:

  • Celebrate the US as a leader in robotics technology development
  • Educate the public about how robotics technology impacts society, both now and in the future
  • Advocate for increased funding for robotics technology research and development
  • Inspire students of all ages to pursue careers in robotics and other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math-related fields

In honor of the week, I thought I would highlight some of the ways that robots are contributing to our homeland security mission. According to the report First Responder, Homeland Security, and Law Enforcement Robots Market Shares, Strategies, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2010 to 2016, the market for first responder and law enforcement robotics is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2016.  Among the areas where robots are and could be providing services to homeland security interests are:

  • cyber-physical systems security
  • CBRNE/WMD detection
  • Explosive and bomb disarmament
  • UAVs and UGVs for surveillance and border security
  • Underground/tunnel operations
  • Robotic search and rescue
  • Underwater/Coast Guard functions
  • Perimeter security

In order to be successful in the homeland security space, experience has shown that cost-effective robotic systems must move and navigate in a physical world and interact with first responders, law enforcement, and citizens in an effective manner.

Happy National Robotics Week. If you are looking for activities in your area, they can be found here.




March 11, 2011

Googling Disaster – Google Crisis Response

Filed under: Catastrophes,Technology for HLS — by Arnold Bogis on March 11, 2011

Google operates a website, Google Crisis Response, that is designed to provided a wide range of news, information, and other helpful online tools in the wake of a disaster.  Among the services it provides:

  • Organizing emergency alerts, news updates and donation opportunities, and making this information visible through our web properties
  • Building engineering tools that enable better communication and collaboration among crisis responders and among victims such as Person Finder and Resource Finder
  • Providing updated satellite imagery and maps of affected areas to illustrate infrastructure damage and help relief organizations navigate disaster zones
  • Supporting the rebuilding of network infrastructure where it has been damaged to enable access to the Internet
  • Donating to charitable organizations that are providing direct relief on-the-ground

This strikes me not only as a powerful example of the potential impact of such an aggregator on disaster response and recovery, but it also could serve as a potential model of a sort for future collaboration across all facets of homeland security.

The page dedicated to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami can be found here:


February 15, 2011

There’s an app for that.

Filed under: Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on February 15, 2011

One day last year, Richard Price and a few co-workers from his agency’s information technology (IT) group were eating lunch at a deli. He heard a siren and briefly wondered where the emergency was.

The siren got louder and closer. In a few minutes, a fire engine pulled up and parked in front of the deli. That’s when Price — who is the fire chief for California’s San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District — learned the San Ramon engine was responding to a cardiac arrest call next door to the deli.

Price was on duty, in uniform, with a defibrillator in his car. One of the people he was eating lunch with was a paramedic. The emergency was a few feet away, but no one knew until the engine showed up. (Price carries a pager, but he’s typically not notified of medical emergencies.)

Cardiac arrest means the heart stops beating. Once that happens to you, you have about 10 minutes to live. After that, there is very little chance you’ll survive. Each year, over 300,000 people in the United States die from sudden cardiac arrest. Many of those people die needlessly. But even with all the advances in medicine, national survival rates are still less than 8%.

CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) buys time to allow paramedics to arrive and provide advanced care. Survival rates can exceed 80% when CPR is performed and an automated external defibrillator (AED — a small machine that shocks the heart back into normal rhythm) is used in the first few minutes after a cardiac arrest.

Price was very bothered he had no idea there was someone just a few steps away from him who needed help. He promised this would not happen to him again, or to anyone else in his community. He spent the rest of that afternoon with his IT staff brainstorming and drawing diagrams on deli napkins

The result of that incident is an iPhone application — called Fire Department — that gives regular citizens the chance to provide life-saving assistance to victims of Sudden Cardiac Arrest. The application helps dispatch CPR trained citizens to cardiac emergencies occurring nearby.

Here’s how it works: Once you download the free iTunes app (available here),  you can be notified if you are near someone having a cardiac emergency.  Notifications are made — the same time paramedics are dispatched — to people who are CPR trained and who  indicated they are willing to assist during a sudden cardiac arrest emergency.

The notifications will only be made if the victim is in a public place and only to potential rescuers who are in the immediate vicinity of the emergency. The application also directs the citizen rescuers to the exact location of the closest public access AED.

Currently the application only works within the San Ramon Valley fire district, in California. But Chief Price eagerly wants to share the application “with other communities around the globe.”  The current version works on the iPhone. Price’s agency is developing versions for other smart phones.

You can see a short video explaining the app at the end of this post. You can also go to http://firedepartment.mobi for more information.

The first time I heard about the app, the public safety group I was with — while strongly supportive of the idea — had several questions about potential downsides and liabilities of the application. Price convinced the audience that his agency was entering this new dimension of citizen engagement with its organizational eyes open. They have considered the potential benefits against liabilities and are willing to accept the risks if it means saving more lives.

What is the connection between the Fire Department app and homeland security?

If homeland security has to do with “all hazards,” then surely there must be room within the enterprise for an idea that can help reduce some of the 300,000 deaths caused each year by sudden cardiac arrest.

As importantly, Fire Department is one more example of the importance of a surging technology that can sling angry birds into enclaves of thieving pigs, or overthrow a dictator, or save the life of a heart attack victim who did not have to die.

I wonder what else the technology can do?

Here’s the video that shows what the San Ramon Fire Department did with it.

December 10, 2010

Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood and the place of homeland security

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,Congress and HLS,Technology for HLS — by Philip J. Palin on December 10, 2010

             Representative Harold “Hal” Rogers (R-Kentucky).  Picture by the Associated Press

Earlier this week the House Republican Steering Committee and House Republican Conference tapped Harold “Hal” Rogers as the next Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.  Selection of the senior member of Kentucky’s House delegation was greeted by protests from Left and Right.

Mr. Rogers previously served as both chairman and ranking-member of the Homeland Security subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.  He also served on the transportation and defense appropriations subcommittees. (See his official biography.)

Elected in 1980 to represent one the nation’s most economically challenged congressional districts, Mr. Rogers has been effective directing federal funds to a wide array of local wants and needs.  As such he has been assailed by the Lexington Herald-Leader (KY), New York Times, and others as the “Prince of Pork.”  This accusation headlined most of the news coverage given his pending role as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.  Mr. Rogers has joined other GOP leaders in pledging no-new-earmarks.

Constituting less than .05 percent (half of one percent) of the federal budget I perceive outrage over earmarks to be one of those symptoms that complicate diagnosis and treatment of the underlying disease.  In this particular case the pork barrel critiques of Mr. Rogers also obscure his substantive legislative record and specific interest in homeland security.

Full disclosure: from 2005 through 2007 I was Chairman of the Board of a company with a facility in Mr. Rogers congressional district.  As such I often participated in local economic development activities and met with Mr. Rogers or his staff.  During several of these discussions, homeland security was a topic.  While we would not have turned down an earmark sponsored by Mr. Rogers, the company I served did not receive such support. 

From this experience I came away with three strong impressions:

1. Mr. Rogers is an accessible and intelligent man.  He has a particular interest in homeland security and especially in how science and technology can be a force-multiplier.  In my first encounter with the Congressman he quizzed me on homeland security like the former prosecutor he is.  He knows the issues. He understands the complications. He is sophisticated in his strategic approach to homeland security challenges.  He listens.  This personal impression was confirmed by watching him question witnesses in subcommittee hearings. 

2. Mr. Rogers is consistently bipartisan in his approach.  The old saw says there are three parties on Capitol Hill: Republicans, Democrats, and Appropriators. While Mr. Rogers is certainly conservative in most ways, appropriators tend to be pragmatic and less partisan.   This approach served him well in the Minority, it is likely to mark his return to the Majority and to leadership of the full Appropriations Committee.  Chairing Appropriations has been a long-time personal ambition.  On December 31 he will turn 73.  Mr. Rogers is not looking to squander this opportunity.  Leaving a meaningful legacy is one of the more constructive motivations.

3. Like all members of  Congress and most busy professionals,  Mr. Rogers is — at least in part — a creature of his staff and contacts.  Every staff member I met was smart, competent, and wildly over-worked.  Both on Capitol Hill and back in the District what I observed was a tendency for the most narrowly self-interested people to be the most assertive and effective communicators, proposers, and planners.  On several occasions I saw senior public servants choke and defer when Mr. Rogers or his staff were entirely prepared to listen to alternatives.  In retrospect I was one of a whole host of folks who should have — could have — pushed harder on key issues of homeland security.  My hesitation — our hesitation, or cynicism, or laziness, or disdain — just offers opportunity to others who are more willing and ready claim a Congressman’s attention.

Because homeland security — the mission, not the budget per se — is important to me, I will be glad to see Mr. Rogers become Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.   He is more interested in and better able to meaningfully engage homeland security than any other serious candidate for the leadership role.  

As always in democracies — even those with republican constitutions — the quality of leadership will reflect and largely depend on the quality of those who choose to seriously engage the process.

November 2, 2010

The perfect citizen?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Technology for HLS — by Christopher Bellavita on November 2, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is S. Francis Thorn.  Thorn teaches homeland security at a university in the United States.  He has a military and intelligence background.   This is his first post for Homeland Security Watch.


First off, the “picture” is fake. It is digitally manufactured.

This “art” is taken from a Wired.com article regarding promotional marketing for a medical imaging company.  With technology being so pervasive, dare I say promiscuous, it may be more common to see medical imaging technology -or technology in general – being cross-pollinated with other disciplines for different uses. After all, if GPS is good for munitions finding their target, it is also good for helping people find the nearest hospital.

That said, the recent concerns surrounding TSA screening techniques is an indication further discussion is necessary, especially as it relates to the pervasive use of technology and its impact on privacy. When a commercial airline pilot is willing to risk his job – during one of the worst economic periods in American history – over TSA screening techniques, this pilot may be saying ‘I’m no longer willing to ride in the back of the bus.’ And should we blame him? TSA itself has abused the technology.

Additionally, how much confidence does DHS/TSA leadership inspire when a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ security model is projected?

At a recent event at JKF International airport, where Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano was showcasing the new Advanced Imaging Technology (ATI), she apparently did not participate in demonstrating the efficacy of the technology, but instead used “volunteers.”

But let’s not skirt the main issue – which is protecting the American flyer from terrorism. Let there be no doubt, the threat is real.

In the context of threats to U.S. Airlines, there may be some common denominators – like citizenship (…or the citizenship of packages). Poor Juan Williams…

Flight 175:

Marwan al-Shehhi (United Arab Emirates)

Fayez Ahmad (United Arab Emirates)

Mohald al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Hamza al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Ahmed al-Ghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 11:

Mohamed Atta (Egypt)

Walid al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Wail al-Shehri (Saudi Arabia)

Abd al-Aziz al-Umari (Saudi Arabia)

Satam al-Suqami (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 77:

Hani Hanjur (Saudi Arabia)

Khalid al-Mihdhar (Saudi Arabia)

Majid Muqid (Saudi Arabia)

Nawaf al-Hamzi (Saudi Arabia)

Salem al-Hamzi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 93:

Ziad Jarrahi (Lebanon)

Ahmad al-haznawi (Saudi Arabia)

Ahmad al-nami (Saudi Arabia)

Saeed Alghamdi (Saudi Arabia)

Flight 63:

Richard Reid (Great Britain)

Flight 253:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Nigeria)

True, American’s can be radicalized domestically and access various transportation systems – but they can also join the U.S. Army (here and here) or get invited to speak at Pentagon luncheons….

One challenge with aviation security — as last week’s air cargo incident illustrated — is that there is a significant international aspect. The U.S. has integrated itself into the international system (i.e. globalization) to such an extent that external security threats are having an impact on internal freedoms. In the context of aviation security and its affect on privacy, the conversation regarding America’s relationship with the international community has been anemic.

For example, if individuals are traveling from overseas to kill Americans, is it appropriate to revisit programs like our visa wavier program before placing tighter security restrictions on the internal movements of American Citizens? Internationalism, in many ways, is antithetical to the American ethos.

For those curious about how America might interact with the global community, President George Washington’s Farewell Address is a necessary primer. As a suggestion, pay particular attention to Washington’s council “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” Essentially, with certain caveats, Washington’s prescription for preserving American freedom is for the United States to interact with the global community in the most detached manner possible.

In the context of America’s approach to aviation security or National/Homeland Security writ large (i.e. international security partnerships/alliances/collaboration), it seems a question we need to answer as a nation is – whether Washington’s council is relevant or obsolete?

For those who consider Washington’s council is obsolete – strike a pose.

June 4, 2010

A Review: Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism

In 2005, Stewart Baker joined the Department of Homeland Security as Assistant Secretary of Policy for the entire Department of Homeland Security under Secretary Michael Chertoff. The position, which evolved from the Assistant Secretary for Border and Transportation Security Policy and Planning position, has the following responsibilities, according to the DHS website:

  • Leads coordination of Department-wide policies, programs, and planning, which will ensure consistency and integration of missions throughout the entire Department.
  • Provides a central office to develop and communicate policies across multiple components of the homeland security network and strengthens the Department’s ability to maintain policy and operational readiness needed to protect the homeland.
  • Provides the foundation and direction for Department-wide strategic planning and budget priorities.
  • Bridges multiple headquarters’ components and operating agencies to improve communication among departmental entities, eliminate duplication of effort, and translate policies into timely action.
  • Creates a single point of contact for internal and external stakeholders that will allow for streamlined policy management across the Department.

Baker would hold the position for the next four years, tackling a variety of issues from border and travel to cybersecurity and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to bioterrorism.  In his upcoming book, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism, Baker offers an intriguing view of our homeland security posture that ties back to the central theme that technology is both our savior and our enemy as it empowers not only us but our foes.  Coming from Baker, who has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the most techno-literate lawyers around,” the analysis of homeland security technology from a policy/legal prism is refreshing.  This is not a Luddite’s view of why technology harms, but an expert’s finely woven story of “how the technologies we love eventually find new ways to kill us, and how to stop them from doing that.”

A subtheme throughout the book is that information sharing, or lack thereof, has hindered our nation’s efforts to fight terrorism, especially when “privacy” has played a role.  In setting up a discussion of what led to his time at DHS, Baker recounts some of the failures leading up to 9/11, including the information sharing wall put up at the Department of Justice between intelligence and law enforcement elements of the agency, as well as challenges at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. His view is of someone who has spent time in the intelligence world as the General Counsel of the National Security Agency and as General Counsel of the Robb-Silberman Commission investigating intelligence failures before the Iraq War. The account dives into the intricacies of Justice and its overseers, as well as how bureaucracy and personalities can so easily define our government’s most sensitive policies.

The book then looks at his days at DHS and attempts to strengthen border and travel programs and policies for acronym-named programs, including Passenger Name Records (PNR), the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), and Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System II (CAPPS II),  among others.  If you have ever doubted Washington’s love of acronyms and initialisms, this read will certainly change your mind.

In evaluating efforts in the aviation space, Baker is critical of a number of groups that he deems to have stood in the way of the Department’s mission during his tenure, including the private sector, European governing bodies, bureaucrats, Congress, and privacy/civil liberties groups, all of whom he argues are all about the status quo and not open to change.  Some of his criticisms are valid while others seem to simplify the views of the various actors.  For example, in dismissing some of the tourism industry’s concerns related to travel policies, he argues that the industry did not want innovation in government security on the border. Having been in the trenches at the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee during many of these debates, I would argue that the balancing of the numerous parties’ interests and concerns was not always that simple or easy to discern, especially when assessing the right security path forward.  Some programs mentioned in the book, such as WHTI, succeeded, in part, because they were implemented once necessary infrastructure had been deployed.

His strongest concerns are reserved for privacy and civil rights advocates and the government policies they either tout or hate.  There is a great deal of skepticism for “hypothetical civil liberties” and “hypothetical privacy concerns,” without evidence of demonstrated abuses by the government. He cites numerous incidents, some of which certainly demonstrate the tension between privacy and security co-existing.  A few of the examples he uses have even been explored here at HLSWatch, including complaints about whole body imaging machines in airports.  See, e.g. The Right to Be Left Alone (October 27, 2009) and “Where are all the white guys?” (November 10, 2009). Reading the book, privacy and civil liberties supporters may find it hard to balance Baker’s call for imagination when tackling homeland security policy and decisionmaking without calling for a similar level of creative thinking when addressing how those policies and decisions will affect privacy and civil liberties.

The book goes on to describe how the Department and Administration tackled (or failed to tackle) cybersecurity and biosecurity and the differences between the approaches. In both sections, privacy and information sharing are undercurrents, though we also see some interesting discussions of such topics as patent protections, self-regulation, and the evolution of security in each of these areas.  The discussions are intriguing and provide both a history and analysis of why we are where we are on those issues.   The cybersecurity and related CFIUS discussion brought back some memories to this self-proclaimed cybergeek, including some of my first interactions with Baker when he was in private practice and I was at the Justice Department.

One last observation: while the focus on the book is obviously on the time that Baker served at the Department under Secretary Chertoff, it leaves much to the imagination of what work Secretary Ridge and his team- from their early days in the White House after 9/11 until the changing of the guard to Secretary Chertoff – undertook and how that may have contributed to some of Secretary Chertoff’s and Baker’s successes, challenges, and mindset.  In addition, despite the focus on privacy and civil liberties, there is little mention of the other DHS offices, including the Privacy, Civil Liberties, and General Counsel’s offices, who may have been engaged in many of the battles noted by Baker. The book is not lacking in detail or intrigue because of these exclusions, though I wonder how they affected the decisions of Baker and his policy team. Perhaps these items are the subject of another book for another time.

Stewart Baker provides insight into a D.C. perspective of homeland security and the struggle of a Department to tackle technology, privacy, and information sharing. The book provides some valuable lessons for those who are on the frontlines of homeland security policy as they attempt to tackle future threats. For an observer of homeland security development, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism is a must-read. The book will be released on June 15th and is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.  In the meanwhile, excerpts from the book and other missives from Baker can be found at a blog with the same name, http://www.skatingonstilts.com/.

May 12, 2010

The Big Ask

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Technology for HLS — by Mark Chubb on May 12, 2010

Tomorrow afternoon, I am scheduled to participate in a panel discussion on crisis management and technology at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. The event, sponsored by the campus chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha — the political science honor society, asks what role technology can or should play in helping us respond to 21st century crises.

The organizers tell me their focus remains squarely on crisis management not technology. The question in their minds is not whether technology has a place in managing crises, but how we should define that place. How, they wonder, will we know whether or not technology is helping us? From a practitioner’s perspective, this struck me as a very good question, and one that does not get asked often enough.

From where I sit, crisis management succeeds or fails on how well leaders manage its four phases, which I define as:

  • Awareness
  • Ambiguity
  • Adaptation
  • Accountability

Awareness involves signal detection, which in turn depends upon the salience of signals to those responsible for detecting and responding to them. Technology can improve signal to noise ratios, but may dull the sense of salience as people become overwhelmed by inputs, especially if those responsible for designing or operating the system lack contextual intelligence (see Nye 2008).

Ambiguity not uncertainty is the dominant feature of complex systems and their relationships with their environments, and no more so than in when these systems are in crisis. Successful decision-making in crisis situations depends not so much on the ability to gather information or even to organize it as it does on seeing the meaning or patterns hidden within it. Humans remain far better at reconciling the relevance of inconsistent, incomplete, competing, and even conflicting information than cybersystems. Ensuring such systems support the strengths of the people responsible for making decisions rather than using them to overcome weaknesses seems to me an essential step in preventing these systems from compounding rather than correcting our problems.

Most crises are adaptive not technical challenges (Heifetz & Laurie 2001). Although many crises present us with problems that require technological assistance, their hallmark remains the need to see our relationship with the problem and its environment differently from the way we did before our situation became apparent. Dietrich Dörner (1997) demonstrated that most of our problems managing adaptive challenges arises not from their scope or scale so much as our inability to see them as complex webs of interdependent variables that interact in subtle but important ways. His experiments demonstrate that we are particularly ill-equipped to manage situations in which these interactions produce exponential rather than quasi-steady changes in the situation. He further concludes, that when confronted with such problems, we have an altogether too predictable tendency to direct out attention in ways that are either too narrow and fixed or too broad and fleeting to do much good. Adaptive challenges, then, require us to keep the big picture in perspective and to engage others in its management. This is not something that cybersystems necessarily help us do better, as they engage people with a representation of the problem not its essential elements.

In the end, every crisis demands an accounting of what went wrong, and, if we are truly honest and maybe a bit lucky, what went right as well. Such judgments are as inherently subjective just as their conclusions are (or should be) intensely personal. Getting people to accept responsibility, learn from their experiences, and take steps to strengthen the relationships they depend upon to resolve crises is an innately human process. Cybersystems may help us engage one another over great distances in real time and keep records of our interactions, but they do not necessarily clarify our intentions or make it any easier for us to acknowledge the hard lessons we must learn if we are to grow.

Despite my concerns, I remain optimistic that technology can help us improve the effectiveness if not the efficiency of crisis interventions. But only if we do not ask too much of it or too little of ourselves along the way.


DÖRNER, D. (1996). The Logic of Failure. New York: Basic Books.

HEIFETZ, RA & LAURIE, DL (2001). The Work of Leadership. Harvard Business Review. Cambridge, Mass.

NYE, Jr., JS (2008). The Powers to Lead. New York: Oxford University Press.

March 30, 2010

The Open Question

The open source intelligence debate took on new meaning for me on Sunday night. Shortly after 8:00 PM a loud explosion shook houses all across the east side of Portland, Oregon. What ensued afterwards provides new insights not only into how intelligence is generated, but also illustrates some of the new challenges we face in managing the collection and analysis process.

Within minutes, more than 50 calls reporting the explosion came into the local 911 center. Police and fire units responded to investigate, but found nothing to indicate an emergency. No burning or collapsed buildings, no casualties, no obvious signs of damage or disruption were evident anywhere.

Public safety officials’ prompt response to this incident, like their response to another big boom about two weeks earlier in the same area, provided little comfort though because no one could confirm what had caused the explosion. As you might expect, this opened the to door to speculation as much as it opened the door to investigation.

Within minutes subscribers to the microblogging service Twitter had invented and agreed to use the #pdxboom hashtag to track reports. Within half-an-hour, an ad hoc collaboration started on Google Maps was tracking and color-coding these reports in an effort to locate the source of the noise. And more than 20 wiseguys had even created and logged into an event marking the occasion on the social networking site Foursquare using their wireless mobile devices.

The theories spawned by these efforts ran the gamut from the serious (an earthquake boom) to the nonsensical (unicorns fighting or a house falling on a wicked witch). But the map generated by the more serious reports painted a much more compelling picture of the event. Efforts by local officials and media outlets to isolate the source by consulting the National Weather Service, the local Air National Guard fighter wing and NORAD, the U.S. Geological Survey and various utilities likewise proved fruitless.

Yet the public remained undeterred. Hundreds of people logged in over the next several hours to record their experience of the event. Before long some patterns became evident.

The next day, aided by daylight, armed with these online contributions, information from the initial 911 reports and information gathered following the previous incident, investigators located the site of the explosion along a riverbank near downtown. Fragments of a PVC pipe bomb were also recovered.

What did we learn from this incident? Well for starters, people want to be of assistance, even in a town where the police are not currently held in very high esteem due to two recent officer-involved shootings. Second, they will seek out ways to make sense of confusing experiences, which more often than not includes sharing their personal observations and perspectives in a way that gives them meaning whether or not they produce a plausible explanation. Finally, the speed with which this process of sharing information about our common experience advances will exceed anything we saw before the dawn of the Information Age.

When we speak of intelligence we often conflate its epistemic and ontological meanings. From an epistemic perspective, intelligence involves identifying what we know, filling in gaps and discovering missing elements that will help us build a coherent picture of the situation. Interpreting this picture involves another aspect of intelligence. Ontology addresses how we synthesize data by dictating the sorts of frames we apply to create a shared sense of understanding.

Neither of these approaches alone, however, answers for us the bigger and as yet unanswered and therefore open question: “What was the intention or purpose of the person who built and detonated this device?”

We often assume that analysis and synthesis will lead us to the answers we seek to teleological (thanks Phil) — as opposed to epistemic or ontological — questions. Knowing what’s on the minds of those who seek to disrupt our lives, not in some abstract ideological or theological sense, but in the very tangible sense that links their intentions and actions, might actually help us interdict such threats before they emerge. If someone figures out a way to answer this question through crowdsourcing, we could make real progress against the threats we face.

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