Homeland Security courts Silicon Valley

The government has about $1 billion to spend next year on the development of homeland security technologies and is looking toward Silicon Valley for ideas on how to spend it.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
3 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--The government has about $1 billion to spend next year on the development of new homeland security technologies and is looking toward Silicon Valley for ideas on how to spend it.

That was the message from Jane Alexander, an official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to a group of about 200 technology executives who gathered Thursday at Veritas Software's headquarters here for tips on how to work with the new research and development arm of the department.

Alexander is the deputy director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA), a recently formed group charged with funding development and research of technology that could help the government thwart and respond to terrorist attacks and other national disasters. The mission of the group, Alexander said, is to tap academia and industry players for innovative research projects that could help secure "critical infrastructure" such as energy plants and telecommunications lines.

That mission, not to mention a billion-dollar budget, should be music to the ears of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and technology companies battling a sour venture capital market and an information technology spending slump.

A major focus for HSARPA (pronounced h-sarpa) will be technology related to detecting and dealing with bio-terrorism threats, Alexander said. But the group also will consider any proposals that help the various agencies under the homeland security umbrella and other departments handle domestic disasters. They include the Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration.

Alexander's tiny three-person staff and the department's Science and Technology Directorate to which she reports are already swamped with reviewing more than 3,000 proposals that have been submitted to the department, she said. Together, the directorate and HSARPA, formed in April, have funded less than 100 projects so far, with the amount ranging from $10,000 to $3 million per project, she added. Eventually, she expects to oversee a staff of more than 20 people with the ability to fund more than 1,000 projects a year through a mix of grants and contracts, she said.

If HSARPA sounds strikingly similar to the Pentagon's DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it's no accident. Both groups have similar missions: to spearhead research and development efforts for their departments. But Alexander said a big difference between HSARPA and DARPA, besides their separate areas of focus, is that her group is more interested in research that can be developed within six to 24 months, instead of "wild ideas" that take many years to develop.

DARPA, where Alexander previously worked for three years, was involved with the early development of the Internet. The group has courted controversy recently with its Total Information Awareness project (renamed Terrorist Information Awareness). More recently, DARPA was involved in the Pentagon's proposal to build an online futures market for terrorist attacks, which the government quickly abandoned this week after strong public outcry.

HSARPA has three broad criteria for the projects it takes on, Alexander said. If the technology is to be used broadly, for instance, among local police and emergency workers, it must be relatively low cost. If designed to detect a terror attack, the technology must carry zero risk for false positives, she said. Lastly, it must be adaptable to variations in procedures and infrastructure across different state and local governments.

Alexander reports to Charles McQuery, undersecretary of science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security who answers directly to Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security.

Alexander's group plans to develop a Web site where companies can register commercially available products online for Homeland Security's review. In the meantime, updates on the program are available on the department's Web site. The agency has also been soliciting proposals through a Defense Department Web site, Alexander said.