Electronic Design

The Reality Of Homeland Security

Homeland security and the enabling technologies to make it happen are still far apart. The U.S. government has invested billions of dollars for homeland-security needs at airports, bus and train stations, stadiums and arenas, shopping malls, and many other places where large groups of people congregate. Yet "total" security remains an elusive goal.

Ironically, the technology to make large improvements in homeland security either exists or is under investigation, but its widescale implementation is far from certain. That's because bureaucratic, economic, and political roadblocks stand in the way. Also, there's a lack of technical infrastructure and experienced technologists to operate these systems and interpret their data.

According to INPUT, a company that helps other companies develop federal, state, and local government business and public-sector organizations achieve their objectives, the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) enacted about six years ago has been mostly ineffective. That's because it's "largely a paperwork drill among departments and agencies that consumes an inordinate amount of resources."

Last year, the U.S. government X-rayed or physically examined only about 5% of the 11 million containers that entered U.S. ports. Fewer than 40% were checked with portable radiation detectors. Part of the problem is the slow pace of equipment deployment. Another part is getting enough government funding to cover the cost of equipment purchases and installation. Nonetheless, the technology is there to do a better job.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a $5.5 billion plan for port security alone. The six-year plan includes a requirement for nearly all shipping containers to be screened for nuclear and biological materials by next year. The plan contains an annual $400 million yearly grant program to pay for security improvements at U.S. ports. But it remains to be seen how quickly and widely advanced technology can be deployed effectively for homeland security, given the government's track record.

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