Ridge outlines tech defenses

The United States already has beefed up aviation security, tightened border controls and improved defenses at utility companies and manufacturing plants, but technology promises vast improvements in security still to come, Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, said Feb. 28.

In an address to a conference of advocates for good government, Ridge said technology will play a key role in improving the nation's defenses at home.

For example:

* "Real-time disease surveillance" systems are being developed to provide early warning to public health officials of possible bioterror attacks.

* Automated immigration data systems are being designed to alert immigration officials when foreign visitors remain in the United States after their visas expire.

* And compatible communications systems are being sought so that law enforcement agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service can instantly share data not only with the FBI, but also with county sheriff's deputies.

The Bush administration is asking Congress to double spending on homeland security in 2003 to $38 billion, Ridge said.

An immediate concern is ensuring that police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel are equipped to respond to terrorist attacks, he said. But the administration also seeks to improve the nation's ability to respond to bioterrorism attacks, strengthen border security and improve the ability of agencies at different levels of government to share information.

One priority is being able to detect whether an outbreak of disease is the result of a biological attack or a natural occurrence, Ridge said. A real-time disease surveillance system could do that.

The system would work by collecting patient information, perhaps hourly, from hospitals and clinics, analyzing it for unusual patterns of health problems, then determining whether the problems indicate a biological attack or a natural event such as an outbreak of flu.

A number of real-time surveillance systems are in trial use.

Ridge said INS must develop an automated entry and exit system that will keep track of foreign visitors and alert authorities when visitors overstay their visas. But the system must also avoid bogging down commerce, Ridge said.

From a technology perspective, homeland security "is like Y2K without Jan. 1, 2000. It goes on and on and on," he said. Fear that the Year 2000 computer date change problem would cause widespread computer system failures prompted a multibillion-dollar government repair initiative.

With homeland security, "our job is to define the mission and build the technology around it," Ridge said.

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