Barack Obama announced today the next phase of government national surveillance – with a budget of billions.
It’s called “the National Strategy for Biosurveillance.” The administration’s new National Strategy for Biosurveillance aims to unify national effort around a common purpose and establish new ways of thinking about providing information to enable better decisionmaking.
“The strategy promotes an all-of-nation approach that brings together federal, state, local, and tribal governments; the private sector; non-governmental organizations; and international partners to identify and understand threats as early as possible and provide accurate and timely information to support life-saving responses. The strategy calls for focusing on the most important information, and shaping the enterprise to meet that need, so that we can do more with less.
“The strategy emphasizes four key biosurveillance functions which are critical for the effectiveness of the biosurveillance enterprise. They are: Scan and Discern the Environment. Integrate and Identify Essential Information. Alert and Inform Decisionmakers. Forecast and Advise Impacts.
A few days ago, PositiveID Corp., which describes itself as “an emerging growth company and developer of sophisticated airborne bio-threat detection systems for American’s homeland defense,” announced it was preparing a request of $3.1 billion from the Department of Homeland Security for ‘BioWatch Generation,’ an early warning system designed to detect the intentional release of airborne biological agents.” The Department of Homeland Security already uses 600 secret air filters to detect lethal pathogens – either naturally occurring or those intentionally released in a bio-attack. Local health officials in the roughly 30 cities that have the filters manually retrieve them every day and take them to labs for testing. But, if terrorists released something deadly into the air, it would still take about 36 hours before the toxin was identified.
PositiveID seeks to sell to Homeland Security computerized “labs-in-a-box” that that can quickly detect deadly pathogens in the air anywhere. The Obama administration wants to upgrade the technology, known as BioWatch, to cut the response time to six hours or less. Estimates to buy and maintain the new sensors have surged to $5.7 billion – six times the initial price tag.
Air sniffers would collect samples at least four times a day, and an internal computer would run a DNA test on the particles for traces of anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and other pathogens. According to reports, Homeland Security has already spent at least $30 million trying to develop the new system. Under Homeland Security’s plans, 2,500 labs would be installed in 30 cities, including Boston, New York, Las Vegas, and Houston.
The next phase – Generation 3 – is expected to cost $3.1 billion over the next five years. These costs, along with perceived false alarms, have led some to question whether the program is a potential waste of funding or research.