Sunday, May 8, 2011

AgencyWatch #1

Being the first in an occasional series investigating the doings of one of our approximately 666 federal agencies here in the United States. Yes, that's right, 666. If you suspect I engaged in some judicious counting there... you're right.

Today's Agency: HSARPA

The Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, created as part of the Department of Homeland Security Act in 2002, is the Science and Technology (S&T)) arm of the sprawling Homeland Security apparatus created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It manages the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, whose focus is more on Research & Development (R&D) as opposed to the S&T brief of HSARPA.

Ever notice how acronyms start piling up when you look at government? Almost like they're trying to hide something, isn't it?

Similar to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), HSARPA differentiates itself by focusing on projects with a realistic chance of producing workable technologies within two years of commission. Their focus is on counterterrorism, cybersecurity, border control, and disaster response; in many ways, HSARPA resembles the 'Q division' of James Bond fame.

They don't express their mission in such gee-whizz terms, of course. According to the HSARPA website, its approximately $1 billion budget is allocated to "push scientific limits to address customer-identified gaps in areas where current technologies and research and development are limited." The agency's Director, Roger D. McGinnis (sounds a bit like "MacGyver" if you say it fast), oversees diverse projects ranging from the extremely popular new screening technologies employed by the TSA, to new cabling technologies that avoid rolling blackouts like those experienced in the early 90s, to cellphone-sized detectors of chemical agents, to inflatable blast plugs that seal off tunnels in emergencies. And these are just the projects Dr. McGinnis feels comfortable talking about in public.

One of the most interesting public facets of HSARPA's work is the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative (CNCI - yet another acronym), which aims to secure the nation's online activities from attack. Of course, we'd never use the fruits of this research offensively against other nations... that's why we call it the Department of Defense these days, and not the Department of War. Wikileaks has made the vital importance of cybersecurity crystal clear to this administration, as if it weren't already aware. Although work on the CNCI covers many traditional areas such as data provenance and hardware-enabled trust (respectively, tracing where data comes from and building security into the computers used to access that data), HSARPA has a brief to pursue more 'blue-sky' ideas, like: "What if we could design a network that adapted itself to defend against attacks?"

I'm sure John Connor has an idea about that.

HSARPA, of course, fits within President Obama's "Winning the Future" strategy, with its unfortunate Charlie Sheen resonance. Quite why the future should constitute a zero-sum game, when it's clear our foreign policy assumes geopolitics in the present is anything but, is an open question. In any case, Homeland Security makes up a very small part of this "victory", if Federal budget allocations are any measure. The lion's share of research will be conducted - as always - by the National Institutes of Health (NIH); I guess to win the future, you have to be in the future.


Wendy G. Ewurum said...

Mojo, oh wow, I love the name. Thanks for the visit and the fabulous compliment. Much appreciated and I'll be visiting here often. Ok, I'm off to reading about Charlie Sheen now. Later........

Arlee Bird said...

Let's face it. We're all doomed. And this acronym thing. George Orwell was close in 1984, except instead of Newspeak we'll all soon be using Twitterspeak. Good-bye English language as we know it.

Tossing It Out