Calling All Techies

The aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita has revived an old idea that the federal government maintain lists of rapid response teams comprised of private sector technical experts to help rebuild after a disaster or terrorist attack. Called the “NET Guard,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) originally proposed this idea as part of the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The provision (below) was included in the final agreement, but the department has never implemented the program. Yesterday Senators Wyden and George Allen (R-VA) released a bipartisan letter calling on the department to implement this law.

Language authorizing DHS to create NET Guard:

The Under Secretary for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection may establish a national technology guard, to be known as “NET Guard”, comprised of local teams of volunteers with expertise in relevant areas of science and technology, to assist local communities to respond and recover from attacks on information systems and communications networks.

It isn’t clear why DHS never implemented NET Guard. It could be a lack of funding or interest. A sticking point could also be liability. The act does not expressively shield a volunteer from liability for his or her actions. For example, if the volunteer installs a faulty network that causes harm, it isn’t clear whether or not that person could be held civilly liable. The Federal Tort Claims Act shields medical workers in such circumstances, but it isn’t clear if this protection would extend to technology workers.

Other agencies have used models similar to this in the past. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used to have teams of private citizens with structural engineering background to quickly assess building damage in the wake of a disaster. The National Institute of Standards and Technology now maintains a similar program called National Construction Safety Teams.

ACM’s President Dave Patterson issued a statement to ACM members with suggestions on what the technology community can do to help.

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