Rear View: A program meant to keep Americans safe from airborne threats came under congressional scrutiny in 2012 due to fears that the new generations of the technology wouldn’t be able to produce useable results. Lawmakers questioned whether the BioWatch program, a network that collects airborne particles and conducts daily tests for pathogens, should move forward after two generations of tepid results, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Department of Homeland Security pushed ahead with a $3.1 billion draft request for proposals for the next generation of BioWatch in February 2013, even while the House Energy and Commerce Committee struggled to view key documents related to the performance of existing generations. The committee was particularly concerned about information that indicated the program had produced false positives, according to the Times. BioWatch officials have repeatedly disputed claims of false positives. By May 2014, the most recent version of the of the technology at the time had also been scrapped in order to support “cost-effective acquisition without compromising our security,” according to a statement made by then U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman S.Y. Lee.
Keeping Watch: The program continues to be problematic and isn’t likely to be able to accurately determine an airborne attack, according to an assessment by the Government Office of Accountability.
The main issue still lies with the system’s inability to discern harmless particles collected from toxic ones, according to the GAO, and DHS lacks the performance requirements necessary to ensure that any additional upgrades would be effective.
“The effectiveness of the response and the number of lives that could be saved is uncertain,” the report states. “Further, an autonomous detection system must address several likely challenges, including minimizing possible false positive readings, meeting sensitivity requirements, and securing information technology networks.”
Although the system might be flawed, it is still the only system working to address the possibility of airborne threats, DHS official Jim Crumpacker noted in the response to the GAO report.
“The program provides public health officials with a warning of potentially hazardous biological agent release before exposed individuals would typically develop symptoms of illness,” the Los Angeles Times quotes Crumpacker as saying. “It is important to recognize levels of uncertainty and limitations are inherent in any complex technical system.”
Future Outlook: The GAO has recommended that DHS discontinue any upgrades to the current system until the department can establish technical performance requirements, assess BioWatch capability, and provide an accounting of the program’s limitations.
Others, however, believe that the government should stanch the flow of the millions spent since 2003—$87 million in the past year alone—and call it a day.
“BioWatch has devolved into little more than a program for channeling funds from taxpayers to contractors,” Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University Professor and bioterrorism policy expert, told the Times. “The correct solution is to start afresh.”