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U.S. effort to boost anti-terrorism technology criticized

Craig Harvey likened applying for government certification of his company’s anti-terrorism technology to applying for a patent: It took hundreds of pages of technical writing and six months to complete.

Still, he said, the process was necessary — he just wished his company, NVision Solutions Inc., had heard of it earlier.

Harvey’s complaint echoed those of experts who say the government does a good job of creating programs to work with the private sector in developing anti-terrorism technology — it just doesn’t do a good job of getting the word out about them.

“They have very substantial programs that try to identify promising research and put incentives on that research to get people to produce concrete security technologies for the country,” said Stephen Heifetz, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. “But the department has done a mediocre job advertising the benefits of these programs.”

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One particular program, the Safety Act, was the focus of a congressional hearing last month. The act, passed in 2002, encourages private firms to develop technology to combat terrorism by providing liability protection in case a firm is sued.

This is a legitimate concern, Heifetz said, because if a service or product fails during a terrorist attack, it can leave the developers of that technology open to costly litigation.

“For example, somebody might come up with a widget to screen people entering a stadium,” Heifetz said. “But they might fear that if somebody gets in that stadium and assaults, injures or kills somebody, they’ll be sued, and feeling that, they might not develop it in the first place.”

By lessening that fear, the act intends to promote innovation in security technology. Since applications began in 2004, however, not many more than 400 technologies have been approved under the act.

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“While 400-plus services and products have received a designation or certification, that number should be in the thousands,” said Marc Pearl, president of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council, an organization that represents private companies that work in the domestic security field.

Pearl added that there have been reports that applications are reviewed inconsistently and that it takes too long to get a certification renewed after it expires, which discourages companies from applying in the first place.

“I see some troubling signs that implementation is stalled, with Safety Act certifications well below expectations,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River). Lungren pointed out that the number of new applications has fallen; there were 142 in the 2009 fiscal year but only 28 at the halfway point of the 2011 fiscal year.

The 2011 number has since been updated and will continue to grow, but the number of applications is not expected to reach the 2009 level, said Paul Benda, deputy undersecretary for the science and technology directorate at the Department of Homeland Security.

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Heifetz said the program is fundamentally sound but just isn’t well-known outside the community of established government contractors.

“Not all legislation is sensible, but this one was a very good idea,” Heifetz said. “I think the criticism here is less about substance and more about public relations.”

julie.mianecki@latimes.com


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