The U.S. federal government’s BioWatch system was launched shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 in an attempt to detect potential biological terrorist attacks. The system’s effectiveness has been criticized by the media in the past, and a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office does not encourage renewed faith in the BioWatch program.
The GAO report says there is a lack of reliable information about the current system to determine if it would actually detect a biological attack. Generation-2 is a flawed system that makes it impossible for the GAO to suggest improvements, the report states.
The Washington Post reported that “DHS officials defended BioWatch program, which consists of aerosol collectors deployed in more than 30 cities nationwide that draw in air through filters. The filters are collected and taken to laboratories for analysis to check for the presence of anthrax and other pathogens. The system was first deployed in 2003, in response to Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed.”
The GAO report stated:
[pull_quote_center]DHS lacks reliable information about BioWatch Gen-2’s technical capabilities to detect a biological attack and therefore lacks the basis for informed cost-benefit decisions about possible upgrades or enhancements to the system.[/pull_quote_center]
“The nation’s ability to detect threats against its security requires judicious use of resources directed toward systems whose capabilities can be demonstrated,” the report also stated.
The report recommends the Department of Homeland Security not be allowed to upgrade or enhance BioWatch until they can establish “technical performance requirements” to help improve the system. The recommendations echo a 2010 report by the Institute of Medicine which said “the BioWatch system requires better testing to establish its effectiveness and better collaboration with public health systems to improve its usefulness.”
The GAO also said any autonomous detection system must minimize false positive readings, meet sensitivity requirements and secure information technology networks. BioWatch currently operates in 31 cities including Washington D.C., New York City, Houston, and Los Angeles.
S.Y. Lee, a DHS spokesman, said the program “remains a critical part of our nation’s defense against biological threats.” Despite continuing to defend BioWatch, the DHS did support the GAO’s recommendations.
In 2014, the DHS also cancelled plans to upgrade the BioWatch system because of concerns of high cost and low effectiveness. The upgrade from Generation 2 to Generation 3 technology was expected to cost $3.1 billion during its first five years of operation.