NETGuard: High-Tech Volunteers to the Rescue?

The National Emergency Technology Guard (NETGuard) mobilizes a corps of volunteers with technology experience who could help out after a disaster. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon discusses the effort, funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would provide 320,000 dollars for the creation of a National Emergency Technology Guard. The idea of NET Guard, as the program is known, came about after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wanted to establish a core of volunteers with technology expertise who could help in times of national crisis. Senator Wyden is in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): Thanks for having me on again.

HANSEN: How exactly would NET Guard work?

Senator WYDEN: Essentially, this is modeled after the medical reserve corps, which is made up of civilian doctors and nurses who volunteer to be called up in times of emergency to provide medical services. For example, they were tremendously helpful in Louisiana filling in at the hospitals after Katrina. What you've got is a situation here where after disaster, either a man-made disaster or when we are attacked, you can see communication systems, you can see fiber optic networks flattened. And we ought to be using the volunteers with science and technology expertise to help.

So I went to work on a bipartisan basis with colleagues in the Senate. This has taken way too long. The Department of Homeland Security should have set this up, you know, years ago, but finally we're getting going.

HANSEN: Well, since 2001, I mean, businesses and government have done a lot to figure how they might work together to deal with the technological aspects of an attack or a disaster. Now, I mean, would this effort be redundant, maybe even create confusion?

Senator WYDEN: Not at all. I think this is a big gap today that we still don't have a way to pull together effective, quickly mobilized teams of local volunteers with science and technology talent. You can have an IT or a communications network get flattened, and you've got people who for very little cost can be activated quickly, sent to the scene really in a matter of hours to help patch up these communications networks and get things going again. We don't have that today.

And as I said to the Department of Homeland Security, folks, I can see why this takes some time. I can see why getting the nuts and bolts of it together is going to take a while, but it shouldn't be taking five years to get off the ground.

HANSEN: What kind of qualifications would the volunteers have to meet?

Senator WYDEN: Obviously, that's going to be something that is going to be worked through in terms of the pilot program. But the challenge in terms of setting this up is to make sure that there's, you know, expertise. We want to make the focus - making sure that for people who've lost telephone, radio, Internet, the things that are necessary for the communications recovery for the region with the governor or the president can activate the team where there's been a certification of expertise. That, in effect, is what's done with the medical reserve corps that I mentioned, is working quite well on the health care side.

HANSEN: So the volunteers would have to be certified that they are actually...

Senator WYDEN: Right.

HANSEN: That they have the expertise.

Senator WYDEN: Right.

HANSEN: What about screening? I mean, how do you make sure that no one gets in that might pose a threat or has access to critical proprietary information and systems?

Senator WYDEN: That's the point of setting up the pilot project, to make sure that you address those issues. Of course, if you go to work for one of these major companies and you're already working in a sensitive area, there's a fair amount of screening, you know, already. So in effect, you're going to see those people screened twice.

HANSEN: How long do you think it will take to get NET Guard up and running and off the ground?

Senator WYDEN: Well, I'm very hopeful it's going to be up and going in a matter of months. The department announced the program here a few days ago. I think we know, but given the fact that the Congress authorized the establishment of this more than five years ago, we're finally now in a position to tap the people who understand science, understand technology, have the expertise and the enormous bank of talent that is out there.

HANSEN: Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Thanks so much for coming in.

Senator WYDEN: Let's do it again soon.

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