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What to do about the NET Guard?

By stoothman in Op-Ed
Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 02:47:31 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

I have read with great interest the efforts of volunteers from across the country to assist the people who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina get access to technology. The survivors are using this technology to contact loved ones, register with the federal government, and begin the long process of rebuilding their lives. My question to the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina is "where is the NET Guard promised after 9/11".

"Short" History of the NET Guard

In March of 2002, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and George Allen (R-Va.)introduced legislation called the Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act. This bill intended to create a national pool of science and technology experts to volunteer their expertise in the event of a disaster, natural or man-made. The department was to be called the National Emergency Technology (NET) Guard. The bill was made part of the legislation authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and was signed into law on November 25th of that year. And so the short history of the NET Guard comes to a quiet end, never to be heard of again.

There have been various reasons offered for the lack of any progress toward the creation of the NET Guard. Theories range from a complete lack of understanding of technology by the Bush administration, to a general disinterest in the program by the corporations who already have disaster recovery plans and fear losing critical IT staff, to a lack of funding to pursue the initiative as resources were moved toward fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the reason may be, the much lauded NET Guard never materialized.

What is happening now?

In the wake of Katrina, IT people from across the country jumped into action. They knew that after the basic needs of food, water, shelter and clothing were provided for, people would need access to technology to send emails to loved ones, find missing family members, register for government services, and take steps toward rebuilding their shattered lives. The Red Cross has made a valiant effort to provide these services with the help of knowledgeable volunteers. Other people from across the country are scavenging equipment to be setup as kiosks or for use in relocation centers. These are all laudable efforts and should be commended and supported by the entire IT community.

What about next time?

Even the best efforts of uncoordinated volunteers tend to be somewhat haphazard and are not always spread evenly. This is not the best way to ensure that adequate technical resources are brought to bear upon the relief effort. What is needed is a specially trained and equipped organization specifically for these types of efforts, like the NET Guard. However since the NET Guard does not exist and likely never will, the IT community should turn its attention to the only organization that seems capable of organizing this type of effort, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC should have a technical auxiliary, akin to what was envisioned for the NET Guard program, targeted toward the real mission, helping ordinary people. This technical auxiliary should be a separately chartered worldwide organization and have three main tasks. First, prepare and stockpile equipment necessary for a first response type datacenter for people impacted by a disaster. Second, prepare and stockpile equipment to be used as donations to people and organizations that have been affected by a disaster. Finally to operate a datacenter to coordinate team efforts and to centralize disaster related IT efforts, such as loved ones database. This effort will likely require about 100 full time staff members engaged in development, administration, and hardware maintenance. In addition, it would require the assistance of specially trained volunteers in the event of a crisis to assist with system setup, training and technical support on the ground.

The first part is relatively easy to implement. A set of x terminals with the necessary server, firewall, and switches could be packed and ready to ship anywhere they would be required. Setup of the system should be easy as well. Simply plug everything into power and into the network. Start up the server, switch, and firewall. Start up the clients and quick as lightning a fully functional set of computers ready to go. The best part would be that since they are terminals they need not have any moving parts other than a fan and would be relatively rugged. The hard part will be gathering the necessary components and having them setup and ready to go on short notice.

The second part is a bit more difficult. Hundreds of companies and government agencies have surplus computers. The problem is many times it s not worth the work to refurbish the systems, especially given software costs and the age of the hardware. The other consideration is many local schools and non profits rely on this source of hardware for their own needs. In light of this, one role this new organization might be able to play is that of a national clearing house for surplus equipment. Also, this might provide a way to continually engage the volunteers in an ongoing project which would provide ongoing benefits. The other role this stockpile would play is to help replace lost or damaged personal computer in the event of a disaster. This becomes yet one more way to help get people back on their feet after such a crisis.

The final role is the most nebulous. It seems every organization with the necessary capacity set up lists for survivors of Katrina to note they were alive and fine. The end result of this is there were some 10 major lists people could choose from. This made it difficult on the volunteers who were helping with data entry because it required multiple entries to ensure adequate coverage. It was difficult for survivors who just wanted to make sure their loved ones could find them. And finally it made it difficult for people searching for a loved one because of the sheer number of lists. By having a central consolidated source to go to, it would have the overall effect of making these tasks much easier and would provide a place to disseminate other types of information and services.

This type of organization would provide exactly the type of expertise, that the Red Cross in its current form is not usually equipped to handle. The Red Cross does an excellent job of providing the basic necessities such as food, water, clothing and shelter. However an IT project of this scale should be placed in the hands of trained professionals, leaving the Red Cross free to concentrate on its core mission. And the Red Cross is the best group with which this new organization could align itself, because they are often the first ones on the ground in the event of a disaster.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What should the new organizations name be?
o Red X 33%
o Red I 6%
o Red T 6%
o Red IT 0%
o Red Guard 20%
o Red Net 6%
o Other (post name in comments) 26%

Votes: 15
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Also by stoothman

Display: Sort:
What to do about the NET Guard? | 44 comments (30 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
I think it should stay "dead" (none / 1) (#8)
by TheWake on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 02:54:12 PM EST

Why in the world would this need to be provided on an emergency basis. After a large scale natural disaster the more immidiate needs of food/water/shelter are paramount. In the short term, sanitation, warmth, and clothing are also needed. If there is disruption/displacement on a longer term, why can't the effected people use libraries and other existing centers? Are these people stuck in the disaster area? If so then they would need electricity and phone service before email and the web. If not then there should be local facilities that can be used or overused for a short term until the effected people can find longer term relief.

As much as the internet can be the center of some people's lives, there is no reason to think that it is an essential service to people staying in an emergency shelter. Any IT person who belives that access to the Internet is a personal "need" basically should take a vacation without their technology "toys" and enjoy a disconnected few weeks.

Not a need (none / 0) (#11)
by sophacles on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 03:42:28 PM EST

I think you may have missed something here: the net stuff is not neccessarily to be dropped in ground zero, but in shelters/camps set up for people.  In this case the Houston Astrodome would be an example.  These types of places could definately benefit from the mentioned set-ups.  Especially for distributing longer term aid, and tracking the evacuees. give each one some sort of card or id badge, and that way mail could autmagically be forwarded, there would be less chance of fraud, family could find each other quicker.  Rescue teams could persue fewer mistaken/false reports of stranded/missing folk, etc.

[ Parent ]
Still not needed so quickly (none / 0) (#40)
by TheWake on Tue Sep 13, 2005 at 09:03:53 AM EST

For long term shelters, yes it may be more usefull. There is still no reason to have a corps of IT folks ready and waiting for a disaster. These things can be put in place at a slower pace and in smaller pieces than you seem to think.

If I look at the Astrodome example, is there no other connectivity in Houston? Does Houston have libraries and schools with access that can be made available to the short term residents of the Astrodome? Isn't the Astrodome still emergency shelter. I would want to see the people there moved to a more permanent location quickly enough to not worry about Internet access for them.

[ Parent ]

A changing world (none / 0) (#12)
by stoothman on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 03:51:30 PM EST

I would be one of the first to say that access to the internet is not a need, but a desire.  But having said that, I would also like to point out that this "new" medium is one of the fastest ways to let a loved one know you are alive and well.  In addition, it is one of the best ways for various relief and government agencies to reach a large number of people effectively for the other things, like disaster assistance applications.

The problems with using other existing facilities are many, including transportation to those resources, barely sufficent resources for the needs of the existing community much less hundreds of additional people, and finally the general state of technology at most publicly funded sites, like schools and libraries, is deplorable.

You are certainly right about the need to bring electricity and some type of connectivity with you if you go into the heart of a disaster zone.  But that is a relatively minor problem if you can be consistantly get new supplies of fuel.

[ Parent ]

Faster than the telephone? (none / 0) (#39)
by TheWake on Tue Sep 13, 2005 at 08:57:07 AM EST

For my friends and family the telephone is far faster. Most of the folks I know have some sort of high speed connection, but they do not "live" on the Internet. A phone call or two is usually the quickest way to let everyone I know how I am doing.

[ Parent ]
It's useful (none / 0) (#30)
by OpAmp on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 03:56:48 PM EST

During the flood in Poland in 1997, volunteers were using IRC channels to coordinate relief efforts. It played by no means a primary role, but turned out to be remarkably useful in directly matching people needing help with those willing to offer it (e.g. "I have 50 sleeping bags, where do I send that?").

[ Parent ]
Not quite the same (none / 0) (#38)
by TheWake on Tue Sep 13, 2005 at 08:54:17 AM EST

I can understand the relief agencys staying connected, but there is a difference here. Internet access for the evaccuees is not really needed for this, and the relief agencies usually have communications outside of the disaster area for this already.

[ Parent ]
-1: My taxes already fund the Best Buy Geek Squad (2.00 / 3) (#9)
by MMcP on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 03:17:08 PM EST

nothing here

They do? (none / 1) (#10)
by Fon2d2 on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 03:24:16 PM EST

Can you provide any links to support this?

[ Parent ]
+1 (3.00 / 2) (#15)
by t1ber on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 08:48:21 PM EST

+1:  I like technology.

And she said...
Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad
Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah
Hadji girl I can't understand what you're saying.

WIPO (3.00 / 4) (#16)
by Patrick Bateman on Fri Sep 09, 2005 at 09:31:43 PM EST

Red# (or "Red Sharp")

I have to return some videotapes.

priorities (1.66 / 3) (#19)
by kalokagathos on Sat Sep 10, 2005 at 04:35:08 AM EST

Of course, the first thing I worry about when my entire city is underwater is, "how am I going to check my email?" Avoiding dehydration, starvation, food poisioning, disease, drowning, attacks by looters or the deranged, and escaping the city with all of my family still alive are on my to-do list, too, but maybe a little further down.

Excellent and well written (fpp vote) (none / 1) (#20)
by CookTing on Sat Sep 10, 2005 at 01:46:05 PM EST

I think this is a very worthy subject, and you give it a very interesting treatment.  I'd like to throw in these two links for everyone's consideration as part of the discussion.  Feel free to include them in the text of your story, if you'd like.

A Volunteer's View

Refugee Radio Station Blocked by Red Tape

Also, I'll bring this up now, so I don't forget it once this article has made it past the queue: I don't think it's ever a good idea to stockpile electronic equipment, unless it's a completely self-contained system - e.g. walky-talkys. If we had done that back in 2002, we'd have trucks full of P-200's and token ring cards.  Better to develop plans for quickly procuring and deploying them.  For example, make it easy for businesses to appraise, donate, and write-off the costs of any surplus equipment they can donate.

Not stockpiling is shortsighted (none / 1) (#23)
by rpresser on Sat Sep 10, 2005 at 07:17:04 PM EST

What if the disaster were nationwide?

Updating the stockpile biyearly seems like an ok compromise.
"In terms of both hyperbolic overreaching and eventual wrongness, the Permanent [Republican] Majority has set a new, and truly difficult to beat, standard." --rusty
[ Parent ]

Not stockpiling is shortsighted (none / 0) (#24)
by rpresser on Sat Sep 10, 2005 at 07:22:12 PM EST

What if the disaster were nationwide?

Updating the stockpile biyearly seems like an ok compromise.
"In terms of both hyperbolic overreaching and eventual wrongness, the Permanent [Republican] Majority has set a new, and truly difficult to beat, standard." --rusty
[ Parent ]

-1: KEEP POOPY ON TOP (1.50 / 6) (#22)
by I Did It All For The Noogie2 on Sat Sep 10, 2005 at 04:41:50 PM EST


you stupid fuck (1.16 / 12) (#26)
by Friedrich Dionysus on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 08:11:53 AM EST

i hope a robot rapes you to death with his big carbon fibre robot wang, wanging you in a way you've never been wanged before- not even by your dungeons and dragons buddies.

Flamebait (2.50 / 2) (#27)
by vyruss on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 01:15:35 PM EST

<flame> What, you mean you let black people in the USA use the Internet too? </flame>

OK bad joke :P

I'm just wondering why everybody keeps mentioning race in your country. Is there such a big racial divide? I mean over here black is just a skin colour, not a race. If you call someone here black he'll say, yes I'm black (my skin is black) and not be offended. Over there he'll probably be enraged and sue you for making a racial slur or something.

  • PRINT CHR$(147)

in a word (none / 1) (#28)
by tkatchevzombie on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 02:00:47 PM EST


[ Parent ]
You have no idea ... (none / 1) (#32)
by cdguru on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 10:21:02 PM EST

In the USA, "Black" is a special, unique and protected culture that is somehow different from "White" culture. Since African-Americans are not African - and many did not even come from Africa - and try really hard not to be American, they are left in a kind of limbo state.

In the USA, "Black" means you come from a slavery background and possibly (probably?) deserve reparations from "White America" for all the terrible things that were done to unrelated Black people hundreds of years ago.

In the USA, "Black" means you are eligible for an odd sort of reverse discrimination called Affirmative Action. This is supposed to be a way for black people to achieve equality with white people by subjecting them to lower standards which they can hopefully meet. But, since everyone knows the standards for black people are lower, this has exactly the opposite effect.

I wouldn't say there is that much of a racial divide, but many people - especially black people - are reluctant to give up their special status.

[ Parent ]

And then there's people like you (none / 0) (#41)
by GhostfacedFiddlah on Tue Sep 13, 2005 at 09:53:35 PM EST

As you may have noticed, grandparent poster, there's also a huge backlash among whites in the US to the civil rights movement.  There have indeed been cases of some people going too far in the struggle for equality, and you get people like the parent poster applying all of the worst points of the worst cases to the black community in general, while ignoring the fact that blacks are still discriminated against far more than they're discriminated for.

Even if no one is "right" or "wrong", this type of back-and-forth phenomenon feeds on itself and only serves to increase the racial divide.

[ Parent ]

Sorry, but that wasn't what I meant (none / 0) (#43)
by cdguru on Tue Sep 20, 2005 at 02:04:03 PM EST

It isn't "backlash against civil rights" to try to point out that both sides, white and black, are being incredibly stupid about the whole thing.

You want equality? Fine. How about for starters we don't look towards "diversity" but as a unified culture. Look at life in the UK - you have people of different races living together with the same culture and the same basic society. There isn't any "black" this or "black" that, there is just "us".

The US isn't going to get anywhere as long as the idea is put forth that intermarriage between races is some kind of "cultural genocide". Neither is the idea that "black people" are a different kind of "people" than "white people". Unfortunately, in recent history the black side of things seems to be using political clout to gain advantages - and to get this they are quite willing to drive a wedge between "black" and "people".

You want to start fixing things? First step is to stamp out anything that creates or enhances "diversity" between people by making them belong to different groups. Hate to sound like CTS, but as long as it is two groups with "diversity" you are going to have the same problems. It is one group. Period. Get over it.

[ Parent ]

Well said. (none / 0) (#44)
by GhostfacedFiddlah on Tue Sep 20, 2005 at 07:46:21 PM EST

The problem is that we have no idea how to "stamp out" the main issue that enhances diversity - poverty.  There's no getting around the fact that the average black wage is far lower than the average white wage.  I'd wager affirmative action and similar programs are attempts at solving this problem to get society to a point where no affirmative action is needed.

As long as black are an underclass (or put another way, the majority of the underclass is made up of blacks), you'll never close the divide - it's simply too large of a barrier to understanding.

The solution is generational, of course.  Things like this tend to be - it's immeasurably easier to mold the mind of a child to a different worldview than their parents than it is to change long-standing views of the parents.  It won't take money, necessarily, but it will take a lot of minds and a lot of hard work.

I've heard of a social experiment where low-income black families were moved to a middle-class neighborhood.  While the parents did not show marked improvement in their lifestyles, the children - through interaction with other children and their parents - were far more likely to succeed, go to college, etc.

Basically, someone will have to take a stand and put forth some tremendous effort to close this racial divide.  There's a lot of social inertia involved and that's something that's very hard to change.

[ Parent ]

On matters of race and class (none / 0) (#34)
by stoothman on Mon Sep 12, 2005 at 08:46:05 AM EST

Actually, I very deliberately did not mention race.  The people most impacted by these types of disaster have the most in common not by race, but by socioeconomic status.  

The biggest deciding factor was income or more correctly lack of income and not race.  In the city of New Orleans, since the largest numbers of poor people were African-American, this tends to skew the numbers somewhat as it is a large city.  Outside New Orleans, poor whites also faced the brunt of the storm damage and the botched relief efforts.

It still amazes me, the less economically advantaged people of this country of all races, creeds, and colors have not woken up to see that they could be the main political power in this country, should they choose.

[ Parent ]

What do you mean? (none / 0) (#42)
by wji on Sat Sep 17, 2005 at 10:44:13 PM EST

How would they "choose"? By voting for John Kerry? I don't mean to say that poor and working people can't take real political action, but it's not a matter of simply "waking up". To conduct political action you need to have organization, communication... you need a lot of people who are able to put in a lot of time and effort. These people are getting home from their exhausting dead end jobs too burnt out to do anything but slump in front of the television, where will be implanted with the impressions that:

1 They are the ONLY ONES who have these thoughts about the need for political change, inequities in the system, etc.
2 The problems with their country can be traced to politically correct liberals, illegal immigrants, the welfare state, etc.
3 It's Miller time!

I get so fed up with the conceit of disenchanted middle-class types that nobody else sees the problems with their country, that if only other people were as smart as they were, the Great Society would pop into being with zero effort. Positive social and economic changes always require decades of concerted effort, against apparently overwhelming opposition, by people who have the least opportunity to change anything. Despite what you will read in the history books, it is not a matter of a few clever leaders giving sparkling speeches and changing the minds of senators and congressmen. The "leaders" who get the credit are generally being pulled along reluctantly by masses of ordinary people.

In conclusion, the Powerpuff Girls are a reactionary, pseudo-feminist enterprise.
[ Parent ]

The devil is in the details (none / 0) (#29)
by OpAmp on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 03:47:53 PM EST

While I applaud the idea, it seems that the author has overlooked a couple of problems.
  • Hardware reliability. You cannot take standard off-the-shelf computer equipment, drop it into a disaster zone, and hope that it will work -- simply because the stuff is certifed to work in the indoor conditions. At the operating area, you can expect the environmental conditions, like temperature and humidity, to kill the equipment quite quickly. Bottom line: don't try that without military-grade hardware.
  • Simply plug everything into power and into the network.Uh-oh. Power is something you don't really have after the disaster. So you have to ship some power generators as well. Network? The only thing you can trust to work are satellite links, with their inherent limitations (bandwidth, latency, price). Mind you, even if you deploy the stuff at the refugee camp not in the disaster zone, there are good chances that the camp is in the middle of a field, so both power and network capabilities are scarce.
  • IT personnel. Sending IT people to the disaster area poses a logistics problem in itself, not to mention that they have to be fed and housed. Furthermore, physical fitness of most IT professionals does not really predistinate them for such operations.
  • Data center in the disaster area. Bad idea. In case of an earthquake for example, you risk that aftershocks will trash harddrives containing your missing/found person database, setting your work a couple of days back.

    My solution: set up a permanent datacenter in some old nuclear shelter. Sign the contracts for the satellite links. To the disaster zone, send (a) a bunch of wireless-enabled dumb terminals (military-grade locked-down laptops, but something simpler would also do), and (b) a wireless access point integrated with a power generator and a satellite transceiver, to act as a bridge between the local wireless network and the satellite link. This way, each terminal gets connectivity to the data center. Now, all the necessary applications can be hosted and developed/adapted by the dedicated staff at the permanent data center. Logistics is not much of the problem, in the simplest case you could simply airdrop the equipment along with supplies.

  • Details are important (none / 0) (#35)
    by stoothman on Mon Sep 12, 2005 at 09:45:37 AM EST

    Actually, your solution is almost exactly what I am envisioning.  I did not fill out many of the details in the interest of not having a ten page article.  But those are exactly the problems this endeavor faces.

    Just in the interest of answering some of these questions, I will take the issues one by one.

    Hardware - I do not know if military grade dumb terminals are absolutely required.  But some kind of X terminal was exactly what I was thinking should be used.  They are highly reliable and have few moving parts, so are perfect for this task.  They will not play the latest 3D video game, but they will allow people to check email, register with various agencies, and let loved ones know they are fine.  The regular hardware I mention in the article would be for recovery efforts after the rebuilding begins.  It would help people replace equipment lost or damaged in the  disaster, perhaps as a stop gap until insurance pays out.

    Power - Power will indeed be the limiting factor.  But a small generator included in each bundles should provide sufficent power to run the system.  Then the only limiting factor will be fuel supplies.  To this end, I would recommend they be multi-fuel capable, gasoline, gas and ethanol mix, or straight ethanol.  If nothing else being able to scavenge bottles of high quality ethanol in the feild may not be to difficult.  The reason I lean toward ethanol is it is safer to transport and store than gasoline and i live in a farm state.

    Personnel - The screening process for field candidates at least will have to be strenuous.  Operating in the field will require a great deal on personal discomfort.  Therefore the candidates should have to face a rigourous round of physical, mental and psychological testing in the selection process.  Folks who are not able to be field personnel can always help in other ways.  This should help insure the best people are put forward.  As a side note, this may encourage those of us in the IT field to give a bit more care to things like personal well being.

    Data Center - You are absolutely right the main datacenter should not be in the disaster zone.  Perhaps you might have a command center to help coordinate efforts on the ground.  But this will likely be a glorified version of the standard feild computer center.  Perhaps,it could ermanently housed in a semi-trailer or such vehicle.  But the main center should be some form of redundant data center scattered across the country.

    [ Parent ]

    A note on hardware (none / 0) (#37)
    by OpAmp on Mon Sep 12, 2005 at 04:04:28 PM EST

    As for X terminals and dumb terminals, this is a matter of wording, but we agree :-)

    I would however like to explain why I indicated "military grade" hardware. There was a case of an expedition to Amazon a couple of years ago, that was "lost" for a week or so -- after they got to some place with working communication, it turned out that their satellite phone could not really withstand the high temperature and humidity conditions for long. Probably some idiot did not check the environmental specs beforehand. This is the scenario you really want to avoid in a recovery operation.

    For an example of needed hardware see this page -- sure you can simplify the device, but it still must meet the specs listed at the bottom. Otherwise, you will end up with a oile of electronic junk at the disaster zone. And I can assure you that the stuff people usually use does not meet these specs :-)

    My bottom line is that the thing you propose is absolutely doable. It may however be not as cheap, as someone could envision.

    [ Parent ]

    PRAY TO CHRIST (1.37 / 8) (#31)
    by Crickets Yawning on Sun Sep 11, 2005 at 06:51:39 PM EST


    emerge (none / 0) (#33)
    by herauthon on Mon Sep 12, 2005 at 03:15:33 AM EST

    To emerge from high water - one needs something higher.. In the Old days, when water reached the level of residence - people wend to a high place called a terp- sometimes a church was build there later on - for obvious (or not) reasons. This should be practice along areas where water can reach levels above men's hights (yes, also women hights) - the terps are made by a concrete base, large-car-tires are mounted at each side, covered with special-strength ropes woven into mats with holes 10x10, this covered with plain earth. If the water takes away the earthlayer - the mats will provide grip and protection. On this Terp there is a mounted mast of 15 meters high, with a safe-ladder - you can climb up at the top where there is a solar-powered signaling device. This uses a special designed frequency - able to reach other terps. The Terps are located 20miles from each other. The intention is to activate the beacon and light-signalling device. Like the church - there can be some shelter with basic needs in dry-contained food - and running water. Bio-batteries can run low-power radio's (OA81 based).
    if war submits, intelligent remarks are saved for peacetime.
    What to do about the NET Guard? | 44 comments (30 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
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