The Worst of Times, The Best of Times

Americans can't get enough entertainment. A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but if you could make medicine videogame-deliverable, kids would pay for the privilege. Possibly because of this predilection, much of our technological innovation originates in entertainment. While academia may have given birth to the Internet, its owes its ubiquity as much to chat rooms and music file-sharing as to the quest for information. While we technophiles may scoff at shopping-mall-cum-email AOL, it made individuals and yes, even companies, understand that email was an effective means to communicate and that instant messaging has a place in the enterprise.

But there's another side to technological innovation and the American way. Hard times inspire us—or at least inspire the government to invest in, motivating such inspiration. The Cold War gave us the Defense Department and the space race, the energy crisis spawned the Energy Department, and the War on Terror inspired a $35.5 million Defense Department grant to Carnegie Mellon University to develop tools and tactics for fighting cyberterrorism.

While I laud the commitment to important research, I wonder if this type of investment would have been made in a different political climate. And it goes without saying that the proposed Department of Homeland Security could only come about in times like these. The problem is, creating a new government agency may end up seeming like a simple task compared with that of unifying 22 disparate agencies. More daunting even than unifying their "corporate cultures" will be unifying their data—which is a step in establishing the proposed Department. Three of the six key objectives are: communications interoperability, cybersecurity infrastructure protection, and information sharing and analysis.

So basically, the government will create an agency for which half of its objectives are those that every major company in America—albeit with different levels of urgency and scale—struggles with today. Welcome to the party, gentlemen.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Boulder Corporation's president, Lesley Taufer about the tremendous technological undertaking represented by the creation of the Homeland Defense Department. Boulder Corporation partners with companies like Citrix Systems, Novell, Microsoft, Symantec, and Computer Associates and has consulted on information-related technology initiatives at the Denver International Airport, the city and counties of Denver and Boulder, and the Department of the Interior. The good news, according to Taufer, is that similar integration efforts have been happening on a smaller scale for 10 years now. She says that the mindset all the way up to the FBI and CIA started to change years ago, and that she's been involved in similar information-sharing efforts on a state level. Says Taufer, "I think that American business has been in the forefront of this type of integration and because they have already shown that it can be done, it has become a believable thing for the government to accomplish."

But until now, she believed federal agencies were so large, they would not be able to provide a level of data integration commensurate with the history-making proposition at hand. What concrete factor has finally made it possible? According to Taufer: funding.

This year alone, even though the agency is not yet officially created, the government has allocated nearly $30 billion for everything from improving airport security to hacker-proofing govern- ment computers. And if and when it is created, the Department of Homeland Security will likely control many of these expenditures in the future. While the final shape of this epic undertaking may not be clear for a long time to come, it will certainly include disbursing tens of billions of dollars to the private sector. And while we've all enjoyed seeing innovation spawned through our love of leisure, we'd be cavalier to anticipate too eagerly what boons the department may bring to the private technology sector.

But there is more to be gained here than riding out a bad economy or profiting from bad times—though the war business has certainly bailed American out of its share of economic crises. Our industry of information enablers has been provided with an opportunity to provide solutions and expertise to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and, perhaps more importantly, to benefit from the knowledge that accomplishing this massive information undertaking will provide.