Jay Walker's US HomeGuard Will Have You Grabbing Your Mouse and Protecting the Homeland, From Home
by Bill Berkowitz
June 21, 2003
Welcome to the National Snoops Network, where it's "I Spy" 24/7. You've all seen advertisements offering what appear to be nearly irresistible opportunities to "work at home for only a few hours a day" and bring in reams of cash. I've never taken advantage of any of them, although I've been tempted. I've always wondered: Just how many stinking envelopes do you have to stuff and seal to earn enough to take in a movie?
Now, however, a whole new world of stay-at-home work may be at your fingertips, thanks to Jay Walker. You may not reel in thousands of dollars, but if you've got good eyes, time on your hands and the patriotic gusto to apply to the task, you just may catch a terrorist or two. If Walker's company, US HomeGuard, gets rolling, citizens will be able to log onto the Internet and sign up to monitor one of several hundred thousand of America's essential infrastructure facilities that are currently at risk from a terrorist attack.
Here's how it works: Outdoor Webcams will be installed along the fences of chemical plants, reservoirs, airports, and other critical infrastructure facilities across the country. The cameras -- costing about $1,000 a pop -- will be equipped with heat sensors, microphones and loudspeakers. These onsite cameras will transmit pictures to the World Wide Web, and that's where the at-home spotters come in -- they will be monitoring these sites from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Terrorist spotters will register online and get paid for clicking through photos from various facilities.
According to Newsweek's Steven Levy: "If any of the first round of spotters saw something suspicious, the system would 'flood the zone' by sending more pictures from that camera and those around it to 10 new spotters. If this group confirmed the alert, the professionals at the [central] data center would [be alerted and then] take over. They could confront the trespassers via the speakers in the Webcam… and, if necessary, contact local authorities."
Jay Walker's no ordinary Jay with an idea. He is the founder of the Stamford, CT-based Walker Digital LLC, a company that "invents business systems which solve problems." Founded in 1994, Walker Digital's inventors "have been granted over 200 U.S. and International Patents for unique business systems."
Walker is probably best known for founding Priceline.com, the Web site buying service that allows people to bid on airline tickets and hotel rooms. After its initial success, Priceline.com's stock plunged from a high of $162 "to just over $1, and Walker, once a billionaire on paper, fell from business magazine listings of America's richest people," reports the Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray. (As of this writing, the stock was trading for just under $4.00. For a critique of the company, see The TRUTH about PRICELINE.COM.)
Walker's spin-off project, called WebHouse -- which allowed customers to bid on gas and groceries -- tanked in 2000, one year and $363 million after its startup.
In order to protect the several hundred thousand facilities "about a quarter-million miles of perimeter" must be secured, writes Levy. Walker figures that it would cost about $50,000 a mile for the setup -- about $12 billion -- which would be paid for by the operators of each facility.
Walker anticipates that a surveillance force of about a million people would be needed. He thinks that government agencies and those companies in need of protection would pick up the approximate $10 per hour payment to the home spotters (sans benefits, no doubt). Walker would sell the system to the federal government for $1 and then charge fees to run the system.
Could Walker's system actually work? Some critics argue that it would be subject to all kinds of potential glitches including power outages, bad phone connections, and hackers. Inattentive spotters could be the cause of a huge number of false alarms that police and fire departments would be forced to respond to. What about the stay-at-home spotters: Will they have to undergo a round of security checks and drug testing? How much will that cost? Who will be assigning the shifts?
Charles Boyd, the retired Air Force general who served as executive director of the Hart-Rudman National Security Commission, which warned of a massive attack on the United States eight months before Al Qaeda struck, told the Globe's Bray that he "found the idea interesting and appealing. I don't know if the damn thing will work or not. But I like two things about it: I like innovative thinking… and I like ideas that engage and energize the citizenry."
But the federal government, always on the lookout for breathtaking new ways to combat terrorism, is not yet on board. David Wray, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Associated Press's Konrad that federal officials have not done a "serious evaluation" of the project and that the agency isn't thinking about developing a defense strategy that hinges on Internet surveillance.
"Despite such skepticism," writes the Associated Press' Rachel Konrad, "more than 10,000 people have visited US HomeGuard's new Web site." Walker said that he easily could enlist hundreds of thousands of Americans to sign up for home-based, work-when-you-can jobs. At a recent tech conference Walker said that "We like to think of US HomeGuard as a digital victory garden" -- referring to the vegetable gardens that Americans planted to help ease food rationing during World War II. "It lets people be part of the solution."
The US HomeGuard Web site, which bills itself as "The Citizen Corps that's helping keep our country safe," is currently under construction. If you are over 18 and a US citizen, you can join "The Homeguard," and/or sign up to receive more information at www.ushomeguard.org.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.