Protecting power in your pajamas

Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

With his establishment of priceline.com and the Web site’s subsequent kitsch-loving commercials, Walker Digital’s chairman Jay Walker was the reason we were tortured with the song stylings of William Shatner.

These days, however, Walker is singing a much more patriotic tune. His current project, US HomeGuard, is a grand plan to protect American infrastructure, including power plants and transmission lines, using the free time of the average Joe, and, with the vulnerability of the grid becoming all too obvious after the August 14 blackout, his timing couldn’t be more perfect.

“I think the power industry has a security cost problem,” Walker stated in a recent interview with EL&P. “They have widely dispersed facilities that are impractical to defend against trespassers in anything more than a passive way.

“Now, in a world where one person couldn’t do much damage, this wasn’t a big deal, but in today’s world–a world of asymmetric threats–we’re faced with a problem of reassessing how we defend the vulnerable points in the power system,” he added.

And, US HomeGuard is certainly a new plan of defense in the face of this latest “wake-up call.”

Every couch potato’s dream job

Got a cousin that spends every waking hour on the Internet? Got an aunt recently laid off from work? This could be the perfect option for them. Under Walker’s concept, a national system of at-home workers would spend an optional amount of time on their computers getting paid to watch Web cams set up at the sites of important infrastructure, including the power grid.

“US HomeGuard is a distributed system that is less expensive than any other alternative because it does not use expensive field personnel,” he stated. In fact, Walker believes that this system would allow security personnel already on staff at a power plant to be more efficient–since the secondary areas (like the back fence or a remote substation) would be watched by employees of US HomeGuard for approximately $8 to $10 an hour.

Their job would be to detect suspicious activity and report it to a US HomeGuard headquarters, who would then contact the power plant or company in question.

But, there remains one burning question: Couldn’t the same thing be done with just software? What’s the real need for our average Joe in front of his computer at home?

Walker insisted, however, that the at-home employee is essential to the process, that US HomeGuard cannot be effective just through use of software alone.

“The human brain is far better at pattern recognition than any piece of software ever is,” he stated. “In other words, if I dress up as a dog, you’re going to say, ‘Look, there’s a guy dressed up as a dog.’ Software can’t do that. Software can’t say anything more than ‘there’s motion there.'”

Who foots the bill?

Walker sees US HomeGuard as a market-based system virtually untouched by the government, and he believes the market will be kind to US HomeGuard.

“If I say to power plant management, ‘Look, you’re currently running three shifts, 24-hours a day. You’re patrolling all kinds of areas where there is almost never anyone. Why don’t we, instead, use HomeGuard to patrol those areas where people and vehicles should never be and redistribute the manpower we’ve got to more trafficked areas?'” he said. “I think power plants would be very receptive to that kind of market-based answer.”

The actual price for US HomeGuard would be based on a number of variables, according to Walker, but would boil down to the number of images that are screened by the system. Some power plants might need a “hair trigger”–instant knowledge of someone in that area–while others might only need to have the area scanned every minute or so, instead of every three seconds or every thirty seconds. These differences would, of course, change the price.

And, as for the question of security checks for all those at-home employees–a question that seems to be a common one for a secure utility–US HomeGuard has that covered as well: It tests them. Several times a minute, false pictures pop up in the system. And, if you don’t report them on a timely basis, US HomeGuard knows. This allows the utility to bypass those expensive background checks, as security is built into the system.

In the end, Walker believes the solid and symbolic bottom line of this system is its reliance on the American worker.

“It’s good work. It’s honest work. It helps the country. And it’s work you could do in your pajamas,” Walker stated. If field tests go as planned, those pajama-clad workers could be in place as early as next year. And, what more could you ask for than to make a difference while still in your robe and fuzzy slippers? elp

More information on US HomeGuard can be found on its Web site: www.ushomeguard.org.

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