One Billion Dollars Later, Government Audit Finds Biological Terrorism Detection System Unreliable

Tuesday, December 08, 2015
BioWatch monitor, on right, outside U.S. Capitol (photo: PositiveIDcorp)

The U.S. government spent a billion dollars on a nationwide system to detect biological terrorist attacks that does not work.


Deployed in 2003, the BioWatch system consists of 600 air-collection units positioned atop buildings, in transit stations and in other public places in more than 30 cities. Portable units are also made available for special events such as Super Bowls. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spent $1 billion on the system, claiming it can detect biological agents, such as anthrax, released into the atmosphere.


That assertion has been challenged by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which says in a new report (pdf) that BioWatch often produces false alarms because it cannot distinguish between “harmless germs and the lethal pathogens that terrorists would be likely to unleash in an attack,” according to the Los Angeles Times.


BioWatch “detected” pathogens at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, the 2006 National League baseball playoffs and in 2005 at Washington’s National Mall, according to David Willman at the Times. In each instance, officials had to make a decision whether the problem was real and it was determined the BioWatch was giving off false alarms.


Timothy Persons, the GAO’s chief scientist and lead author of the report, told the newspaper that officials “need to have assurance that when the system indicates a possible attack, it’s not crying wolf.”


Persons said DHS “can’t claim it works,” adding in his report that the agency “told us that in the 12 years since BioWatch’s initial deployment, they have not developed technical performance requirements against which to measure the system’s ability to meet its objective.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

U.S. System to Detect Bioterrorism Can’t be Counted On, Government Watchdog Finds (by David Willman, Los Angeles Times)

Biosurveillance: DHS Should Not Pursue BioWatch Upgrades or Enhancements until System Capabilities Are Established (Government Accountability Office) (pdf)

Homeland Security Dept. Cancels BioWatch Technology after Spending $1 Billion on Program (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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