DHS sets up shop in Silicon Valley

Supporters have high hopes for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s new Silicon Valley outpost, but for now, the office is a modest affair.

Shutterstock / Copyright: Francesco Carucci

"Silicon Valley" can be a catch phrase for tapping technologies and business processes that are tough to find in an often-rigid federal acquisition process. Every federal agency wants a presence in Silicon Valley, at least metaphorically speaking.

Department of Homeland Security officials took those aspirations a step further by setting up a physical presence in Silicon Valley last year.

Supporters of the Northern California outpost hope it blossoms into a bigger presence that swiftly translates program requirements from DHS' disparate components, giving field agents a pipeline to cutting-edge tech.

For now, though, the department's Silicon Valley office, supported by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, is a tiny shop. "We're still determining what bandwidth this office will require," Melissa Ho, the office's managing director, said in a recent interview.

For Ho, former chief of staff at S&T's cybersecurity division, the near-term measure of the office's efficacy is faster contracting. She points to her office's first award under an Other Transaction Solicitation authority designed to attract startups -- a $200,000 contract to Santa Clara, Calif.-based Pulzze Systems to bolster the security of networked devices.

"I've never seen that in the time that I've been in government," Ho said of the short turnaround time between solicitation and award.

S&T chose the Internet of Things for the first OTS award because officials are taking note of the proliferation of connected devices and are "trying to get ahead of that curve," Ho said, adding that security was an afterthought when the Internet was constructed. That will be a tall task: a top computer security expert at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, has said that the interconnectivity of devices leaves computer systems essentially indefensible.

DHS buys commercial-off-the-shelf products, so all the better if the department can "shape that shelf in any way" earlier on the tech development process, Ho said. Vendors "can't just figure out what they need without us telling them what they need," she added.

Ann Barron-DiCamillo, who last month stepped down as head of DHS' U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team to launch her own venture firm, said a key challenge for the department's new Silicon Valley office would be syncing DHS program requirements and private-sector technology cycles.

"I think that's one of the hardest things is that you think you have requirements, but you want to make sure somebody out there can fulfill them," said Barron Di-Camillo, while welcoming the new outpost as a positive step. "It's part of the education process."

'We sent out one of our best'

Ho is joined in the Silicon Valley office by Sean McAfee, a cybersecurity official in DHS' National Protection and Programs Directorate. 

"We sent out one of our best," said Phyllis Schneck, DHS deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity and communications, referring to McAfee. "We made a statement."

Among McAfee's tasks in Silicon Valley will likely be scouting cybersecurity talent to work for NPPD.

That endeavor could be complicated by the fact that, according to Barron Di-Camillo, NPPD components such as US CERT do not have facilities in Silicon Valley where employees can access classified networks. In other words, if US CERT wants to hire a cyber forensics expert based in the Valley, custom arrangements must be hashed out to give the new employee access to any classified information their new job might require.

Chris Cummiskey, a former acting undersecretary for management at DHS, applauded the department's "holistic" approach to reaching out to tech firms via the new office.

"That's always been kind of an issue, making sure that all of the outreach coming out of DHS is coordinated in a way that actually gets you to move the needle," Cummiskey told FCW.

For the Silicon Valley outpost to truly serve as a technology conduit for DHS, he said, it has to involve all of the department's disparate components, from Customs and Border Patrol to the Coast Guard. (Ho has indicated that is the plan.)

DHS also has its eye on other technology hubs across the country; Silicon Valley, after all, is a metaphor as well as a spot on the map.

"We want to make sure we are not just focused on California," Schneck told FCW. "That was a good place to start; it offers us a plethora of companies," but there are plenty more regional hubs available, she said.