DHS Wants COVID-19 Response Tech that Protects Health and Privacy

TSA agent Patrisa Johnson, right, assist travelers as they clear security for flights out of Love Field in Dallas, Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

TSA agent Patrisa Johnson, right, assist travelers as they clear security for flights out of Love Field in Dallas, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Tony Gutierrez/AP

The Science and Technology Directorate issued a call using its other transaction authority asking for innovative solutions to protect its employees and the public. 

As the number of new daily COVID-19 cases continues to climb, the Homeland Security Department’s tech wing—the Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T—released a call through its Silicon Valley Innovation Program for new technologies and processes focused on protecting employees’ and citizens’ health and privacy.

The new call for proposals is being issued against S&T’s ongoing SVIP Other Transaction Solicitation, a multiyear broad agency agreement using the agency’s other transaction authority—a procurement method outside the Federal Acquisition Regulation often used to tap nontraditional tech companies to work on edge problems.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on many facets of DHS operations as well as the health and safety of agents, officers and the public,” the new call for proposals states. “While this SVIP Emerging Needs Topic Call is intended to address several near-term use cases in response to the current pandemic, it is envisioned these solutions will have broader application to enhancing DHS operations as well as prepare DHS for any future mitigation.”

While the use cases developed through the acquisition will likely be useful across DHS, the solicitation is focused on six component offices: DHS Chief Security Officer, DHS Policy, National Biosurveillance Integration Center, Transportation Security Administration, Citizenship and Immigration, and the Secret Service.

As an added bonus, S&T officials said they are also coordinating with the research and pandemic response arms of the Health and Human Services Department to make the most of any overlap.

“Proposals offering technologies with potential application to FDA governed medical diagnostics or therapeutics will be referred to the [Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority] Tech Watch program for additional consideration,” the call states.

As with other OTA contracts, the program will be broken into several phases, each with its own funding ceiling and deliverables.

Phase I contracts will be worth between $50,000 and $200,000, with initial proofs-of-concept due within three to six months. Based on early performance, vendors will be eligible for future phases with “similar levels of funding and duration,” the call states.

Per SVIP guidelines, each awardee can receive a maximum of $200,000 per phase across four phases, for a total of $800,000. However, S&T includes an optional Phase V with an open cap on time and funding.

“If a Phase 5 is awarded, it will be scaled to meet the operational requirement in both length of time and cost,” the call states.

Rather than issue a set of specific requirements, the call contains five use cases in which DHS would want supporting technology.

“DHS is not necessarily seeking the technologies for these specific use cases but instead are providing them to give some context for interested parties,” the call states. “At the same time, given that responses to this OTS call may be relevant to these and other use cases, it is expected that an applicant will use one or more of these DHS specific scenarios to frame their application.”

The five use cases are:

Test and Validation Service for Security and Privacy of Contact Tracing Apps

In the call, DHS officials note that contact tracing “is considered an effective mechanism to break chains of transmission and control outbreaks.” And, in the modern age, the proliferation of smartphones can enable the automation of that process though the agency acknowledged it also brings significant privacy and civil liberty implications.

To assuage fears, S&T wants to develop a transparent ecosystem that “will rigorously test and evaluate these contact tracing applications to ensure that they are constrained to the designated and authorized purpose, and do not leak, share or in some other manner utilize the data that they have access to either directly or indirectly to compromise the privacy, security or civil liberties of the individuals who have entrusted their sensitive and personal information to them.”

DHS expects the resulting program will work on a “freemium” service model, in which core testing capabilities will be free to the public while premium value-added options will be available at a price.

Video Analytics for Self-Screening at TSA Checkpoints

TSA is already working on self-screening processes akin to self-checkout at the grocery store. Now, with the current pandemic raging, the agency wants to add video surveillance and analytics to the process to ensure passengers are maintaining proper distance from each other.

According to the call, the video analysis systems should be intelligent enough to determine whether a form is a distinct human but will not be able to identify that person using biometrics or other recognition tools.

Methods to Rapidly Disinfect Surfaces at TSA Checkpoints and Other DHS Facilities

The agency also recognizes that its security screening processes create bottlenecks at most airports, and wants to ensure surfaces like bins and tables are properly disinfected on a regular basis without slowing the line.

“Ideally, such disinfecting mechanisms could be activated automatically and unattended,” the call states.

Collection and Integration of Authoritative Quantitative Open-Source Information

The COVID-19 pandemic is generating a lot of data, much of which could be useful beyond the current crisis, according to Homeland’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center.

The data aggregator “has a need for tools to help monitor, collect, integrate and deconflict quantitative open-source information from authoritative sources,” the call states, referencing state and local health departments as an example.

“It is envisioned that one or more tools can be created to support and automate the largely manual process to identify, extract, integrate, and deconflict data that may be reported—e.g., at the level of local and state health departments—and comparing reports with data obtained from other sources—e.g., news reports,” the solicitation states.

Stand-Off Methods for Point of Entry Detection at DHS Facilities

As more DHS employees are called back to work, the department is looking for “non-invasive, non-disruptive and privacy-preserving” tools and processes for “robust point of entry screening.”

The call notes temperature reading tools are being widely used, however, “it is not a perfect solution,” as high body temperature and fever are only one potential symptom of a disease that presents in many different ways.

“It is envisioned that one or more tools can be created to support an initial COVID-19 screening measurement for triage use, that differ from standard market-available [commercial off-the-shelf] ‘fever’ detectors,” the call states. “Offerors are encouraged to propose alternative non-invasive, non-disruptive and privacy-preserving methods for entry screening.”

Applications to participate in the program will be accepted on a rolling basis through September 30. S&T has scheduled a virtual industry day for August 18.