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Proposal For Volunteer IT Corps Debated

Sen. Ron Wyden says a national volunteer corps of skilled IT workers is needed to aid in recovery efforts, but some question merits of creating an IT volunteer force.

Government and IT industry leaders met Wednesday on Capitol Hill to discuss IT's role in providing aid during national emergencies. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space, has proposed creating a national volunteer corps of skilled IT workers to help in emergencies.

Speakers at Wyden's subcommittee hearing were divided on what kind of services a proposed National Emergency Technology Guard, or NetGuard, should provide, and whether it was needed at all.

Andrew Rasiej, a New York entrepreneur who worked with Wyden on the proposal, envisions 100,000 IT volunteers drawn from top high-tech companies. NetGuard would have a federal budget, maintain a cache of computer equipment, and could call upon "reservists" at the request of state and federal agencies. "Leaders of the IT community--chairmen and CEOs of major tech companies in this country--need to show leadership and put their competition aside," Rasiej said. "If they really believe information technology is a fundamental part of our economy and society, they need to answer the country's call for relief and recovery."

Julie Coppernoll, a technical assistant to Intel chairman Andy Grove who spent a month at the World Trade Center site, testified on behalf of the chipmaker that the IT community should play a central role in responding to national disasters, but she didn't specifically endorse the NetGuard concept. Intel sent 15 people to New York to provide technical assistance and 24 computers to the New York National Reserve, local businesses, and schools.

"There is no question that technology could have done more to assist in the aftermath of the disaster by providing quicker access to information as well as supporting more families, more businesses, and the rescue teams," said Coppernoll. "Ensuring that technology is available and utilized to its capacity is something that the IT industry or trained IT professionals are uniquely positioned to accomplish."

But John Marburger, director of the Office on Science and Technology Policy, said Wyden's corps would duplicate the government's existing technical resources and expertise. He testified that a "virtual science corps" is already available through organizations like the American Association of Universities and National Academies for Science, Engineering and Medicine.

Rather than create another agency, Marburger encouraged voluntary preparedness and standards for coordinating disaster-recovery efforts. "I believe that having a diverse portfolio of communications choices, commonsense preparedness, standards and protocols for working together, and reliable public-safety services will enable us to weather and defeat any terrorist attacks on our IT infrastructure," he said.

Modeling technology assistance after the National Guard won't work, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. Miller said repairs to critical infrastructure are best made by the companies with the expertise to build that infrastructure, not by volunteers from "hither and yon." Volunteers may be well intentioned and well educated, Miller said, "but that doesn't mean they're the best ones to bring up a critical piece of infrastructure."

Wyden plans to schedule more hearings on the issue for early next year, but staff members say he's not convinced that legislation will be necessary to make the NetGuard a reality, but he believes a cooperative effort can emerge by bringing the Bush administration and business leaders together.

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