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Technologies for Public Safety and Security:
Activities at the National Institute of Standards and Technology

Fire fighter on radio

In the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is playing a key role in enhancing the nation’s homeland security. Through projects spanning a wide range of research areas, NIST is helping the millions of individuals in law enforcement, the military, emergency services, information technology, airport and building security, and other areas protect the American public from terrorist threats.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life. As part of this mission, NIST scientists and engineers continually refine the science of measurement, making possible the ultraprecise engineering and manufacturing required for today’s most advanced technologies. They also are directly involved in standards development and testing done by the private sector and government agencies.

Through a wide variety of standards committees, NIST is leading efforts to develop enabling technologies for protecting dams, bridges, telecommunications networks, water systems, and the electrical power grid from terrorist attacks.

These capabilities long have provided a foundation for America’s technological edge in the global marketplace. Now they are proving vital in the nation’s effort to develop and implement technologies to prevent, respond to, and mitigate terrorist attacks.

Below are examples of NIST’s research, standards development, and partnership projects related to improving homeland security.

 

Chemical, Biological, and Other Threats

A highly sensitive, inexpensive ?lab-on-a-chip? that provides warning within seconds of even trace amounts of toxic chemicals in water has been developed by NIST scientists and collaborators.
© Robert Rathe

A highly sensitive, inexpensive “lab-on-a-chip” that provides warning within seconds of even trace amounts of toxic chemicals in water has been developed by NIST scientists and collaborators.

 With support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, NIST has developed low-cost gas microsensors that can detect a wide range of toxic chemicals such as mustard gas and nerve agents at trace levels. The patented technology uses nanostructured thin films and mini heaters embedded in a microcircuit to generate unique chemical “fingerprints.”

 NIST researchers are assisting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in expanding and assuring the quality of testing conducted by its five-state Chemical Counter-Terrorism Laboratory Network. The network of state clinical laboratories is designed to assist the CDC with testing of urine and blood samples in the event of a chemical terrorist attack.

A NIST homeland security expert serves as the U.S. representative for the International Organization for Standardization’s high-level Advisory Group on Security that is working to identify needs for new or improved international security standards.

 NIST building experts used a sophisticated NIST-developed computer model to understand how anthrax spores may have spread through the Hart Senate Office building following an incident with contaminated mail in October 2001. The modeling results were used in developing decontamination strategies. NIST expertise could be applied to the anthrax problem quickly because the agency long has worked to improve indoor air quality by developing models that simulate how pollutants, smoke, and contaminants are transported through buildings.

An interdisciplinary NIST research team is developing a high-speed, ?quantum key? encryption system. Messages sent through the system cannot be intercepted without detection.
© Robert Rathe

An interdisciplinary NIST research team is developing a high-speed, “quantum key” encryption system. Messages sent through the system cannot be intercepted without detection.

 Continually improving methods and data for ultrasensitive detection of chemicals, including chemical warfare agents, is a major goal for NIST chemists. A NIST database developed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health provides the chemical data needed to identify more than 140,000 different compounds. The database is essential for rapidly responding to chemical threats at airport checkpoints and in other homeland security applications.

 NIST recently completed new recommended performance standards and operational requirements for both walk-through and hand-held metal detectors. Funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the new specifications enhance detection of metal objects without disturbing cardiac pacemakers or other implanted medical devices.

 A promising detection method uses low-energy, millimeter-size electromagnetic waves that easily penetrate clothing but bounce back from concealed weapons. With funding from NIJ and the Federal Aviation Administration, NIST researchers are evaluating the new technology’s effectiveness.

 A number of projects co-funded by NIST’s Advanced Technology Program have homeland security applications. In particular, Varian Medical Systems is developing a large-area digital X-ray inspection system for screening cargo and sealed freight containers, TechGuard Security LLC is creating a new type of computer firewall that uses neural networks to help recognize malicious data traffic, and Infrared Identification Inc. is working on a new biometric technology that uses thermal imaging to map unique facial vascular patterns.

Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity

researchers working with pieces of steel from the World Trade Center
Photo by Kelly Talbott
NIST structural experts are examining about 250 pieces of steel from the World Trade Center site as part of an investigation
into the building collapses on
Sept. 11, 2001.

 Materials scientists at NIST are collaborating with industry and academic researchers on test methods for high-performance concrete and advanced polymer composites that will enable structures of all kinds to
better withstand terrorist attacks.

 A two-year, $16 million investigation of the structural failure and collapse of the World Trade Center buildings following the Sept. 11 attack is under way to determine what happened and why. Conclusions from the study will be used to recommend changes to building and fire codes, standards, and practices as well as to improve emergency response and evacuation
procedures.

 NIST researchers, working with representatives from the gas, electric power, water distribution, and process control industries, have developed several laboratory testbeds to help in validating improved standards for protecting the security of control systems. In addition, NIST developed a Virtual Cybernetic Building Testbed for studying the interaction of control systems for heating, ventilation, fire alarms, lighting, and other building areas and to develop improved security techniques to protect these systems. As part of this effort, the NIST building experts are working with the General Services Administration, the Architect of the Capitol, and others to implement security features in real-life, large-scale automated building systems networks.

Power Lines

 In 2001, NIST and the Department of Commerce introduced the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), the most powerful standard to date for protecting sensitive, non-classified electronic information. The private sector is using AES to safeguard financial transactions and ensure the privacy of digital information—from medical records and tax information to PIN numbers—for millions of Americans.

 NIST develops standards and guidelines for all unclassified federal information systems. These are used widely on a voluntary basis by those in the private sector. The standards and guidelines encompass a wide range of technical, operational, and management controls and address such topics as contingency planning, risk management, cryptography, sensitivity categorization, minimum controls, incident handling, and telecommuting security issues.

Nuclear, Radiological, and Explosive Materials

NIST led a multiagency effort to develop new standards for radiation detectors and monitors. Here, a hand-held device is used to check the cargo of a truck trailer.
© Robert Rathe

NIST led a multiagency effort to develop new standards for radiation detectors and monitors. Here, a hand-held device is used to check the cargo of a truck trailer.

 A year-long collaboration of diverse government and private-sector organizations, led by NIST in cooperation with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), produced standards for radiation detection devices ranging from pocket-sized alarms to shipping-container-sized portal monitors. Adopted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the four standards establish baseline performance criteria and testing requirements for radiation detectors used at seaports, airports, and other key spots.

 In collaboration with the Transportation Security Agency, NIST is developing measurement techniques for designing, characterizing, and calibrating trace explosive detection systems. The techniques will ensure that equipment for screening airline passengers, baggage, and cargo operates effectively.

 Working with SPARTA Inc. of Rosslyn, Va., NIST demonstrated a novel technique using far-infrared (terahertz) radiation to rapidly identify bulk or airborne materials inside sealed paper or plastic containers. The technology has potential applications in the detection of explosives in the mail or other non-metallic portable containers.

Biometrics and Forensic Tools

Based on a concept developed by a NIST scientist, a new technique for analyzing degraded DNA fragments led to the identification of Sept. 11 victims who could not be identified with conventional methods.
© Robert Rathe

Based on a concept developed by a NIST scientist, a new technique for analyzing degraded DNA fragments led to the identification of Sept. 11 victims who could not be identified with conventional methods.

 Through its work as co-chair of the Biometrics Consortium, NIST has been instrumental in developing and implementing a common biometric exchange format that allows all biometric systems to share data. The Biometric Consortium has more than 80 members, including 60 government agencies, and serves as a focal point for research, development, evaluation, and implementation of biometric technologies.

 NIST has statutory responsibility under the USA Patriot Act to develop and certify a technology for verifying the identity of travelers entering the United States with a visa. NIST biometrics experts recently recommended (.pdf; download Acrobat Reader) that at least two fingerprints, as well as photographs and facial recognition systems, be used for this purpose.

 A series of NIST Standard Reference Materials can be used by forensic and commercial laboratories to check the accuracy of DNA typing analyses used to match evidence samples to suspects. The standards include samples of human DNA that have been carefully analyzed according to a standard Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) method.

Data collection efforts and tests conducted by NIST facial recognition experts in conjunction with other federal agencies are helping private companies improve computer programs that “recognize” human faces. Error rates dropped by 50 percent between 2000 and 2002.

 Captured computers are a key resource for investigations of terrorist activities. The National Software Reference Library data set developed by NIST enables investigators to search quickly and accurately for suspect files disguised as legitimate programs. The software looks for mismatches between machine language “signatures” buried within files and file extensions.

 Collaborating with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the FBI, NIST researchers produced a new technique for retrieving data from damaged or altered magnetic tapes and computer disks. The system will allow rapid screening and authenticity analysis of tapes relevant to homeland security. In addition, NIST is working on development and support for a new generation of high-sensitivity magnetic field sensors useful for border/perimeter monitoring and battlefield motion detection.

A project to develop NIST reference material bullets and casings will help law enforcement agencies improve confidence in the matching of ballistics evidence with firearms used during criminal or terrorist acts.

 With support from NIJ, the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Defense Computer Forensic Laboratory, NIST is conducting a project to develop tools and test methods for verifying the accuracy and reliability of computer forensics software. The Computer Forensics Tool Testing project gives homeland security and criminal justice agencies confidence in the results of their forensic investigations and gives software developers important information for improving their products.

Emergency Response

Police on computer in car

 For the past several years, NIST has worked with the Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability (IAB), the National Fire Protection Association, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, and other partners to develop the first performance and compliance standards for hazmat suits and other equipment designed to protect first responders from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. These standards are giving first responders confidence that their equipment will provide adequate protection and function reliably.

 In February 2004, DHS adopted eight of these standards. State and local governments receiving DHS equipment grants will use the standards recommended through the NIST-led effort for technical guidance when making purchasing decisions.

 The inability to communicate and share data greatly hampered the multiagency response to the events of Sept. 11. NIST is working with federal, state, and private organizations to identify user needs and to adopt and develop standards and technologies for interoperable wireless telecommunications and information systems.

 In the future, first responders may be able to exchange emergency messages and data quickly and easily using a wireless network recently developed and tested at NIST. The network uses web-based technologies and personal digital assistants equipped with wireless network cards. The network allows transmission of voice, text, video, and sensor data. In buildings equipped with reference radios, the network would be able to track first responders’ movements.

The Department of Homeland Security has invested in a five-year plan authored by NIST that calls for development of 42 standards for protective equipment, detection and decontamination technologies, and a number of user guides by 2007.

 A team of NIST scientists is working to help emergency personnel save more people trapped in collapsed buildings. Prior to a high-rise building demolition in New Orleans, the NIST team placed specially modified radio transmitter modules operating in the frequency bands used by emergency personnel and mobile telephones at various points throughout the structure. The researchers collected information on the transmitters’ signal strength and other data. The project’s goal is to foster the development of technologies that allow emergency personnel to lock on to cell phone or radio signals within collapsed buildings to locate and communicate with first responders and survivors.

 NIST-designed standard test courses are helping to improve “rescue robots” able to navigate spaces in collapsed buildings that are too small or too hazardous for people to access. Test arenas patterned after the NIST design have been built in the United States, Japan, and Italy and are expected soon in Germany and Portugal. Team competitions held at the arenas are advancing rescue robot technologies.

To receive a paper copy of this brochure, please contact inquiries@nist.gov

For further information, call (301) 975-NIST.

Date created: 3/23/2004
Last updated: 3/23/2004
Contact: inquiries@nist.gov