Securing soft targets Students Collaborate to Solve Homeland Security Challenges

Published 23 April 2021

In the parlance of homeland security, soft targets are places that are easily accessible to the general public and relatively unprotected. Last month, innovative students from Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas competed in “Hardening Soft Targets” – a DHS-sponsored 3-day event in which students worked directly with experts from DHS, the Phoenix Police Department, industry leaders, and academics.

In the parlance of homeland security, soft targets are places that are easily accessible to the general public and relatively unprotected. Marathons, large gatherings, sporting events and shopping malls are considered soft targets. Soft targets are challenging to secure. The Department of Homeland Security is working directly with students through programs like Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence to discover new and innovative ideas to solve challenging problems like soft targets.  

During the weekend of March 26–28, innovative students from both Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas competed in “Hardening Soft Targets” — a design challenge hosted by the Center for Accelerating Operational Efficiency, a DHS Center for Excellence led by ASU

Hardening Soft Targets was organized as part of Devils Invent, a series of engineering and design challenges from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. During this three-day event, students worked directly with experts from the Department of Homeland Security and the Phoenix Police Department, as well as industry leaders and members of academia who participated as mentors and judges. 

The students were given the choice of three timely soft target challenges to work on solving: 1) protecting the perimeter of a marathon from vehicle ramming; 2) designing city infrastructure to prevent vehicle ramming attacks; and 3) ensuring that municipalities’ water systems are protected from cyberattacks. 

Bill Bryan, undersecretary (acting) for DHS Science and Technology Directorate, provided opening remarks.

“Those places we call soft targets are usually accessible to a very large number of people, which makes it a real challenge to harden or protect these open and crowded locations such as transportation systems or neighborhood parks,” he said. 

He also stated that “bad actors select soft targets because of the number of people in one location and the perceived value of the target.”

Bryan discussed the need for data analytics and database management professionals to help counter the risks of soft targets.

“There’s a growing need: the ability to collect, manage and share real-time information for the security of our citizens while protecting their privacy and civil liberties,” Bryan said.

He closed his remarks by emphasizing how much need there is for today’s students to “reshape the homeland security workforce of the future.”

Former DHS presidential appointee and current adjunct professor at Seton Hall University Mohamad Mirghahari also kicked off the event. Mirghahari gave the students a real-world overview of possible attack scenarios, adversarial actors, security gaps and countermeasure strategies currently being deployed. 

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