Drone Safety (video podcast)

Heather Krause, a director in GAO's Physical Infrastructure team, speaking outside of Reagan National AirportOver a million Americans flew drones in 2017 for recreational or commercial purposes, and the Federal Aviation Administration expects that number to more than double over the next 5 years.

Drones can pose a number of safety risks—like potential crashes if communication fails between pilot and drone, or causing interference with commercial aircraft. The FAA is charged with implementing regulations and safety measures to ensure that drones are safely integrated into national air space.

In today’s video podcast, we’re on location at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. with Heather Krause, a director in our Physical Infrastructure team, and we are talking about what FAA is doing to promote drone safety.

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Combating Wildlife Trafficking Through Rewards

Recovered: A trafficked Asian leaf turtle with taped legsThe United States has become one of the world’s largest wildlife trafficking markets and is increasingly becoming a source for illegal wildlife and wildlife products. A sample of fish, plants, wildlife and wildlife products seized at U.S. ports includes everything from coral to crocodiles to ginseng to elephant ivory. Fortunately, the federal government has several tools available to combat wildlife trafficking.

One tool federal agencies can use to combat illegal wildlife trafficking is offering rewards for information that leads to fines or convictions. Today’s WatchBlog explores our recent report on the use of financial rewards.

Why rewards?

Multiple laws—such as the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act—authorize the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to pay financial rewards for information on wildlife trafficking. Such rewards have advantages, like:

  • providing incentives for people to come forward with information,
  • increasing public awareness of the problem of wildlife trafficking, and
  • saving agency resources by allowing agents to get information sooner and at a lower cost than they could have done through their own efforts.

Figure 2: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Poster Advertising a $1,000 Financial Reward in 2017 for Information on Sea Turtle Poachers in Guam

However, rewards also have disadvantages, like:

  • eliciting false or unproductive leads,
  • affecting witness credibility, a challenge at trial because sources were compensated for their information, and
  • consuming resources, as a flood of tips requires effort for follow-up or corroboration.

From fiscal years 2007 through 2017, FWS and NOAA reported paying few rewards for information on wildlife trafficking. FWS reported paying 25 rewards for a total of $184,500, and NOAA reported paying 2 rewards for a total of $21,000. Officials from both agencies said that their agencies have not prioritized the use of rewards.

How can FWS and NOAA better use rewards?

We identified some ways that the rewards programs could be improved. One example: law enforcement agents at FWS would be helped in their work if—similar to NOAA— FWS rewards policy included factors for agents to consider when they’re developing proposed reward amounts. We found that some agents didn’t know whether reward amounts they developed were too much, too little, or enough. Also, FWS and NOAA could better communicate to the public that providing information on illegal activities could result in a financial reward. This might encourage more people to come forward with useful information when they otherwise might not do so.

In all, we made seven recommendations. Among them:

  • FWS should augment its financial reward policy to specify factors law enforcement agents are to consider when developing proposed reward amounts,
  • Both agencies should improve how they communicate information about the program to the public, and
  • Both agencies should review the effectiveness of the rewards program.

Check out our report to learn about all recommendations. Our related report also delves into how NOAA tracks and reports the amounts it collects for violations of the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act, which are available to pay, among other things, rewards for information about violations of those laws.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Anne-Marie Fennell at fennella@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Keeping the Lights On: Building Resilience in the U.S. Electricity Grid

A hurricane is about to come ashore, a hacker is up to no good, or there is a wildland fire nearby….will the lights stay on? The nation’s electricity grid is essential to modern life. We expect the grid to be resilient—to adapt to changing conditions, withstand disruptive events, and recover rapidly.

Though most of the electricity grid is owned and operated by private industry, the federal government plays a key role in developing resilience in the grid. Today’s WatchBlog looks at our reports on some of those federal resilience efforts.

Solar storms, cyberattacks, and more

The nation’s electricity grid faces risks from events that can damage the electrical infrastructure (such as power lines) and communications systems. These include:

  • Electromagnetic events, which can result from a natural solar storm or from a man-made explosion high above the ground creating an electromagnetic pulse. These can disrupt computers and damage electronics and insulators, and can cause significant damage to critical electrical infrastructure, such as transformers.

Figure 1: Example of Estimated Impact Area of High-Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse, by Height of Burst

  • Cyberattacks on the grid’s computer systems and coordinated terrorist attacks on specific facilities.
  • Severe natural disasters, such as hurricanes.

Federal efforts supporting the electricity grid

The Department of Energy leads federal efforts to support electricity grid resilience and coordinates with other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. We reported that since 2013 these agencies implemented 27 efforts that addressed a range of threats and hazards—including cyberattacks, physical attacks, and natural disasters—and supported different types of activities.

Types of Activities Supported by 27 Federal Grid Resiliency Efforts

We found that although these efforts were fragmented and overlapped to some degree across the three agencies, generally each agency tailored its efforts to its specific mission. For example, three Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security efforts addressed different aspects of risks to large, high-power transformers—pieces of equipment that transfer electrical energy between two or more points.

We’ve also reported on agency efforts to establish industry standards and federal guidelines to address electromagnetic risks. For example, the Department of Homeland Security developed guidelines for safeguarding critical communication equipment and control systems from an electromagnetic pulse attack.

Listen to our podcast about how federal agencies are addressing risks to the national power grid, and check out our reports to learn more on the U.S. electricity grid.

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A Multi-Front Effort on Substance Abuse

Opioid PillsAs drug overdose deaths have grown to unprecedented levels in America, federal efforts have attempted to combat the substance abuse problem on multiple fronts.

Programs and new laws have addressed everything from keeping tabs on Medicare opioid prescriptions to gathering unused prescription drugs so they won’t be misused among friends and family.

This week’s WatchBlog, in observance of National Prevention Week, takes a look at some of our recent work in the area of substance abuse prevention.

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Hangars and Housing – Maintaining DOD’s Infrastructure

PENTAGONThe Department of Defense manages infrastructure to support military operations the world over. It maintains a global real property portfolio of over half a million facilities, with a replacement value of nearly $1 trillion. Maintaining its facilities to withstand everything from regular wear and tear to the projected impacts of climate change is critical for military operations and servicemembers’ quality of life.

Infrastructure Week is a good time to take note of an aspect of DOD we don’t usually think about—its role as manager of a tremendous inventory of infrastructure. In today’s WatchBlog, we take a look at some of our recent work on DOD’s infrastructure, a GAO high-risk issue.

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Recognizing the Federal Workforce

Public Service Recognition WeekThe most vital resource at any federal agency is its workforce. During Public Service Recognition Week, we’re celebrating the contributions of federal employees. This year is especially noteworthy because it’s the 40th anniversary of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which established the basis for our modern federal workforce, including the creation of the Office of Personnel Management.

Today’s WatchBlog continues our tradition of celebrating federal employees. Continue reading

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Arsenic in Rice

Flooded rice field at ARS's Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, ArkansasDespite what old movies may have led you to believe, eccentric aunts don’t usually slip arsenic into your elderberry wine. But high levels of arsenic are dangerous—just like in the movies.

Did you know that there might be arsenic in your rice? Today’s WatchBlog explores our report on what the federal government is doing to manage the health risks of arsenic in rice.

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Personal Information, Private Companies

The recent Congressional hearings on Facebook have highlighted the ways that companies collect and use personal information for marketing purposes.  So, what rights do you have to your own information?

Our 2013 report on information resellers remains relevant today.

Information Resellers

Information resellers—sometimes called data brokers—collect your information from public sources (e.g., property records), publicly available information (e.g., telephone directories), and private sources (e.g., certain businesses or websites). They then aggregate this information and sell it. Resellers can include companies like credit bureaus, as well as marketing agencies.

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Saving Dollar Bills: Reducing Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication in Federal Programs

Duplication iconWe released our latest report today on fragmentation, overlap, and duplication in the federal government. Since 2011, we’ve been reporting on ways the government can be more efficient and save taxpayers’ money by looking for programs that

  • work on the same activities or provide the same services (duplication)
  • have similar goals or provide similar services (overlap)
  • work on different parts of the same goal or are broken out across different parts of the same agency (fragmentation)

By addressing actions we’ve proposed to fix such programs, the federal government has saved over $175 billion!

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What You Need to Know about Mortgages and Equity

Housing thumbnailAh, springtime: when “for sale” signs start popping up with the daffodils and crocuses! Before you call your real estate agent, you might want to read up on some of the more technical aspects of homebuying—like exactly what homeownership can mean for your bottom line. On the heels of a recent GAO report on mortgage options, today’s WatchBlog explains mortgages, equity, and the costs and risks of owning a home.

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