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Border security technology

Many of the technologies and skills deployed by the first patrol agents came from their previous experience in local and state agencies. But today, the flow of technology has reversed. Many of the technologies being deployed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are already finding their way into the “technology” rooms of America’s mainstream law enforcement agencies.

An overview of the history of border security in America, its political developments, and some of the more interesting technologies currently being utilized, is needed to understand where law enforcement technology has been and where it is headed.

Then and Now

Federal legislation created the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, and federal legislation continues to prod its development today. The first patrol agents were poorly equipped and undeniably “low tech,” even by the standards of the day. The federal government provided patrol agents only a badge and a revolver; oats were supplied, but the agent brought his own horse and saddle.

With the recent passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (H.R.6061), and the awarding of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) to the Boeing Corporation, border security will see increased attention from the equipment manufactures interested in helping gain “operational control” of U.S. borders. Oats are no longer supplied, but remote sensing video cameras, language translators and unmanned aerial vehicles will today be on the manifest list.

Border Security, a Play in Two Acts

The formal development of a United States border protection force required two Immigration Acts, one amendment to the Constitution, and a lot of popular public support. In 1917 and 1924 Immigration Acts were signed establishing who could and who could not immigrate to the U.S.

In 1917 most Asians, along with “feeble-minded persons,” “alcoholics” and others, were added to a list of persons barred from immigrating; Chinese were already on the list. In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

Popularly remembered (or unpopularly as the case may be), this amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States, or the importation thereof. This amendment set a clear mandate for the establishment of a security force to prevent alcohol from entering the country.

In 1924, in what would become the final ballot cast in favor of a federalized border patrol, country based immigration quotas were established. The 1924 Immigration Act permitted only 2% annual increases in each foreign country’s representation in the American population, based on 1890 census figures. This quota system remained on the books in various forms for the next 40 years until its elimination with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Services Act of 1965. With popular public support for the control of alcohol and immigration, it was only a matter of time before the formalization of a federal patrolling force assumed the duties of guarding America’s border.

Founded on May 28, 1924, under the Labor Appropriation Act, the U.S. Border Patrol brought together various pieces of border enforcement, including Texas Rangers and various U.S. immigration personnel, under one roof in an effort to control the illegal transit of persons and materials into the United States.

The Chronology of Technology

 In times of war and crisis, renewed interest in border security translates into major increases in law enforcement personnel and rapid advances in technology. In the 1930s, the Border Patrol deployed vehicles with radios to assist with the apprehension of bootleggers. Radio quickly became a valuable tool shortening the communication distance between agents and HQ. Like the Patrol of the 1930s, progressive agencies like Dallas and Los Angeles were also beginning to experiment with vehicle-borne radios. The earliest versions were receivers only; officers could hear a call, but they couldn’t respond.

During WWII, preventing Nazi infiltrators and saboteurs became the priority mission for the Patrol. Airplanes, which would prove decisive in determining the outcome of battles, would become another important tool for surveillance of the national boundaries, both land and sea. The official border patrol Web site displays an autogyro, an early helicopter type craft, from this time period. Hardly a common vehicle, the autogyro represented an advanced technology for its time.

In the 1950s, the Red Scare and an increase in national insecurity helped facilitate the deportation of thousands of illegal immigrants via the growing sector of commercial aviation. While the effectiveness of these programs are still debated today, the high cost of flying home illegal immigrants doomed mass deportations as short termed programs.

In the 1960s and ’70s, military surplus began to find its way from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the deserts of the American Southwest. Seismic, and magnetic sensors detected movement along the borders. Low-light night vision goggles provided agents with a greater ability to detect illegal activity.

In the 1980s, America saw a dramatic increase in the numbers of illegal aliens and a dramatic leap in computer technology. Compact discs, desktop computers (both Apples and PCs), portable phones (the size of bricks), and a loose collection of university phone lines laid the foundation for what would become the Internet. Spurred less by an admiration of U.S. technology and more by political instability and recession in their home countries, hundreds of thousands of people traveled north to find work.

In response to the rapid influx of illegal immigrants, federal dollars were freed up to massively increase the size the U.S. Border Patrol of the late 1990s. Thousands of new patrol agents were hired, and operations were refocused on deterrence strategies on the border itself and away from the interior operations. New initiatives were established, including high visibility programs such as Operations “Hold the Line” in El Paso, TX in 1993, “Gatekeeper” in San Diego, CA in 1994, and “Rio Grande” in Brownsville, TX in 1997.

While the tried and true method of “Presence as Deterrence” was being deployed in numbers previously never seen by the Patrol, new technological initiatives were also being established. The Integrated Surveillance Information System (ISIS) saw the installation of remotely operated cameras tied into global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and geographic information systems (GIS). Sensor deployments also increased to 10,000. Mobile stadium lighting was also being deployed in remote areas, amidst the protests of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society who feared the effects of the new lights on regional endangered wildlife like the shy American Ocelot who breeds only in total darkness.

Everything changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Following the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington DC and Shanksville, PA, the priority mission of the U.S. Border Patrol instantly became homeland security and terrorist interdiction. This change in focus divided the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two distinct bureaus: Enforcement and Benefits. Debate on dividing INS into two separate agencies, which had smoldered for years, quickly ended when enforcement duties were given over to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is tasked with more investigation duties while CBP (under which the U.S. Border Patrol is now found) is responsible for the Ports of Entry and the land in between, including coastal waters.

The little heard from and far less well-funded Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services assumed the benefits side of the coin. All three were enveloped in the mega-agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In 2004 improvements to the ISIS system were being openly sought by the CBP, and a contract was opened for bidding. On the agency’s wish list—the ability to detect “new” threats such as nuclear and biological weapons, the desire to close gaps in sensor coverage, improvement in communications interoperability with other agencies, and updated computers and database systems. The America’s Shield Initiative (ASI) would be operationally defined by former Commissioner Robert Bonner in five main objectives as the National Border Patrol Strategy, consisting of:

• Apprehending terrorists and their weapons

• Deter illegal entries • Detect, apprehend, and deter smugglers of humans, drugs, and other contraband

• Leverage “Smart Border” technology to multiply the effect of enforcement personnel

• Reduce crime and improve quality of life and economic vitality in border communities

In September 2006, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that Boeing had secured the lucrative contract renamed Secure Border Initiative (SBI). A key element of the three-year contract is the development of the SBInet, which is designed to use current and developing technologies to create a virtual fence to secure the borders. The initiative will focus directly on a 28-mile section of border in Tucson, AZ, the current hotspot of illegal traffic. In addition to this program to build a high-tech virtual fence, President Bush signed a bill on Oct. 26, authorizing 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to further secure the nation’s borders.

What technologies and systems will be a part of that contact are still up for some speculation, but the following technologies will surely appear in one fashion or another.

Current Technology

Cameras and Sensors

Likely no other combination of border security technology has had more spent on it than ground detection sensors and cameras. From the earliest seismic sensors to the latest infrared camera these devices, both separate and working in concert, make up a large potion of the current defensive technology used by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Remote cameras have come a long way since their initial deployment. The first remote cameras were analog. They were essentially low-grade TV cameras mounted on towers that could relay whatever they saw to an operator in a control room. The operator had access to several cameras and could determine which camera was watched at any given time. The latest remote camera systems are far superior. They are digital, and they record everything, so instead of having to watch individual camera feeds one at a time, a computer now records feeds from numerous cameras allowing video playback of any camera at any time. And instead of having only one or two monitors, agents now have a wall of 20 or more live digital feeds each with instant playback.

But despite spending millions on these systems, their effectiveness has been in question. A recent report by the DHS inspector general stated that even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy 11,000+ sensors, only 5% of the border is actually covered, and less than 1% of all apprehensions were directly attributable to sensor activity.

And in one of the most highly publicized contract investigations, one company saw its $2 million contract for the placement of video towers grow to $257 million in one year. To be sure, the placement of all weather 24/7 surveillance systems in the middle of a desert is not be cheap, but the costs associated with these deployments begs the question whether or not these funds could be more effectively spent elsewhere.

Still, camera and sensor integration will likely continue throughout all phases of SBInet. Superior to previous mounted cameras, the latest systems will have instant access to GPS and GIS information and will allow individual agents in the field wireless access to location information previously only accessible to officer workers miles away from the alert spot.

Patrol Agent Todd Fraser, a spokesperson for CBP Border Patrol currently assigned to Washington DC, noted, “Previously we just had one or two fixed video cameras set up in a high-traffic area. Today’s [remote video surveillance] cameras have ranges of up to a mile. They operate both at day time and dark. They have infrared capability. And you can move them (pan and zoom). There is a control room with 20-plus TV screens all with video running. If an incident happens, it’s all recorded. [The camera controllers] essentially are able to go out and look around the area where a sensor went off and let the agent know before he or she gets out there what they can expect to find.”

With control over sensor alerts transferred or at least shared with agents through secured wireless networks and handheld devices, field agents will finally eliminate a long festering problem: their required response to investigation of false sensor alarms. Almost worst than no warning at all is the false warning, which upon investigation turns out to be an animal, natural occurrence or some other benign presence.


Properly identifying illegal aliens has always been a problem. It comes as no surprise that people apprehended in the midst of illegal activity don’t always tell the truth. Moreover, family naming conventions of other countries can also operate as a barrier to proper identification. Detainees with multiple family names based on martial status or matriarchal structures, and foreign names and spelling not common in the United States pose real difficulties for traditional information systems processing. But fingerprints don’t lie, they don’t change, and this makes them ideal for identification.

Searching fingerprints captured from those who are apprehended through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) program—which matches fingerprints to the CBP’s Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) and the FBI’s criminal fingerprint database, a pilot program begun in San Diego in 2001—was designed to give immigration personnel better information about the people they were holding. During initial processing, a suspect goes through a digital live-scan of all 10 fingerprints. This information is compared against 47 million existing fingerprint records, and agents are notified within minutes of outstanding warrants and criminal histories.

“It’s used for every single person that we process,” noted Todd Fraser, CBP spokesman. “Because IAFIS is now hooked into the FBI’s database, they also can alert us to potential threats; who is a terrorist, who they have a look out for.”

This technology is especially effective considering the high rate of recidivism among illegal border crossers. Previously, if an alien wasn’t actually recognized by an agent, they had a much higher chance of escaping positive identification and subsequent prosecution. And while the system has been helpful in identifying repeat immigration violators, it has also been instrumental in making thousands of unrelated felony arrests, many of which would have previously gone undetected.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), often referred to as drones, are pilot-less planes designed to survey a given area. First developed during World War I, drone aircraft were initially used as target practice for antiaircraft gunners. Currently operated either by computer-controlled navigation, usually via preprogrammed GPS waypoints, or by a remote operator who is actually “flying” the vehicles, these systems are viewed as an important component in a comprehensive border control strategy.

Having the ability to stay in the air for up to 48 hours, these devices are heralded as an ultimate force multiplier, allowing a few agents to effectively monitor miles of border from a bird’s eye view with the use of specialized sensors and cameras that can provide image resolution of a milk carton from 20,000 feet and see through clouds and total darkness. In recent years, UAVs deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq have gotten considerable publicity because of their ability to detect and strike enemy targets.

In April 2003, Customs and Border Protection personnel began testing two Hermes 450 UAVs for border surveillance as part of Arizona’s Border Control Initiative, a state-sponsored detection and deterrence program. In October 2004, two $1 million Northrop Grumman RQ-5 Hunters replaced the Hermes UAVs. After a year of testing, an order was put in for a larger, faster, more capable UAV, the $6.5 million General Atomics Aeronautical Services Predator “B.” And even before crashing its first Predator in early 2006 (apparently the engine stopped after fuel was cut off during an early morning controller transfer) the Patrol was slated to receive another in June.

While undoubtedly UAVs have a certain appeal due to their touted capabilities, in doubt is their actual effectiveness in the Border Patrol’s primary mission: to deter, detect and apprehend illegal aliens. One statistic indicated that the use of the aforementioned Predator helped apprehend nearly 2,000 illegal aliens before its crash. This seemingly impressive figure is overshadowed by the 200,000 plus apprehensions for that same sector of border during the same time period using conventional methods. While some proponents will argue that the effectiveness of the tool will increase with agency and operator experience, this has remained to be seen and is not universally guaranteed.

Private border monitoring groups such as the American Border Patrol have been flying UAVs to detect illegal traffic on the border since 2004. Using smaller, consumer off-the-shelf products, these private groups have deployed UAVs equipped with night vision, costing less than $30,000 each.

Before you buy your own UAV—take note. The FAA has blocked several local agencies at the local and county level from deploying UAVs. Until safety issues of manned aircraft avoidance are addressed, the FAA is more inclined to limit the use of this technology. There may well come a time when the TV station helicopter is replaced by a highflying, ultra-quiet sheriff department-issued UAV that’s been on station for several days waiting for an incident. But those days are still well in the future.

Automatic License Plate Recognition

ALPR systems are integrated camera/database solutions that take pictures of car license plates, process the images for plate numbers, and then compare them against known databases of stolen vehicles or license plates.

Available in Europe for many years, the systems found their earliest applications in United States on the border. Deployed at Ports of Entry from fixed positions, the early ALPR systems would capture an image of a license plate when the vehicle traveled across a sensor. Because the license was usually in a similar position, the computer had little difficulty in identifying the plate and using optical character recognition (OCR) software to acquire the tag letters and numbers. The results were then compared against a database of wanted tags. When deployed on a multi-lane entry conduit, the systems could be connected to tire shredders and other human intervention devices to detain vehicles and their occupants for inspection.

Developed in the 1980s to combat IRA attacks in England systems, like these now monitor all vehicular traffic coming into London in what has become known as “The Ring of Steel.”

The fixed position technology deployed in England and on the U.S. border has now become available in much smaller, more advanced versions. Currently, there are several companies manufacturing mobile APLRs that can be mounted on patrol vehicles. These second generation systems do not require a tripped sensor to activate their night vision-capable infrared cameras. From the time an officer starts his vehicle, current APLRs work continuously, taking 60 pictures a second and processing each for a license plate. Once a plate is acquired, the process is similar to the fixed system—numbers and letters are processed with OCR software and compared to a database of wanted plates. The process works so quickly today that an ALPR-equipped patrol vehicle traveling at more than 100 mph could process the plate of every car it passes in a parking lot, on both sides in total darkness. And the officer never has to take his hands off the wheel.

Mobile ALPR systems are currently being deployed throughout the United States primarily in a vehicle theft interdiction role. But as other databases are connected, these systems will provide officers with valuable information on the vehicles as well as the vehicle owner.

Radiation Detectors

According to CBP Public Affairs, every patrol agent now has access to radiation detectors, and every agent operating at checkpoints along the border is required to have radiation device on their person at all times. Smaller than the Geiger counters of 1950s science fiction movies, today’s Personal Radiation Detectors (PRD) can be as small as a pen or a cell phone. And the rapid beeping alert system has been replaced by a much less obtrusive (and less audible) vibration. If an agent comes into contact with a radiation source, they are quietly alerted and begin to follow set procedures.

Larger detection devices are used at ports of entry and for checking cargo containers. Large mobile gamma and X-ray scanners can be quickly set up to scan for dangerous materials, hidden people and contraband. These systems, coupled with electronic manifests/package profiling, create a more effective system than was previously thought possible, while still allowing hundreds of billions of dollars in commercial goods to enter the country.

TARS and Radar coverage

Tethered aerostat radar systems (TARS) are one of the more interesting pieces of technology being deployed along the border. These blimp-like devices have been used for surveillance since WWI and have recently seen deployment in Iraq to monitor insurgent activities. Several TARS sites are located throughout the southern border of the United States, and they provide data about everything from weather monitoring to incursions into U.S. airspace. Capable of carrying several thousand pounds of electro-optical sensors and radar equipment, they remain more or less stationary by means of a ground-based tether and are more than capable of providing data about illegal traffic of all kinds.

Language Translators

One of the greatest obstacles in dealing with people from another country is language. Border Patrol agents receive Spanish language training in the academy, but they are not trained in any of the scores of other spoken languages they are likely to hear spoken by their detainees. Language barriers make the already difficult job of identification and interviewing even harder. Most law enforcement personnel have access to real-time phone translations services. These services are helpful but are not the same as having a native speaker, preferably an officer, in the room with a suspect. Language translators can fill the gap. They come in several varieties: Handheld/portable, desktop, and on the Internet.

The desktops systems that are currently on the market arguably offer the best in “free form” translation, meaning you can actually speak into them and they will translate and repeat what you say in another language. Because of the processing demands involved and the amounts of memory required, these systems are relegated to faster desktop computers. This technology isn’t widely available, and its costs are high. But within a few years, as costs come down and the capabilities of mobile devices continue to expand, it may be reasonable to believe that an officer will be able to question a suspect in English and have their questions and the responses translated in the suspect’s native language.

More accessible today are handheld language translators that offer some speech recognition abilities. These systems do not allow personnel to ask any questions they choose, but they do have the ability to recognize common questions asked by law enforcement and then play back a translation. Developed for U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, these systems are affordable and could easily assist personnel in communicating with people in multiple languages. Additional languages can be added at any time.

Another choice for translation is the Internet. Several sites offer limited free translation, such as and the search engine Altavista. Other pay services duplicate older phone translations services by having a live operator type or speak translated material.

The Measure of Technology

The measure of any technology is whether it substantively expands the capabilities and enhanced the performance of people in doing their jobs. Border security technologies, and their application to state and local agencies, should be measured by the same standard. Can a department do more with a piece of given technology than it was able to do with out it?

In the examples of radios in the 1930s, airplanes in the 1940s, and sensors in the 1960s, the answer is clearly, “yes.” These systems allowed “more” to be accomplished by “fewer.” Officers and agents could respond more quickly, where needed, with better information than they could without these technological advancements.

How the latest crop of border security technology will be measured remains to be seen. UAVs, TARS systems, and improved remote cameras do appear to have the ability to increase productivity and act as “force multipliers.” Whether the value of these systems, as measured by their cost vs. benefit, will prove them to be successful, however, is still unknown. The latest technologies for the creation of a virtual fence are the most expensive and complicated ever conceived. And as recent history suggests, the cost of even relatively straightforward security projects on the border have a way of vastly expanding.

“That’s what we’re faced with,” Fraser, the CBP spokesperson, said. “We have to have our agents check [sensor hits], even false alarms. One of the things that those cameras and the UAV helped with is responding to those sensor hits and letting the agent know before they drove out 15 to 20 minutes to a remote sensor what is happening before they arrive.”

It should be noted that technology alone doesn’t affect change. People do. No cart ever moved materials by itself. And no person was ever apprehended by a remote sensing video.

T.J. Bonner, national president, National Border Patrol Council spoke plainly in his testimony before a congressional subcommittee on Border Security in March 2004:

Substituting detection technology for staffing and equipment designed for apprehending lawbreakers is unwise. While such technology can be useful in pinpointing the location of those who cross our borders illegally, it cannot catch a single violator.

The foregoing should not be construed as resistance to technology, but rather as a criticism of the theory that technology can replace human beings in labor-intensive tasks such as apprehending people who are determined to sneak into our country. While technologies such as remote cameras and sensors are undoubtedly useful in serving as extra eyes and ears, they can never replace the hands that catch violators.

2006 and Beyond

In the future, more and more virtual, digital, and networked technologies will be deployed to gain operational control over America’s borders. As these technologies come online, the data generated from them will be able to develop accurate predicative models. In this future, sensors will not only announce incursion alerts, they will anticipate where incursions are likely to occur. These models, along with neural networks and intelligent computer systems, will assist in controlling our borders. And these advancements will eventually find their way into local police departments and county sheriff’s offices in one form or another.

It is not in question whether technology will advance or whether it will continue to act as a force multiplier for law enforcement and public safety agencies. Neither is it in question whether technology will replace human intervention. History has shown technology can provide many improvements in our daily lives, but it should be noted that even in the midst of high technology and in face the latest security initiative, the U.S. Border Patrol still uses horses, and illegal aliens are still caught by patrol agents on foot. 

Thomas M. Manson is a law enforcement instructor and the owner of Police Technical LLC. He speaks nationally on technology and law enforcement. He can be reached at

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2006

Rating : 9.0

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