Monday, January 31, 2011

Catching "Our Adversaries" with New Virtual Fence

(First of two parts on virtual fence, old and newly proposed.) 

The virtual fence is dead. Long live the virtual fence!

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Jan. 14, 2011 that DHS was cutting of funding for Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet). I DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in November 2005 introduced the new remote surveillance system – what he called a “virtual fence” that would include not only a system of electronic detection but also a communications system that would enable a quick response to illegal border crossings.

Homeland Security says has spent about a billion dollars on SBInet – with only the detritus of a dysfunctional Boeing surveillance project southwest of Tucson to show for all that spending. Virtual fence, indeed.

The DHS called SBInet a “system of systems.” But it turned out to be a major technological and bureaucratic bust – which system’s critics, including congressional committees and governmental monitoring agencies, had been saying for the past three years.

DHS, however, has not given up on finding a high-tech fix for border security. Several days after shuttering the dysfunctional SBInet, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the DHS agency that includes the Border Patrol, took the first step toward creating a SBInet II. The new technology plan is based on an “Analysis of Alternatives” ordered last year by Napolitano.

CBP issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Jan. 18, 2011 for vendors interested in participating in a new high-tech plan for border security.  The RFI asks vendors for information about existing surveillance and communications technology that could be part of a system of “integrated fixed towers” along the border.  

Towers with cameras and communications devices were the main feature of the failed SBInet pilot projects in southern Arizona. 

But Boeing proved utterly unable to create a virtual fence – a technological platform for border security that would detect illegal entries, communicate actionable information back to Border Patrol “command center,” and then quickly relay information about illegal border crossers to Border Patrol agents in the field.

In its goal of providing “automated, persistent wide area surveillance for the detection, tracking, identification, and classification of illegal entries,” the new technological plan for border security differs little from its failed predecessor.  

CBP is, however, attempting to distinguish the new plan from SBInet and the remote electronic surveillance projects that preceded it by stating that the proposed system will be adaptable to varying conditions along the nearly 2,000-mile border and that it will be based not on new technology developed for the project but on “off-the-shelf” technology from the private and public sectors.

Another important difference is that the CBP is seeking information as the first step rather than simply turning over the project to a contractor based on solely on company promises and assurances.

Containing “Our Adversaries”

But there are worrying signs that CBP’s new initiative will continue its unfortunate history of seeking high-tech fixes for a problem that it hasn’t even defined.  The DHS and CBP have committed to ensuring border security but offer no definition of the term or a strategy on how to achieve a secure border. As a result, all illegal crossborder entries are regarded as security breaches and threats to the homeland.

In this security paradigm, immigrants seeking work and packages of smuggled marijuana are security threats just as are terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.

This unfocused vision of border security leads to unfocused, ineffective, and wasteful projects.

DHS says the new technology plan will provide “flexible capabilities that will enable the Border Patrol to move and adapt to the threat.” The undifferentiated threat encompasses all illegal border crossings. So enraptured with -- and blinded by -- the post-9/11 security/military framework for border control that DHS labels illegal border crossers as “adversaries.”

Describing the new plan in its “Report on the Assessment of the SBNnet Program,” DHS attempts to assure us that its proposed high-tech border security plan won’t repeat the mistakes of past programs that merely shifted the flows of immigrants and illegal drugs to new corridors: The Department recognizes that, as we tighten the security of one area, our adversaries will attempt to find new routes in other areas.”

It’s no wonder that our nation’s institutions of homeland security and border security – as well as the concepts shaping their operations – have come under such harsh criticism.

Border security hawks insist that all illegal intrusions threaten our security and sovereignty. But DHS and CBP should have a more strategic view of border control – one where immigrants and smuggled marijuana wouldn’t be regarded as “adversaries.”

CBP does say – as it state previously with its Secure Border Initiative -- that its new system will “identify and classify these entries to determine the level of threat involved.”  That would certainly be an amazing high-tech achievement – identifying terrorists and terrorism weapons through remote electronic surveillance – but an unlikely one.

If Congress believes that, then DHS may also have a bridge it could sell it the credulous senators and representative who allocated billions of dollars for one border security initiative after another without demanding any evidence that these would indeed improve our security. 

For more information see:

CIP International Policy Report: Fallacies of High-Tech Fixes for Border Security, April 2010

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