New technologies create virtual fences
David Silverberg, contributor, Security Industry Association
For months, not a word may be heard from the long stretches of baking desert, the muddy rivers and the ports of entry that constitute the borders of the United States. Then, suddenly, there are days of frantic activity and blaring headlines announcing humanitarian crises and threats to the country.
Largely overlooked and often unheralded are the incremental efforts to improve border security that fall between these extremes. Often these efforts involve development of new technologies and their careful deployment at key locations or improving identity management systems at air, sea and land ports of entry. It’s not glamorous but it’s essential and it’s having an impact.
Among the companies key to this steady improvement are members of the Security Industry Association, and they have made major contributions.
Protecting borders: Tracking visitors
One of the greatest border identity management programs of all time is US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) the program that tracks and verifies all visitors into the United States. It’s an outgrowth of the trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the recommendations of the blue-ribbon commission that studied U.S. failings.
In a 2013 congressional reshuffle, the program was re-named the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but the task is unchanged.
The prime contractor for this undertaking is the consulting firm Accenture, which was involved in the project from its inception in 2004.
Accenture coordinated the activities of all the different government agencies involved in US-VISIT, which included not only the offices within DHS but also the departments of State and Justice.
Developing the vision for these agencies working together was an important part of developing US-VISIT because it became the underlying guide for a tremendous amount of activity that followed, according to an Accenture account of the program.
Before US-VISIT, visitor identity verification was a confusing patchwork of systems and technologies that often didn’t work together and couldn’t be coordinated or accessed across platforms.
Accenture created a technological roadmap that enabled administrators to build a single system. It changed custom interfaces and a fragmented, complex architecture into a single, service-oriented architecture based on a “single front door,” as the developers put it. This enabled stakeholders to access the program quickly and easily.
Accenture measures also brought down costs. It delivered software at 8% under the funded amount and introduced automated testing that saved $1 million in costs. By using numerous hardware vendors rather than a single one, the company eliminated the program’s dependence on a single supplier and reduced costs by more than 40%.
These changes not only saved money and streamlined the program, it improved its functioning too. As threats emerged and then faded, to be replaced by new ones, US-VISIT was able to adapt. Instead of the nine months it originally took to add another government agency to the program, changes and improvements brought that down to as little as three weeks from the time the agency requested to participate to the time it came on line.
Today, OBIM serves nine different kinds of stakeholders and 30,000 authorized users, from 52 federal agencies, local law enforcement offices and foreign governments. It evolves with new events and threats and new technologies, like improved biometric indices and devices.
And use of the system has not slackened but is constantly growing. It’s a far cry from the days when US-VISIT could process 75,000 entries a day. Today, every day, OBIM identifies an average of 5,000 illegal visitors, stops an estimated 50 wanted criminals, detains more than 75,000 wanted felons, completes 13,000 latent fingerprint comparisons, watches for more than 6 million people on the terrorist Watch List and processes up to 400,000 identity matches against a database of over 150 million individuals.
The congressional switch from US-VISIT to OBIM and improvements to the program were celebrated by critical observers like Janice Kephart, a former fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. In an April 13, 2013 posting to the Center’s website, she applauded the switch.
“All in all, a small, but significant win for border security leveled by congressional appropriators in the reorganization of US-VISIT,” she wrote. “We’ll take it.”
Protecting borders: Fences, real and virtual
When people think of border security, they usually think of a fence that snakes across the US Southwest border. But as people involved in the field know, the sections of physical fence – no fence runs continuously along the border – is only part of the story. As important – if not more important – are the detection, surveillance and alarm systems that make the barrier more than just steel and concrete but alert Border Patrol agents to intrusions and violations.
DHS has made repeated attempts to create a comprehensive, automated, hi-tech border barrier and the names of the programs read like a list of fallen heroes: the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, America’s Shield and, most notorious of all, the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), which was to have been a “virtual wall” but was abandoned after five years of effort and development.
Currently, the follow-on to SBInet is the much more modest Fixed Integrated Tower program. A $145 million contract was awarded to Elbit of America as prime contractor last year. Raytheon, however, protested the award and the General Accountability Office upheld the protest, so the program remains in limbo as of press time.
Meanwhile, industry continues its efforts to develop new border security technologies and solutions and if unable to sell them in the U.S., is offering them abroad.
For example, DRS Technologies, Arlington, Va., develops and deploys sensors of all kinds. For border security it developed an architecture called Distant Sentry to tie together all forms of sensor surveillance: portable tripods, fixed towers, mobile towers, trailers or vehicles.
Built to be flexible and scalable, Distant Sentry can operate with any kind sensor, including radars and cameras, both electro-optical and infrared. It binds this input with wireless communications and computing, all powered by a hybrid power system. Then it can be tailored to a customer’s specific requirements.
FLIR, Wilsonville, Ore., makes forward-looking infrared cameras, extensively used for border security around the world. It has developed its own “Thermal Fence,” which combines thermal cameras, video analytics software and other intrusion detection sensors. It can combine inputs from a variety of sensors into a single display, providing users with the ability to quickly detect threats and respond.
Axis Communications, Lund, Sweden, specializes in video surveillance solutions and complex systems with border security applications. Their products include thermal imaging technology that works in low light or complete darkness and high definition and high resolution cameras that can pan, tilt and zoom and cover long distances.
Whether in identity verification or perimeter detection, technology that can secure borders is advancing in laboratories and workshops around the world and moving to production. The big question, particularly in the U.S., is whether the resources and political will exists to deploy it and working through the technical challenges that impede its operation. Major steps have been made but more always needs to be done and new technological capabilities always raise new possibilities for greater security.
The technology is never static but then, neither is the border. As long as there are new threats and new conditions, industry will be working to meet the challenge and governments will be seeking new solutions.
David Silverberg was founding editor of Homeland Security Today magazine and most recently served as editor in chief of the Border News Network.