US border patrol tests 98-foot networked radar towers

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American border guards will soon deploy 98-foot-tall radar surveillance masts with built-in wireless networking in a bid to prevent the Land of the Free being overrun by huddled masses of Mexicans (and perhaps Canadians) intent on entering the US illegally and working hard for very little money.

Boeing, prime contractor for the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), recently announced a successful test of the first "integrated mobile sensor tower".

According to SBI Monthly (pdf), the towers will provide information to the Common Operating Picture, or COP, a networked computer map showing where all the pesky huddled masses are.

SBI Monthly lays out a typical scenario showing how COP works:

A group of individuals has just entered the US illegally and is on foot. As they make their way across the desert, they are picked up on radar...A Sector Enforcement Specialist identifies the location...[and] zooms in to get a visual on what triggered the radar. The Specialist then notifies Border Patrol Agents in the vicinity through voice communications. The responding Agent is then relayed the coordinates of the illegal aliens to their Mobile COP, displayed on their laptop computer mounted in their vehicle...the Agent goes to intercept...Moments later, the Agent locates the illegal aliens and makes the apprehensions.

Assuming flat desert terrain, a 98-foot mast will have line of sight range out to approximately 12 miles, so each tower could sweep a circle of territory 24 miles across with its all-seeing eye. The US' southern border is a smidgeon under 2,000 miles long.

Deputy commissioner Deborah Spero of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), who chairs the SBI steering committee, said: "Technology and tactical infrastructure are essential...This is the most aggressive program ever attempted to secure our nation's borders. I am confident that the men and women of CBP will be successful in executing this critical mission," as reported by SBI Monthly.

No more affordable, illegal childminders and maids for the American middle classes if Spero and the CBP have anything to say about it, clearly. And Bluecollar Joe Lunchbox will be able to compete for business against his Chinese or Korean counterpart while staying on a decent salary with full pension, free doughnuts, health and dental.

There was no word on the SBI's ability to prevent investment moving overseas, but this capability surely can't be long in coming. At any rate, those blasted terrorists won't be able to get in (except by airline. Or by underhandedly being born American, like Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, still lying in the number-two spot behind the 9/11 crew for US soil atrocity deathtoll).

Ignoring for now the complexities of global capital and labour and the imponderables of terror risk, there are still a few Americans worried about the SBI on plain old value for money grounds. Various other big-budget federal border-control programmes have cost vast sums and failed to realistically achieve much. Examples include the Coast Guard's Deepwater project, and a 1990s initiative by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service to plant all kinds of ritzy sensors around the south western border.

Govexec.com reports that the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general estimates the final cost of SBI at $8bn to $30bn, though Boeing has no contracts of that magnitude just yet. That could be seen as a hell of a lot of money just to drive up the number of attempts it takes to get across the border.

And there isn't a lot of reason to suppose that the SBI can do much more than that. A substantial proportion of illegal entrants turned away at US borders simply keep trying, and no barrier system is perfect. Supposing the coyotes and their Canadian counterparts show a bit of technical flair, it might not be impossible to defeat the SBI – or at least give the men and women of "Sector Enforcement" a run for their money.

The COP plot will be accessible from many nodes via different forms of communication – otherwise it won't be a whole lot of use. It's far from impossible to imagine talented black hats in the employ of people and drug-smuggling gangs gaining access to the COP and perhaps inserting spoof huddled masses or deleting real ones.

Simpler techniques might be useful, too. Radar-reflective chaff and decoys aren't hard to make. They could fairly easily be deployed from portable home-built launchers or mortars of the type the Provisional IRA were making from plumbing materials decades ago.

Today's coyotes aren't at this level, but considering the powerful financial incentives they'll have to beat SBI technology there's no reason why they wouldn't raise their game. Cameras can be blinded by lasers and flares, perhaps from safety across the border. Comms can be jammed. Simplest of all, once the available CBP agents are all tasked the ability to track further incursions won't be all that useful.

Of course, Boeing would ask for nothing more than such a battle of technical wits with the smugglers. With billions of taxpayer dollars to spend and expertise acquired working for the Pentagon, they ought to come out on top without too much difficulty - though their bills would no doubt get bigger. The CBP would no doubt be happy to hire all the agents American taxpayers will pay for, too.

But the rebuffed illegals will probably just turn round and try again; they don't have anything better to do. ®

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