U.S. to Deploy Proven Technology on Borders
LYNN NEARY, host:
The Department of Homeland Security today awards a multi-billion dollar contract to beef up border security. The anticipated winner is Boeing. Despite the aerospace giant's background, Boeing's border security plan is less high tech than you might expect.
NPR's Martin Kaste has more.
MARTIN KASTE: It's not as though the border isn't already wired up. It is - at least parts of it are.
(Soundbite of beeps)
Unidentified Woman: Alert three.
KASTE: This Border Patrol station in New Mexico gets signals from remote sensors installed along likely crossing points for smugglers and illegal immigrants. The government has already spent millions on new systems like this, but the high tech toys don't always work as advertised. The cameras have been especially problematic and sensors trigger frequent false alarms. So Homeland Security made it clear that this time around it wants technologies that work now, even if that means they're not on the bleeding edge.
Boeing spokesman Robert Villanueva says tried and true is the way to go.
Mr. ROBERT VILLANUEVA (Boeing Spokesman): You can't deploy something very quickly if a technology is still being developed. So we're using systems that are already ready to go.
KASTE: That means a lot more cameras and sensors. The number of sensor towers may grow from the current 300 to about 1800. It also means there won't be much reliance on drones, the kind of pilotless aircraft that the CIA likes to use in the Middle East. Other companies proposed using drones to watch the border, but Boeing says they're too expensive.
And it's not just the cost. Robert Pless is assistant director of the Center for Security Technologies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Professor ROBERT PLESS (Center for Security Technologies, Washington University): Drones for surveillance is a little bit challenging.
KASTE: Pless works on software that lets cameras look for trouble automatically and recognize the difference between a sneaking smuggler and rolling tumbleweeds. Such software will be increasingly needed as border guards are forced to scan an ever-growing number of video images. But Pless says it won't be much help if the cameras are flying.
Prof. PLESS: The way these algorithms work is you compare the current image to the image at the same time the previous day, and you see what's different. And if the drones don't know exactly where they are, you might not have a good background image to compare the current frame to.
KASTE: By keeping its cameras on the ground, Boeing will have an easier time getting computers to comb through all those new video feeds. Even so, the Border Patrol will have a lot more information to process. Boeing's Villanueva says the company wants to set up enough sensors to achieve what he calls 100 percent detection along the 6,000 odd-miles of border. Robert Pless says be careful of what you wish for.
Prof. PLESS: You can certainly have 100 percent detection if you have a trillion false alarms. So the question is, can you get close to 100 percent detection with the cost that you're spending on responding to the true and false detections being within some limits? That's usually where the policy decisions are made.
KASTE: And that's where the other half of Boeing's bid comes in: a new plan for managing security on the border. The government has asked for just that. At a convention last January, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson told contractors, quote, "We're inviting you to tell us how to run our organization." Some critics saw that as an admission that border security is being privatized. Boeing spokesmen are now careful to call its border contract with the government a partnership.
Martin Kaste NPR News, Seattle.
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