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The next time you find yourself online and bored, type in www.blueservo.net. That's B-L-U-E-S-E-R-V-O.net. There, you can pass the hours as a virtual Border Patrol agent. In a controversial new program aimed at enhancing border security, Texas sheriffs have put up a series of surveillance cameras along the Rio Grande and they've connected them to the internet.
NPR's John Burnett has our story.
JOHN BURNETT: Robert Fahrenkamp is a truck driver in South Texas. After a long haul behind the wheel of a Peterbilt tractor trailer, he'll come home, set his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame in front of his computer, pop a Red Bull, turn on some Black Sabbath or Steppenwolf, log in and start protecting his country.
Mr. ROBERT FAHRENKAMP (Virtual Texas Deputy): Certain locations I like to stay focused at, and I'll sit there for hours watching that one spot.
BURNETT: Don't you get bored?
Mr. FAHRENKAMP: Well, not really. I don't need a lot of entertainment in my life. I'm just a single person, and I'm just content being by myself, and this and that, so it's fast. Just kind of give me the little edge of feeling like I'm doing something for law enforcement, as well as for our own country.
BURNETT: Online border patrolling is about as sexy as real-life police work, hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of high excitement. On Blueservo's Web site, each camera focuses on an area that's known for illegal crossings. A real-time view of a grassy meadow bears the message: Look for individuals on foot carrying backpacks. A shot of a border highway says, if you see movement from the right to the left, please report this activity.
Don Reay runs the border watch program.
Mr. DON REAY (Executive Director, Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition): On Camera 538, during the day if you see four or five young men in a boat, report this activity. At night, if you see a vehicle, boat or people movement, report this activity.
BURNETT: Now, wait, what if they're four or five young men that are out fishing in a boat?
Mr. REAY: We'll be able to tell that pretty quickly. And if we are, we don't bother them.
BURNETT: Reay is a former U.S. Customs agent who's executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition.
When a citizen spots suspicious activity, they click a button on the Web site, write a report, and that message goes to the corresponding sheriff's office, which may handle the problem itself or call the U.S. Border Patrol.
To date, more than 43,000 people have signed up at blueservo.net to become Virtual Texas deputies, as the Web site calls them. Most are in Texas, though some are far from the Mexican border.
Mr. REAY: There are a group of folks who send an email into the server that said in good Australian fashion, hey, mate, we've been watching your border for you from the pub in Australia.
BURNETT: The program, funded by the Texas governor's criminal justice office, will spend $2 million in its first year. Currently there are 11 border cams, four more are planned. To date, Reay says that reports from virtual deputies have yielded four marijuana busts, totaling more than 1,500 pounds and 30 incidents when illegal crossers were repelled.
Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars to secure the border?
State Senator ELLIOT SHAPLEIGH (Democrat, Texas): By any calculation this program has been a waste of money.
BURNETT: State Senator Elliot Shapleigh, a Democrat from El Paso, says border security should be the business of the Border Patrol, which accomplishes the task with agents on the ground and its own surveillance and sensor technology. Of the Blue Servo cameras, Shapleigh concludes...
State Sen. SHAPLEIGH: What these cameras do is they invite extremists to participate in virtual immigrant hunts.
BURNETT: The people who stand virtual watch on the border don't see it that way. Bob Parker(ph) is a former coast guardsman who used to chase drug boats for a living. He monitors a different camera on a different Web site run by an organization called American Border Patrol.
Mr. BOB PARKER (Virtual Border Watcher): Basically you know, what you're doing is sitting at your house. I'm in Texas, between Austin and San Antonio, watching the Arizona-New Mexico border. And if they want to call that being a vigilante for reporting people illegally crossing the border, then so be it.
BURNETT: Officially, the U.S. Border Patrol has no comment about the placement of surveillance cameras on private property along the international river. Privately, a veteran agent in South Texas said he's dubious of the program. They have intelligence that drug smugglers have logged on and used the cameras to spot when the Border Patrol is not in an area, so the smugglers can quickly move a load across.
Virtual deputies may dutifully report the crime, he says, but the traffickers are gone by the time the Border Patrol arrives. It's a good idea on paper, the senior Border Patrol agent says, but if you have 40,000 good guys looking at it, they're not as clever as two bad guys.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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