Border Monitoring and Surveillance

June 2018

The entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border is monitored by the U.S. Border Patrol, using a host of border security technologies, including 32 permanent checkpoints and 182 tactical deployable checkpoints, about 8,000 cameras, 12,000 underground sensors, fixed towers, mobile surveillance systems, remote video surveillance systems, thermal imaging systems, radiation portal monitors, ground sensors and license plate readers. Beyond fixed surveillance systems, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys a fleet of 107 aircraft, 260 surveillance vehicles, 84 boats as well as Predator B unmanned aerial drones.

Over the last two decades, a series of federal projects have dramatically increased the militarization of the border, installing ever-more surveillance technologies, and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents from about 5,000 to almost 20,000. As of 2017, about 16,605 agents are stationed in the Southwest border region, almost twice as many as in 2000. Over the same years, Congress almost quadrupled the Border Patrol’s budget, from about $1 billion to nearly $3.8 billion.

The U.S.-Mexico border is militarized through the use of military weapons and surveillance systems as well as military training and tactics to Border Patrol personnel. Both have a direct effect on their treatment of the civilian population on both sides of the border. Reports of dehumanization and abuses of human rights and civil rights have increased over the last few years. These include sexual and physical assaults of migrants, denying their basic rights to medical carewater, with a long history of separating families, peaking with the 2018 Trump administration’s zero tolerance policies.

Increasing the Number of Border Patrol Agents

In January 2017, President Trump issued an executive order mandating the hire of 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents. The presidential budget request for fiscal year 2018 included $100 million for 500 new Border Patrol agents, but Congress did not approve this request. Meanwhile, CBP struggled to hire agents to fill the estimated 2,000 unfilled agent positions for its required active duty presence of more than 20,000. Some reasons stated for this shortage included low pay and distant posts as well as the reduced need for more agents at a time of lower border crossings. Despite that, the president’s budget request for 2019 includes 750 additional border patrol agents.

In 2017, CBP awarded a contract worth up to $603 million over five years to Accenture Federal Services, a subsidiary of the Irish multinational Accenture plc (NYSE: ACN), to help with hiring new agents. The same year, the company was awarded over $42 million as a minimum guarantee for hiring for the CBP and in 2018 it was paid $700,000 for “applicant care.”

Attempts to Build a Virtual Surveillance Fence

There have been several unsuccessful and costly attempts to create a comprehensive border surveillance system to monitor movement across the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1997, an L-3 Communications subsidiary was contracted to give the Border Patrol “digital eyes and ears” by creating the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS).The program was stopped due to inefficiencies of the remote surveillance systems, delays, and cost overruns. In 2004, what was left of the project was morphed and incorporated into the next “virtual fence” program: America’s Shield Initiative (ASI). ASI attempted to create a virtual fence using radar, sensors, and cameras. It was cancelled less than a year later, after a review board found that ASI failed to integrate into the larger strategy of border control. Separate reviews showed how the remote video surveillance system (RVS) did not work and program office positions were never defined. By 2005, the cancelled ISIS and ASI programs wound up costing taxpayers approximately $340 million.

In 2005, CBP launched the next attempt at a virtual fence, titled the Secure Border Initiative (SBI). Its virtual fence component, SBInet, was planned as a combination of surveillance technologies relying primarily on radar and camera towers along the entire length of the border. In 2006, Boeing was awarded the contract for the project, with an expected cost of $2.5 billion. In 2010, after spending almost $1 billion over four years, Boeing deployed the first segment of SBInet along 53 miles of Arizona’s 387-mile border with Mexico, a mere 2.5 percent of the entire border. In January 2011, in response to concerns regarding the performance, cost, and schedule for implementing the systems, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced the cancellation of any further procurement of SBInet systems, and of the SBI project altogether.

That same month, CBP introduced the Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan (ATP) for deploying commercially available, off the shelf technologies, along the Arizona-Mexico border. The technologies included a mix of various fixed and mobile systems, chosen according to the type of terrain in different areas. In June 2014, ATP was expanded to include the remainder of the Southwest border - and titled the Border Surveillance System (BSS).

The BSS was planned to continue until 2020. It combines and builds on the previous surveillance iterations, including: everything built for SBInet, Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT), Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS), Intelligent Computer Assisted Detection (ICAD), Law Enforcement Technical Collection (LETC), Mobile Video Surveillance Systems (MVSS), Mobile Surveillance Capability (MSC), Agent Portable Surveillance System (APSS), Ultra-Light Aircraft Detection (ULAD), and Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS).

Major Suppliers in Ongoing Projects

The 2018 spending bill allocated $1.6 billion for border security. Of it, $960 million was allocated to border surveillance technology and repairing existing infrastructure.

Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) include radars, day/night cameras and command and control software to associate detected movement with picture and identification. Originally, covering the length of the Arizona border with such towers was estimated at $750 million. Boeing subcontracted Kollsman, a subsidiary of the Israeli weapons company Elbit Systems as an integrator to build the towers in March 2014. After SBInet was terminated, Elbit Systems was hired to continue the work on the towers. In February 2018, the company announced the deployment of its third IFT along the border, in Douglas, Nogales and Sonoita, Arizona.

CBP contracted CSRA from 2016-2019 to support the agency in choosing technologies for the project. In April 2018, General Dynamics purchased CSRA for $9.7 billion. General Dynamics was also separately contracted, in July 2013, to upgrade the Remote Video Surveillance Systems (RVSS) capabilities along the border. CBP announced in April 2017 that the General Dynamics RVSS solution had achieved a ‘Full Operating Capability’ designation. As of 2018, General Dynamics has tested, installed and deployed the RVSS system across 68 sites in Arizona. In February 2018, the company announced a successful pilot for its Relocatable-RVSS and an agreement with Parsons Government Services Inc. to support CBP with the deployment of six such relocatable systems in Laredo and McAllen, Texas. CBP plans to expand the deployment across the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in 2018.

The Mobile Surveillance Capability (MSC) consists of vehicles equipped with surveillance sensors and the software to integrate data received. Such vehicles were provided to CBP by FLIR Systems (Teledyne subsidiary) and by Telephonics Corporation, a subsidiary of Griffon Corporation.

Several companies have provided CBP with monitoring technologies devised for ports of entry and border crossings.