IG: Border surveillance tech needs improvement

Homeland Security Department Office of the Inspector General

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Despite spending more than $400 million since 1997 on remote surveillance cameras and sensors along U.S. borders, the technology doesn’t integrate well and is largely ineffective in detecting illegal activity, according to a new report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.

The report states that the cameras and seismic and magnetic sensors, which are widely deployed to detect activity along U.S. borders, aren’t automatically linked and cover only about 5 percent of the borders.

Although remote surveillance cameras produced 57 percent of all apprehensions along the southwest border, less than 1 percent were from sensors, the report cites as an example. Along U.S. borders, about 90 percent of the responses to sensor alerts resulted in false alarms, “meaning that [Border Patrol] agents spent many hours investigating legitimate activities,” the report adds.

Other low-tech methods, such as observations by citizens, Border Patrol agents and other agency workers, produced a greater percentage of apprehensions than the use of sensors did.

The new report provides seven recommendations to help the Border Patrol office, which is part of the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection agency. The recommendations include improving technology integration and deployment, implementing performance measures, standardizing data collected by the technology, and deploying more mobile surveillance detection systems.

Although CBP officials agreed with the recommendations, Acting CBP Commissioner Deborah Spero wrote in a Dec. 5 memo to the IG that the agency “does not concur with the overall content, tone and balance of the report. The report contains inaccurate information and omits significant facts.”

She argued that many of the problems existed before the Border Patrol took over management of the program in April 2001.

DHS’ IG, Richard Skinner, who testified before a House subcommittee Dec. 16, focused his remarks on contract management problems, which he said contributed to the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System’s technology problems.

ISIS was supposed to provide an integrated electronic surveillance system along U.S. borders. It folded into the much larger America’s Shield Initiative, which DHS renamed as the Secure Border Initiative. DHS officials recently said they plan to issue a request for proposals for the technology initiative, which could cost as much as $2.5 billion.

Management problems included poor oversight by representatives from the Border Patrol and General Services Administration, which signed a memorandum of understanding to help administer contracts to deploy sensors and remote surveillance cameras as part of ISIS.

“Contract accountability was most certainly diffused,” Skinner told members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Management, Integration and Oversight Subcommittee.

One example is a 1999 contract with International Microwave Corp. (IMC) to install remote surveillance cameras. The contractor often sent invoices, which the Border Patrol should have reviewed and certified to ensure that IMC completed the work, directly to GSA for payment. Skinner said the Border Patrol reviewed only six of 65 invoices.

IMC, which L-3 Communications acquired in November 2002, was the subject of a hearing this summer by the same subcommittee investigating why the initial $2 million contract ballooned to $257 million a year after the award.

At that hearing, Joseph Saponaro, president of L-3 Communications Government Services, said the company successfully fulfilled the contract for installing daytime and nighttime surveillance cameras at 246 sites. The contract expired Sept. 30, 2004, and was not extended.

Congressional members said they were troubled to hear that the ISIS program has consumed $429 million even though major problems persist.

“To me this is vile, this is unacceptable,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “And I’ve heard very little transparency and credibility and accountability.”

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