Experts say border security technologies offer no panacea

The Homeland Security Department uses a variety of technologies, such as unattended ground sensors and cameras, to help secure U.S. borders. But those and other technologies offer no fail-safe border protection, according to the testimony of experts Sept. 13 before the House Science Committee.

Jay Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology at DHS, said his division is exploring the use of technologies as part of the department’s Secure Border Initiative. "The goal is to provide agents and officers with total scene awareness capability that provides a geospatially referenced detection, classification and tracking capability along with collaboration and decision-making tools to improve efficiency,” he said.

Cohen added that DHS is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to remove that agency’s limitations on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for patrolling U.S. borders.

Others testified about the limitations of various technologies in making the borders more secure. Gordon Tyler, head of the National Security Technology Department at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said 10,000 miles of land and coastal borders represents a vulnerability that is difficult to overcome with technology.

Cameras and sensors, for example, “cannot differentiate between illegal alien activity and incidental activations caused by animals, seismic activities or weather,” Tyler said. Inconsistent and incomplete data entry compound those problems, he added.

Peter Worch, an independent consultant to the Air Force Scientific Advisory board, said the best solution for those technical problems is to understand human behavior. “We need to know about [illegal immigrant] culture…we need to know about their terrain and their possible routes,” he said. “[This] tells us where to put the sensors and how to use them.”

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