Lawmakers push for border tech assessment

Customs and Border Protection photo - Autonomous Surveillance Tower 

Lawmakers from border states want a clearer picture of how technology can be brought to bear mile-by-mile along the U.S. border with Mexico.

A pair of bipartisan bills recently introduced in the House and Senate would require the Department of Homeland Security to assess technology needs along every mile of the 2,000 mile U.S. border with Mexico in conjunction with physical barriers.

On Aug. 5, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) introduced the Southwest Border Security Technology Improvement Act of 2020. The bill would require DHS to examine and report back on technology needs and gaps along the southern border.

The bill was also backed by former Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Rep. Michael McCaul, (R-Texas), as well as Reps. Elisa Slotkin (D-Mich.), and Michael Cloud (R-Texas).

A companion bill in the Senate, backed by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on July 22.

The bills would require DHS to immediately assess technologies currently in use along the border, identifying the most and least effective of them, including communications gear, used by border agents. The legislation also keeps border barriers and other infrastructure in DHS' toolkit.

The legislation would also require DHS to take a more detailed look at emerging technologies, including manned and unmanned aerial systems, tower-based surveillance technology, as well as tunnel and other detection technologies.

DHS would also have to assess technologies that may be needed or developed for future needs, as well as privacy impacts of those existing and new technologies.

The agency would have to complete those assessments within a year of the legislation's enactment into law.

Supplementing border security with advancing technological capabilities and systems has been championed in the past by other border state representatives, as the White House has emphasized its push for a border wall.

Rep. Will Hurd, (R-Texas), for instance, said last June that the future of border security is in tech, not walls. Hurd, whose district includes 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, has been a longtime opponent of plans to build a continuous wall along the southern border, instead championing what he says are more efficient technological solutions. Hurd is retiring from Congress after the election, however.

Border agencies are already investing in emerging commercial technologies that offer more efficient operations and capabilities. Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf told Senate appropriators in February that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was looking for a $28 million increase to support the rollout of 30 autonomous surveillance towers. This summer CBP made an additional significant commitment to autonomous tower technology, when it signed a contract with Anduril for over 100 autonomous surveillance towers that would be added to the agency's inventory.

The agency made the portable, off-the-grid systems into a program of record to supplement ongoing Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) and Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) already in border sections in Arizona and Texas.

Ultimately, CBP wants to procure and deploy the autonomous surveillance towers in fiscal 2021 and 2022.

Detailed reviews of technology needs that take on-the-ground border agents' needs into account, said former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske, are effective. Such reviews, he said, helped weed out the ineffectual multibillion-dollar SBInet border surveillance project in 2011. That project with Boeing was cancelled after costs ballooned and the effort wasn't practical for border agents operating on the ground. Leaving operators out of the contracting process, said Kerlikowske in an Aug. 10 email to FCW, was a big part of the system's problems.

Requirements along the 2,000 mile border vary tremendously, Kerlikowske said.

"It is really a complex problem and as you know, if you have seen one part of the border you have seen one part of the border," he said.

New technologies, such as integrated fixed towers, ground sensors, portable video, drones, tethered aerostats, combined with various border walls/fencing, along with any emerging technologies, are more cost effective and work well, he said.

"No agent ever asked me in three years to build a wall, they wanted improved technology," he said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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