Technological action-reaction along U.S.-Mexico border

Published 11 December 2009

Illegal border crossers into the United States are becoming more sophisticated – the latest is a GPS application which is supposed to help crossers evade Border Patrol agents – but those in charge of protecting U.S. borders are also employing advanced technology to keep the border secure.

Scholars of arms races among nations will tell you that the action-reaction cycle is ever-present in such competitions: every technological development which gives a military advantage by one side is short-lived, as the other side soon develops a technological response to it. The action-reaction cycle is also in evidence in the competition between those who try to cross the border into the United States illegally, and those who are charged with protecting the border.

Carl Braun writes that there has been much to do recently about a cell phone based GPS application that assists illegal border crossers in evading the U.S. Border Patrol. “In the total scheme of things though, this ill-intended technology, conceived by a radical University professor, is but a blip on the radar screen…literally,” he writes.

He notes that since 2006, the Border Patrol has been quietly amassing a technological arsenal that only a few years ago would have seemed like something out of Star Trek. Mobile Surveillance Systems, or MSS technologies, can detect the heat signature or movement of a human at a reported distance of up to seven miles. Within seconds they lock on the group or groups as a laser beam would, and direct Border Patrol Agents to the exact location. MSS is now commonplace in all of the southern Border States. Combining video cameras, thermal imaging, radar, night vision, laser range finders, and GPS, these tools are acting as a force multiplier allowing fewer border patrol agents to do more work and cover a larger area.

Then there are the drones. Unmanned aircraft loaded with similar technologies are being used to fly over the deserts and track illegal entrants and smugglers. Five UAVs are now deployed in the United States with more on the way next year. Braun writes that these are similar to the aircraft used over Afghanistan and Iraq, though the Border Patrol systems will only carry electronics and no weapons. The sophisticated aerial platforms are also being used to monitor the Blue Border or the coastline of the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard has taken delivery the other day of modified Predator B UAV – modified, that is, for maritime patrols – and plans are underway to deploy them in Florida and the Gulf Coast. Note that high commercial and military traffic off of Southern California makes deployment there problematic for the time being.

Braun writes that not everyone is in favor of using these types of electronic technologies. T. J. Bonner, president of the Border Patrol Union said:

Unmanned aircraft serve a very useful role in military combat situations, but are not economical or efficient in civilian law enforcement applications. There are a number of other technologies that are capable of providing a greater level of usefulness at a far lower cost. It appears that the contractors have once again managed to sell a bill of goods to the politicians and bureaucrats who oversee the procurement of technology designed to secure our borders.

The drones have been successful, though. They have been credited with providing the intelligence necessary to seize more than 22,000 pounds of marijuana and 5,000-plus illegal entrants to the United States.

In 2006, DHS also contracted with Boeing to develop SBInet or the Secure Borders Initiative. Mismanagement and inferior technology have hobbled the program but certain aspects of the overall strategy like MSS and the UAV’s have continued.