Article by David Silverberg
Border patrol agents near Ocotillo, Calif., noticed the 2003 Chevy Tahoe heading north Dec. 18, 2015, driving off road and away from the International Border Fence dividing Mexico from the United States.
Soon after, agents chased down and intercepted the Tahoe, arresting its driver and capturing 988 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $592,800, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB).
It was just another day on the U.S.-Mexico border, where smugglers try to sneak people and cargo across on a daily basis. But video technology is making a difference, providing a watchful eye and giving CBP a clearer view of the landscape.
Today, video cameras, motion sensors and computer analytics can alert agents to suspicious activity. In the future, higher-definition cameras and more powerful computer processing technology will give border agents even better intelligence. But between then and now, developers, researchers and border security experts are intent on pursuing their Holy Grail: seamless, omniscient, persistent awareness of everything occurring along a border.
Priority One: Integration
No single sensor technology can achieve that result alone. Video works well in the mostly unobstructed landscape along the U.S.-Mexican border, for example, but it is not suited to the densely forested U.S.-Canadian border. So other sensor technologies, such as radar or thermal imaging, must be added to the mix. Likewise, fixed sensors can be subject to sabotage, so mobile sensing – whether deployed in the air, afloat or on the ground – must also be integrated into the picture.
“The key is integrating technologies in a systemic and cost-effective fashion,” says Michael P. Jackson, former deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and a moving force in the creation of the 2006 Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet). Today Jackson is president of Firebreak Partners, a security consulting firm.
Jackson foresees a day in which inputs are so integrated that they can feed into a single national command center, or at most two, eliminating the need for multiple monitoring stations. “The idea of having guards staring at little screens is ludicrous,” he says. Instead, analytical software must discover anomalies automatically.
Anthony C. Caputo, a video surveillance expert and author of the book Digital Video Surveillance and Security, agrees. Caputo has served as the architect or system engineer on numerous security projects including municipal video deployments in cities such as New York, Chicago and Basra, Iraq.
“The key is to make intelligent systems, to provide the operator with the value he needs and have everything behind the curtain happen magically, automatically,” Caputo says. “It integrates everything and puts it on a map. One of the coolest things is that if you get an alarm it will trigger a camera to look in that direction. It repurposes that asset to be more valuable to where it’s needed at that time.”
Paul Benda, a former director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency and now chief technology officer at Global Security & Innovative Strategies (GSIS), a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, adds: “We have to have the ability to integrate all of these capabilities.”
SBInet had envisioned vast integration but was scaled back because of integration challenges. Now called Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT), it retains many of SBInet’s technological goals.
“We literally had to pause and move to IFT because we needed the outcome, even if the thing was in a non-integrated fashion,” Benda says. “We just didn’t have the time to get the full common operating picture. That’s not to say that the agents didn’t desire that. … The groups are constantly looking for that common operating picture.”
On the northern U.S. border, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Services Agency are looking to upgrade and integrate their technologies to protect the 5,525-mile-long boundary – the longest continuous border in the world.
Peter J. Howard, senior director of business development at General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT), said the focus there is also on integration. “The northern border is completely different,” he says. “Dense forrest and a lot of maritime.”
Such a vast and varied border will require mixing in other technologies, such as foliage-penetrating radar, to provide greater situational awareness, Howard says. But video cameras are an essential element, he adds: “Video gives you the eyes.”
Analytics and Alarms
Since the TV was invented in 1927, video technology developers have strived for higher resolution and increasing reliability. Surveillance applications add their own the unique requirements: greater range, motion control, improved durability and smart notifications. Marry those trends to advances in computing and communication, and you get the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) Upgrade Program, now underway at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) directorate.
Launched originally with analog electro-optical and infrared cameras mounted on towers and buildings, the system is now undergoing a 10-year, $103 million upgrade program managed by General Dynamics Information Technology. The first new camera suites were field-deployed and successfully tested in October 2015, along with a new command and control system, at the Nogales (Ariz.) Border Patrol Station.
Future technology enhancements for this and similar programs will take video surveillance technology even further.
High-definition (HD) cameras aren’t yet the norm in surveillance, but 1080-pixel resolution will ultimately enable facial recognition systems to rapidly identify individuals. “CBP has already done fingerprints, they are moving toward iris technology, next you have facial recognition,” Benda says. Facial recognition, while a useful tool at ports of entry where people can be efficiently processed, is still returning false positives and needs further refinement, he says.
The technology is now in use at ports of entry, but would have to improve before it could be used in other border applications, where it would improve situational awareness by helping Border Patrol agents determine who they are tracking and what risks they pose, based on known prior history.
“When you look at the future of technology, between the ports of entry specifically, I think a real-time biometric screening of people who are apprehended, especially for an officer’s safety, is someplace they would like to go,” he says. “There’s a lot of challenges to get there, both technological and policy-wise, but I think that is a capability goal that is in place.”
Collecting the large amounts of data that requires will present challenges for transmitting, storing, processing and indexing it all. Developers are working on a new video compression standard, H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding, that will support UltraHD video, also called 4K, which displays about four times as many pixels as a standard HD image.
Compression technology combined with cloud storage and big data analytics, along with increasingly powerful artificial intelligence, eventually will identify individuals in real time.
Transmitting that data will require two other things that can be a challenge in remote areas: transmission bandwidth and electrical power. Bandwidth may depend on cellular or other technology; power will demand efficient batteries, solar panels or dedicated power lines tied to the electric grid.
Developing, purchasing and deploying the latest video technology on the border is subject to other considerations like policy priorities and funding.
David Aguilar, former U.S. Border Patrol chief and commissioner of CBP, says the agency’s needs continue to evolve. “When I was a chief, I wanted people, I wanted personnel. We lacked them,” he says. “Under President George W. Bush we doubled the size of the Border Patrol. When I became chief, my priorities were personnel, technology and infrastructure. Then, when I testified before Congress, I needed the time to get the personnel integrated into the organization.”
Now a partner at GSIS, Aguilar says the Border Patrol is ready to focus on other priorities.
“Now we need technology, intelligence, infrastructure and personnel, in that order,” Aguilar explains. “There is a maturation process. We need to have the ability to keep up, to provide those officers – those agents – with what they need. So the budgets must remain flexible to stay up with the evolution and the successes they have had.”
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