U.S. government scraps virtual border fence prototype

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

Tucson (Arizona) – The Department of Homeland Security has ceased operating its virtual fence near Tucson Arizona because of complaints by Border Patrol officers.  The 28-mile fence had been touted as a high-tech way to detect and capture hundreds of illegal immigrants that cross the area every day, but the system couldn’t quickly alert officers to the crossing.  Furthermore, DHS complained that the remote controlled cameras couldn't be turned quickly enough.

The $20 million prototype project was supervised by The Boeing Company and is part of a much bigger Secure Border Initiative virtual fence that was also awarded to the large aerospace and airplane maker.

The prototype “wall” consisted of nine 98-foot tall towers dotting a 28-mile section southwest of Tucson (Sasabe to be exact).  Each tower had several infrared and regular high definition cameras that were triggered by radar and seismic sensors.  The system was supposed to wirelessly transmit photos of crossers to Border Patrol officers, but in many cases the alerts were sent too late or not at all.

There were also reports that the cameras moved too slowly which helped illegal crossers and smugglers get away.  While the DHS says the prototype helped catch 3000 people since December, that is a small fraction of the estimated several hundred people that cross the same area daily.

Of course a tower sitting in the middle of the desert would prove to be a juicy target (hey it’s my tower now!) so Boeing installed a six-foot high chain-link fence around each tower.  The company also posted private guards at the towers.  However, the New York Times reported last year that they were able to simply walk up to one of the towers unopposed and apparently unnoticed.

The idea behind the virtual fence was that real fences are continuously being thwarted by illegal immigrant smugglers in the area.  Often physical fences are simply cut down or burrowed under.  The Department of Homeland Security hopes to eventually place several hundred towers along to the border.

Boeing contends that the prototype was just a demonstration model and that the company didn’t effectively shape the government’s expectations.