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‘Virtual’ Fence = Dumb Idea

Jessica Lee Apr 16, 2006

In March the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quietly announced a request for proposals for the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a complex program designed to mix technology, infrastructure and staffing to secure more than 6,000 miles of border with Canada and Mexico.

Ericsson Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp. Raytheon Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., and Boeing Co. are competing to be the lead contractor for SBInet. The main task is to integrate data from satellites, electronic sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, and video with new infrastructure, computer and communication software, and law enforcement components into one program.

Following on the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System and America’s Shield Initiative, the $1.3 billion SBInet contract is at least the third program to apply a technological fix to the issue of border control.

According to govexec.com reporter Chris Strohm, the previous two initiatives “were both intended to deliver state-of-the-art surveillance technology to the borders. But the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general reported last summer that much of the equipment either was not installed or did not work.”

In a speech to the Heritage Foundation last month, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff proclaimed, “We are going to build ourselves what I call a virtual fence, not a fence of barbed wire and bricks and mortar, which I will tell you simply doesn’t work but rather a smart fence, a fence that makes use of physical tools, but also tools about information sharing and information management that let us identify people coming across the border.”

DHS is approaching border security through a “threat-based approach,” in which localized segments of the U.S. border are prioritized by the perceived risk of terrorism.

Lockheed Martin has spent a year traveling around the country holding vendor industry days, in the attempt to secure the interest of small, local suppliers and consultants who are familiar with the geographic and threat challenges.

“The goal is to create a seamless border,” said Alan Bloodgood, a Lockheed Martin executive manager who presented SBInet to a roomful of vendors on March 23 in Tucson, Arizona.

“We cannot put enough soldiers on the ground, we need an integrated technological solution,” said Michael Newberry, president of Mirametrics, Inc., a Tucson-based firm focused on image-processing software. Newberry, who lives within 25 miles of the Mexican border, said that undocumented migrants often knock on his door in need of food or water.

The DHS is also promoting a “guest worker” program as integral to border control. The SBInet contract is expected to be awarded September 2006.