It only took nearly a year of hiatus and $1 billion in sunk costs, but the Department of Homeland Security has finally gotten rid of the networked suite of sensors that made up its virtual border fence. But some of its technology may live on as zombie border protection.
The virtual fence “cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border-security technology solution,” Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded in a statement today heralding the program’s termination.
Boeing’s SBInet was supposed to be the ultimate in anti-illegal immigrant technology: miles of surveillance-radar towers (colloquially, “Cameras on a Pole”) hooked up to ground-based sensors that detected the heat of someone’s footprints or the metal of a border-crossing vehicle. Sound impractical? That’s what the Government Accountability Office found in October, when it lamented SBInet’s “well-chronicled history of not delivering promised capabilities and benefits on time and within budget.” (.pdf)
Yet the Customs and Border Protection office boasted in a fact sheet that it would ultimately cover 6,000 miles of the U.S.’ northern and southern frontiers. But only 53 miles of border in Arizona ever actually got outfitted with SBInet. Dissatisfied with the performance of the program since its 2005 inception, the Department of Homeland Security froze the program in March for a review. Today, it conceded the program was an impractical waste.
So what comes next for the border? Some of the same stuff that SBInet had. And lots of drones.
Napolitano said that “proven” technology will be put into effect on the border. That means video surveillance from the guard towers and thermal-imaging sensors — reminiscent of SBInet. And it definitely means unmanned spy-plane flights. Later next year, a DHS initiative is scheduled to fly Predators all the way from California to the Gulf of Mexico, all to spot who’s trying to cross the border.
Only, even with proven technology like the drones, mistakes happen. In June, DHS had to ground its drone fleet after a plane lost contact with its remotely located pilot, a routine occurrence in the drone game.