IT Helps Seal Our Borders

The economic stimulus package includes about $980 million aimed at beefing up surveillance of our borders. Much of that fuels a huge bet that technology projects can help secure them.
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The Tech Stimulus The Obama administration's economic stimulus package includes about $980 million aimed at increasing surveillance of the nation's borders, with much of that fueling a huge, costly bet that technology and technology-related projects can help better secure them.

For a sense of the technology challenges the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency faces, consider the IT infrastructure needed in the effort to scan cargo containers coming into the country. The agency is getting $100 million for new nonintrusive inspection systems, which include large-scale X-ray and gamma-ray scanners to search maritime containers and cargo trucks from the outside as they enter the country. Analysts check the images for inconsistencies with the cargo manifest, and computer systems then align the X-ray and gamma-ray images with optical character recognition of text on the containers and trucks. The images are stored for future reference in case of a seizure.

There are already 223 such systems nationwide, each custom-built for $3 million to $3.5 million. Customs is mandated to be able to scan all maritime cargo--that's 11.3 million containers annually--by 2012, but the agency doesn't advocate scanning everything, mostly because of the costs of transferring and storing the massive image files involved.

A cheaper and possibly better approach may be using scanning along with improved "risk management," says Todd Owen, executive director for cargo and conveyance security at Customs and Border Protection. That would involve refining algorithms to identify high-risk shipments based on variables such as the country of origin, entities involved in the shipments, the type of commodity being shipped, and the route the cargo took to the country. Customs officers already use such an automated system widely to target inspections.

The money comes as the United States is in the midst of the Secure Border Initiative, which has a separate budget of $775 million this year alone and will cost $6.7 billion to cover just the southwest border. The project, starting in Arizona, will use cameras and sensors, backed with automated analysis software, to supplement people and physical barriers.

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The stimulus money also will be used to speed up purchase of cameras, radar, and communications systems to transmit sensory data; software to integrate that data and display it for border agents; and system design. The project will include $60 million to upgrade to digital, standardized radios with better coverage. Construction begins this month on nine sensor towers and eight communications relay towers for SBINet, the infrastructure associated with the Secure Border Initiative, in Arizona.

Stimulus money--$720 million--also is going to modernize land ports of entry, though most will go to construction, not IT. One upgrade, though, is building movable conduit vaults underneath and alongside security checkpoint lanes, to let Customs change out wiring without tearing up the concrete--akin to the raised-floor model in data centers. "We're too slow to keep up with technology, so we need to build ourselves to be more flexible," says Trent Frazier, deputy director for the agency's land port modernization office.