Pulling the plug in SBInet

Pulling the Plug

DHS halts funding for failed electronic border surveillance system

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has halted funding for the Secure Border Initiative-Net, a system of towers, cameras, radar and sensors initially hailed as "the most comprehensive effort in the nation's history" to assist northern and southern border agents with curtailing illegal immigration.

SBInet was intended to replace other failed border security initiatives—the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, a system of remotely monitored day/night surveillance cameras and sensing systems, and the America Shield Initiative, an integrated, national web of border security with centralized command designed to gain greater control of the borders.

Under the contract won by Boeing in 2006, SBInet's goal was to deter, predict and detect illegal immigration along the 6,000-mile borders; identify the entrants; classify threat levels; track movements; and help border officials to effectively and efficiently respond to illegal entries and bring interdictions to a resolution.

DHS hoped to avoid the management problems plagued by the previous initiatives by having SBInet managed by a single private contractor; however, Boeing subcontracted many aspects of the design, development, implementation and maintenance of the program to other companies, including Centech Group, DRS Technologies, Kollsman, L-3 Communications, LGS, Perot Systems, Unisys Global Public Sector, USIS and EOD Technology.

A False Start

The first phase of the project—a 28-mile section at the Arizona-Mexico border estimated at $67 million— was supposed to be operational by June 2007, but was delayed until December 2007. The system was officially accepted by DHS in February 2008. That same month, the Government Accountability Office reported that the system suffered from slow radar transmissions, faulty analytics resulting in false alarms from rain and other weather patterns, and poor camera resolutions.

The Unfulfilled Goal

The completed initiative, estimated to cost between $2 and $8 billion, called for 1,800 towers to be set up along the borders, which would have included radar, long-range cameras, broadband wireless access points, thermal imaging capabilities and motion detectors. The data would have fed into a command center and appeared on a geospatial map for real-time monitoring, allowing personnel to view an entry, assess the threat remotely and dispatch border patrol agents as needed. Border patrol agents also would have carried PDAs with GPS capabilities and fingerprint identification technology, to allow the command center to track their location and identify an individual at the interdiction site. The PDAs also would have had the ability to view and control tower cameras. In addition, border patrol cars would have been equipped with laptops to provide agents with necessary information prior to approaching a threat.

Finally, airborne sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles would have monitored remote areas where towers were impractical.

Enough is Enough

After numerous technical problems—such as malfunctioning equipment, software problems and dissention regarding the placement of equipment—led to numerous missed deadlines, Napolitano decided to shut down the failing system.

"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," Napolitano said. "The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines. Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security will redeploy $50 million of Recovery Act funding originally allocated for the SBInet Block 1 to other tested, commercially available security technology along the Southwest border, including mobile surveillance, thermal imaging devices, ultra-light detection, backscatter units, mobile radios, cameras and laptops for pursuit vehicles, and remote video surveillance system enhancements. Additionally, we are freezing all SBInet funding beyond SBInet Block 1's initial deployment to the Tucson and Ajo regions until the assessment I ordered in January is completed."

Boeing also released a statement saying the company is "fully committed to delivering bordersecurity technology that successfully assists" federal authorities.

With the failure of yet another border security initiative, finding a comprehensive, operational solution for border security continues to elude our grasp.

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