Will a virtual fence work?

Scott Tong May 30, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Fences are big part of the immigration debate in Congress. Turns out the Feds are already working on one: a “virtual” fence. Today’s the deadline for major government contractors to bid on the project. It’s worth several billion dollars. Is it a good use of public money? Will it work? Here’s Marketplace’s Scott Tong.

SCOTT TONG: Technology foils the bad guys. At least on TV it does. Here’s Jack Bauer – the counterterrorism stud on the show “24.”

[ Jack Bauer in a scene from 24: “Chloe… right now I need you to walk me through modifying some field communications equipment…” ]

In the real world? Jack Egnal is chief technology guy for Ipix, maker of high-tech video cameras.

JACK EGNAL:“24” is a bit science fiction-y.

For instance you can’t take a satellite image and zoom in and see someone’s face. But you can stick a souped-up video camera in a plane 7,000 feet high and monitor the border.

EGNAL: You can see things like people and cars. A human is tall and thin and a car is short and fat. And so even though these things cannot tell if someone’s thinking evil thoughts or if someone’s about to attack, they can focus the human attention.

The idea is to take these so-called “eyes in the sky,” combine them with sensors on the ground and stop illegal immigration.

Defense analyst Andrew Krepinevich says the military’s been testing this stuff on the battlefield, but making the parts fit together is harder than it seems.

ANDREW KREPINEVICH: When you look at Iraq, we’ve been trying to limit the infiltration of jihadists from countries like Syria. And if we had a very effective way of doing that we probably would have put it into place.

And then there’s the question of contracting. The virtual border program is run by the Homeland Security Department, the one that brought you no-bid contracts after Hurricane Katrina and an airport screener deal that cost seven times more than anticipated. Contracting consultant John Slye:

JOHN SLYE: Whether they have the expertise to actually manage a program to move this forward, everybody’s kind of waiting and seeing. But the odds are not in their favor.

In fact, Homeland Security has tested out border technology before. Its effectiveness? Questionable, according to government auditors. They found 9 times out of 10 sensors triggered false alarms, for instance coyotes crossing the border instead of human beings.

Department secretary Michael Chertoff promises this time’s different.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: We’re not just going to say ‘oh this looks like some neat stuff let’s buy it and then put it on the border.’

Even if it does work, outside observers say technology won’t solve everything. They say the key is to turn off the jobs magnet that invites illegal crossings in the first place. Defense analyst Krepinevich:

KREPINEVICH: Can we slow the rate of illegal immigration? Yes. Can technology help? Yes. Is it going to be expensive? Yes. Can we stop it entirely? Almost certainly not.

He notes the government is rushing through this virtual fence contract, which reminds him of an old saying in this town: If you want it bad, you get it bad.

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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