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The U.S.-Mexico Border: Not a Game of Frogger, It Turns Out

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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March 18, 2010

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

It was a Grand Plan. And it seemed just so simple. Illegal immigrants swarming across the US-Mexico border? That shouldn’t be so hard to stop, just use. . . video cameras and sensors!

As usual, it’s never that easy. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Tuesday that she was freezing funding for an ambitious program called the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet. The concept was simple: stop illegal immigration by laying down a “virtual border fence” of surveillance video cameras, radar, and ground sensors along the entire 2,000-mile border. As NPR describes the situation, the contractor, the Boeing Corporation,

built a 28-mile test section in the Southern Arizona desert. It didn’t work. The company regrouped, redesigned and redeployed one set of towers near the first set. It is building another section right now. The entire border was supposed to be covered a year ago, but after three years — and $1.4 billion — the system is still full of bugs.

The New York Times sums up the outcome like this:

About $1.1 billion has been spent on the virtual fence, with little to show for it beyond the two testing sites in the Arizona desert and a series of embarrassments, including radar that could not function properly in the rain and wind-blown trees mistaken for border crossers.

Napolitano’s action came on the eve of the release of yet another in a long series of 14 critical Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports — and after years of unsuccessful struggles to make it work (see for example this Washington Post article about problems with SBInet more than two years ago, at the time of another scathing GAO report). In its newest report, the GAO reportedly found that tests of SBInet had even been rigged to guarantee success.

Put aside the fact that a lot of American citizens live very close to the border, and this program poses a threat to their privacy. Put aside the fact that the government asserts that “the border” actually extends 100 miles inland into the United States (along with many of the extraordinary powers the authorities wield only at the border), an area encompassing fully two-thirds of the U.S. population that threatens to become a “Constitution-free zone.”

The real question is: When will the security agencies in our government learn that fancy high-tech surveillance technology is not the solution to social problems? That the real world is way too diverse, messy and complicated to be solved by IT and surveillance? SBInet is just one in a series of such boondoggles — others include various schemes for national ID systems, terrorist data mining programs, airline passenger screening and — as I posted about just last week — an over-the-top proposal to create a grand “early warning system to monitor cyberspace” by “reengineering” the Internet.

We live at a time when we think of everything in terms of data — computers are the dominant metaphor of our age. Just as the industrial revolution led everyone to think about everything as a machine (the physical world, the economy, organizations, the mind), today we tend to imagine that every problem can be solved if people can just be labeled, sorted, and tracked like bits in a database, and the world can be controlled just like our computer desktops. Part of why many of us find computers fun I suspect is the fact that they provide a bounded, limited, rational, controlled environment — a little world under our complete power and dominion.

But when we try to inappropriately apply this “IT mindset” beyond the desktop to the messy real world, it usually collapses into an expensive and unworkable fiasco. National ID systems turn out to be complicated and messy to administer, as well as discriminatory and dubious as security measures; the Real ID scheme has largely collapsed as a result. Data mining against terrorism is ineffective, as many experts including the National Academies have found. Grand schemes for sifting and sorting airline passengers in the name of security were abandoned. And so on.

And so too with SBInet. It turns out it’s not so easy to buy technological solutions to social problems, or to turn human beings into data trails that can be blocked and managed as in some grand computer game. We at the ACLU have been saying this program was a boondoggle for a number of years; hopefully DHS will now put it out of its misery.

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