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    Homeland Security Scraps SBINet ‘Virtual Fence’ Project

    At the US-Mexico border, there has been significant use of surveillance equipment — unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as “drones”), thermal imaging equipment, camera surveillance systems — and there has also been a plan to expand the use of this equipment, to build a “virtual fence.” In a fact sheet (pdf) about this program, Secure Border Initiative (SBINet), which was to “cover 6,000 miles of border,” the Department of Homeland Security said: “The goal of SBInet is to field the most effective mix of current and next-generation technology, infrastructure, staffing and response platforms. SBInet will integrate multiple state-of-the-art systems and traditional security infrastructure into a single comprehensive border security suite for the department.” And in another fact sheet (pdf): “SBInet will employ a network of fixed towers equipped with a radar, sensors, and remotely operated camera equipment, which provide 24-hour, year-round surveillance capabilities that will enable Border Patrol agents to more effectively detect, identify, classify and respond to incursions at the border.”

    Here’s the financial background for project, as explained by the DHS Inspector General in a June 2010 report (pdf):

    Since fiscal year 2005, Congress has appropriated more than $3.6 billion for SBI. DHS estimates that the total cost to complete the acquisition phase of the program on the southwest border will be $7.6 billion for fiscal years 2007 through 2011. Approximately $5.1 billion of the $7.6 billion is for the design, development, integration, and deployment of fences, roads, vehicle barriers, sensors, radar units, and command, control, and communications equipment. The remaining $2.5 billion is for integrated logistics and operations support.

    In March 2010, there were signs that SBINet was in trouble. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano halted work on the virtual fence, stating:

    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. 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.

    Now, various news sources are reporting that Homeland Security has completely scrapped the SBINet program. In a written statement (pdf), DHS said an assessment “made clear that SBInet cannot meet its original objective of providing a one size fits all border security technology solution.” The replacement for SBINet seems eerily similar to the scrapped program.

    As a result of the assessment, Secretary Napolitano has directed CBP to end SBInet as originally conceived and instead implement a new border security technology plan, which will utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region, including commercially available Mobile Surveillance Systems, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, thermal imaging devices, and tower-based Remote Video Surveillance Systems.

    FierceGovernmentIT’s coverage of the announcement includes a copy of DHS’s 17-page report (pdf) on the new border security plan.

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