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Clicks and Mortar: Rethinking Border Security

The Orange Alert in February raised more than awareness of possible terrorist attack.

by Douglas Page 2003

Consistent with the nationwide increase to Alert Level Orange, the U.S. Customs Service increased border security activities at all the nation's ports of entry, implementing additional security precautions, including increased vehicle, passenger, cargo, and mail examinations. One result of the increased scrutiny by Customs under the heightened alert status was in significant narcotic enforcement activity at the busy Arizona ports of entry.

During the first seven days of operations under the high risk Orange Alert status, U.S. Customs Service inspectors, canine enforcement officers, Native American patrol officers, and special agents working the porous 340-mile Arizona-Mexico border made 49 drug seizures, including 7,274 pounds of marijuana, 242 pounds of cocaine, and 33 pounds of methamphetamine.

That same week, U.S. Customs officers in Arizona also apprehended 22 fugitives, and intercepted illegally imported medications, Cuban cigars, and unlicenced cigarettes.

Beefing Up the Border

The federal government believes border security to be so crucial that in February the newly created Department of Homeland Security assumed control of the challenging chore of guarding America's borders against terrorism by absorbing the Customs Service. With the massive reorganization, which also eliminates the beleaguered Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the new agency faces the sobering task of securing 6,000 miles of border with Mexico and Canada.

On March 1, 2003, the border inspection functions of the U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Agriculture and Plant Health Inspection Service, along with the U.S. Border Patrol, were transferred to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) within the Department of Homeland Security.

CBP unifies for the first time in the nation’s history all federal agencies responsible for border enforcement, protection, and inspection at the over 300 U.S. ports of entry. CBP consolidates approximately 35,000 federal employees under one shield, including 17,000 inspectors and canine enforcement officers from the APHIS - Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program, INS inspection services, and the Customs Service, and 10,000 Border Patrol Agents.

The goal of CBP is to provide greater security while facilitating the flow of legitimate goods and people across the border. As its primary mission, CBP will focus on preventing terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the country.

New technologies will be necessary to meet the new goals, augmenting existing surveillance and security systems.

Border Reform Act

Earlier last year, the Customs Service had already become one of the beneficiaries of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, signed into law May, 2002.

Although most of the legislation’s $3.2 billion allocation was to go to increasing border patrol staff, the bill also called for heavy investment in IT systems and advanced technologies.

The bill specified that U.S. Customs Service and INS each receive $150 million to improve border security technologies, including beefing up infrastructure support, computer security and IT development.

Several new technologies are already being evaluated at Arizona ports of entry.

Arizona is a major route for trade between the U.S. and Mexico. During winter months, as many as 1,500 trucks per day - one every minute - cross into the U.S. from Mexico at the border station at Nogales, Arizona, alone. The trucks carry approximately 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in U.S. and Canadian supermarkets.

That they sometimes they carry more than iceberg lettuce presents extra difficulties for inspectors, requiring a vigilance aided by several new technologies being tested in the Arizona U.S. Customs jurisdiction.

Drug seizure activity for Arizona-based Customs officers continues at a record setting pace. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2002, Arizona Customs officers seized 177,183 pounds of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin in 1,238 seizures. During the same eight-month period in 2001, they collared 170,616 pounds of marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine, and heroin in 1,039 seizures.

As a result of the high contraband traffic, the Arizona Customs Management Center (CMC) in Tucson has enlisted a new generation of high-technology tools, including state-of-the-art data mining techniques and facial recognition systems to help guard the state's points of entry.

CMC, with its 500 employees, oversees Customs operations at Arizona’s seven surface border crossings, as well as the international airports in Tucson and Phoenix. A T1 data network links the Tucson operations center to all the Arizona crossings except Douglas, located in eastern Arizona; since they cannot obtain a high-speed land connection to Douglas, the two sites are connected via a commercial satellite system.

Border CAOS

Customs search activity now is directed by an advanced system called the Customs Automated Operation System, or CAOS. CAOS automatically records and analyzes Customs inspector activity, then randomly selects times and places for inspection blitzes - when everyone crossing the border is searched. Customs believes keeping the searches random and unpredictable helps foil smugglers.

The primary integrator for CAOS is New Technology Management Inc. (NTMI), a Reston, VA, company that provides border patrol integration services to U.S. Customs. NTMI began developing the system several years ago.

CAOS incorporates video surveillance of everyone passing through the port entries, digitally recording every vehicle entering and leaving the United States.

Under this advanced system, Arizona Customs has deployed 205 video cameras at border crossing sites that records and archives people and vehicles crossing the border on hard drives and CD-ROM instead of videotape. Then, if evidence is needed in legal proceedings. a CD can be conveniently produced.

Mining the Storage

As part of CAOS, Customs is also testing the Land Border Vehicle Targeting System (LBVTS), an Oracle database containing records of all vehicles that have ever crossed the Arizona-Mexico border, plus the state’s 9 million registered vehicles - nearly 200 million vehicles records in all.

When border officials seize a vehicle at one of the ports, information is added to the database, which is designed to deduce trends using sophisticated data mining techniques. For example, LBVTS might be able to determine that certain vehicles are more popular with drug traffickers. Characteristics peculiar to certain gas tanks, for instance, make them convenient compartments in which to smuggle drugs.

According to an August, 2002, report in Government Computer News, LBVTS is also in use at the El Paso, Texas and southern California ports. A tactical application is under test at Nogales to predict the likelihood that a given vehicle is carrying narcotics.

Once a vehicle enters one of the border crossing lanes, its license plate is read automatically by an electronic scanner and sent directly to the Treasury Enforcement Communications System in Newington, Va.

Since smugglers are inherently organized, LBVTS compares the vehicle’s crossing patterns and registration date with other vehicles that have been caught carrying narcotics. The system also has access to criminal data from the FBI, INS, local law enforcement, and even the Mexican government.

Once the computer analyzes all the data, the vehicle is assigned a rating on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the most likely it may be carrying drugs inside. Results of the LBVTS query are returned almost immediately to the border inspector, who views them on a Panasonic Toughbook notebook computer. The current policy is that all cars and trucks scoring 3 or 4 are pulled aside for detailed inspection. During a pilot test last summer, inspectors at the Nogales crossing made six contraband seizures using this system.

Another weapon in the Arizona Customs arsenal is air-to-ground video deployed on patrol aircraft. Several helicopters have been outfitted with cameras used last year for surveillance at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Video receivers at the Nogales and Douglas border stations can connect to helicopters flying within 35 miles of each location. Back in the Tucson operations center, the staff sees the video feed live over a high-speed T1 network.

About Face

Meanwhile, inspectors back on the border, see feeds of a different complexion, from another new technology investigated by Customs. At the Nogales pedestrian processing area, officials have tested cameras that use facial-recognition technology to scan the inbound crowd for criminals whose photos have previously been entered into a database.

Although U.S. Customs currently denies that the agency is testing any facial recognition software in the Arizona CMC, an assistant director was quoted in the GCN report last August saying three surveillance cameras had been positioned at the Nogales crossing, one at the crowd level to capture four or five faces at a time, and two focused on individual faces in two of the six pedestrian lanes.

Using FaceIt Argus software from Identix Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., a state-of-the-art automated facial surveillance and identification engine, technicians designed an initial database of images containing mug shots from local probation records. Local probationers were included because it was believed there would be a better than average chance of encountering them at the border.

The system is able to scan a new face once every .5 seconds, each of which is compared with photos in the database at over 60 points on the face. When a potential match is found, the camera automatically sends an alert to a cellular phone worn by an inspector.

Biometric technologies like facial-recognition appeals to border police because it expands their capabilities without burdening them with additional demands.

Facial recognition systems, however, are far from foolproof. Reliable performance depends heavily on the conditions in which they are used. Performance degenerates rapidly in public settings. Variable conditions such as lighting, position of the face, and quality of the photos in the database must be carefully controlled for the systems to work well. Facial recognition systems can also be compromised with masks, fake mustaches, and other common disguises.

While facial recognition systems come with obvious liabilities, the technology is new and sure to improve over time. It is likely that Customs inspectors in the near future will use handheld devices such as Java-enabled color wireless phones to compare the faces of persons entering the country against photos in law enforcement databases.

Biometric applications are becoming popular with government agencies. Identix announced in February that it received a purchase order from the Department of Defense for a 5.4 million user license for their BioEngine fingerprint recognition technology. The DOD plans to use the BioEngine license to upgrade its existing fingerprint record files of all DOD military and civilian personnel to Identix' most recent fingerprint biometric technology offering.

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