A Border Patrol SUV watches the border from up on a mountain near Brown Field Air Unit and Otay Mesa. (Josh Denmark/CBP)

Could Fiber-Optics Resolve the Great Border Debate with a Virtual ‘Wall’?

A mini putting green at the recent Connect:ID biometrics conference in Washington demonstrated how a virtual wall could possibly bring together lawmakers holding the purse strings for a 21st century border security solution.

A cable could pick up the vibrations of feet up to 30 feet away. Artificial intelligence would analyze the intrusion, differentiate animals from people, and sound the alarm if necessary to the appropriate parties. The fiber-optics could even allow law enforcement to use the cable for both perimeter detection and communications.

“The hardware is the fiber-optic cable [and] a device that we make called an interrogator box. The software is an AI engine, it’s powered by artificial intelligence, and what’s it does when it’s connected to the box, it detects intrusions whether it’s a buried cable — you can bury it, or you can string it on a physical barrier — and it looks for different types of objects or animals or human beings walking across it or disturbing it,” explained Benji Hutchinson, vice president of federal operations at NEC Corporation of America and an adjunct professor of policy for identity analysis at George Mason University.

The AI identifies what’s going on — the wind blowing versus a human being, for example — and then alerts “the Border Patrol or anybody else who might acquire the technology — that’s kind of the vision we see for that.”

The new technology is currently being used in applications such as guarding cargo facilities and perimeters of buildings. “But we have proven that it works and it is a promising technology,” Hutchinson told HSToday. “We would love to see it deployed on a stretch of the border to show how it works and that it does in fact work. And then the other idea around it is if there is perimeter intrusion detection, not only can you send a message to somebody you can also cue cameras to go to that space where there may not be a fence or physical structure and then turn on other types of technologies like long-range facial recognition or even night vision to determine what’s going on.”

“People talk about a digital wall or a non-physical structure, something that’s technology-oriented,” he noted. “Pound for pound, the price is way cheaper than constructing only one or the other. And it may be both, but I think if people are looking for a bipartisan solution where everybody can get on board this is exactly that type of solution.”

NEC currently provides all facial recognition matching software to the Department of Homeland Security, with images collected at ports of entry submitted to the company’s back end for comparison.

“When you use facial recognition it can catch more than imposters,” Hutchinson stressed. “So far what they’ve done with biometric exits is only on the outbound flights in the airports. The entry portion has slowly started to come online … it is in a couple of airports but it’s not widespread.”

Entry photos might be collected in “a number of different ways,” but “not anymore” is facial recognition technology cost-prohibitive.

“You could use a hardware device that would collect one image at a time, so if they’re coming up to greet the officer or the officer is going to do the admissibility interview they can catch their photo there. They can also do like a camera that would take an image of an individual as they’re approaching the front of the line; they could take that image and then when the officer greets that individual who was at the front of the line more intimately at the booth they might already have all of their information up at the desk,” Hutchinson continued. “So it would have to be some sort of an array of cameras that would have to be deployed at the entry points to do that. And you’d have to pay attention to things like lighting – if you’re dealing with outdoors, you have to make sure the lighting is proper. You also have to deal with hardening of the equipment, because if it’s raining or it’s really hot, things like that, you have to think through those. And there are products in the marketplace – it’s just a different set of variables to think about as opposed to a more sterile airport environment.”

Hutchinson predicted that “the future is pretty bright” for facial recognition technology — paying close attention to addressing privacy considerations that have “a lot of citizens and a lot of customers… concerned, rightly so.”

“In the next 12 to 24 months, you’re going to see the aviation environment really start to take off with implementation of the technology — initially for terminals that are for outbound international flights. That’s going to be No. 1 — you’re going to see a lot more airlines and airports come online with that technology,” he said. “I think entry at airports and airlines will also be a big thing in the next 12 to 24 month and that would be in the aviation space. There’s also going to be in the seaport areas, I think you’re going to see more and more cruise lines working with CBP to stand up similar technologies because it allows for higher throughput instead of having to wait in a line to board the boat. You’re going to see a lot more of that.”

“And then finally, for pedestrian entry and exit, you’re going to see the same thing. That one’s been a little bit slower to come online because there’s more complexity to it… it’s the weather, it’s the lighting, but there have been trials in the past three years and I believe there will be more this year. Pedestrian is something that’s on our radar, but I do think that biometric entry probably in the aviation space is the big thing coming out next.”

Hutchinson said that “not having the exit portion completely rolled out across the country obviously represents a hole in the biometric entry-exit program that was mandated after 9/11.”

“And that’s what this whole effort has been about is to try to fill that mandate from over 15 years ago,” he added. “With air travel set to double in the next 5-10 years in the United States, I think that presents a challenge. Because people get smarter, they look for ways to defeat the system and there will always be a need for better technology out there. But this is one opportunity that is within reach.”

CBP, Others Snatching Up ‘More Powerful Biometrics in Smaller and Smaller Packages’ for Quick, Mobile ID

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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