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OIG: Obsolete Technology Compromises Southern Border Security

One of Donald Trump’s first executive orders as President was to improve security at the southern border. This was the order that included the construction of a wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. The wall (technically more of a fence) is not complete and upon taking office, President Biden halted construction.

While the wall was the most high profile aspect, the order also covered other border security systems, and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has conducted an audit into the effectiveness of this equipment to prevent illegal border crossings.

In response to the executive order, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) implemented an array of new tools and technologies that have enhanced Border Patrol’s surveillance capabilities and efficiency along the southwest border. However, OIG has found that these upgrades are incomplete as CBP has deployed only about 28 percent of the surveillance and subterranean technology solutions planned, even after receiving more than $743 million in funding specifically targeted to fund the acquisition and deployment of technology to improve border security since fiscal year 2017. Consequently, most southwest Border Patrol sectors still rely predominantly on obsolete systems and infrastructure with limited capabilities. 

OIG’s review found that shifting priorities, construction delays, a lack of available technology solutions, and funding constraints hindered CBP’s planned deployments. Border Patrol officials also told the watchdog that they had inadequate personnel to fully leverage surveillance technology or maintain current information technology systems and infrastructure on site. 

OIG also identified security vulnerabilities on some CBP servers and workstations not in compliance due to disagreements about the timeline for implementing DHS configuration management requirements. Numerous audit reports during the past few years have highlighted concerns with CBP’s ability to ensure its IT environment fully supports border security mission requirements. Border Patrol began a multi-year effort to modernize its suite of enforcement IT systems in fiscal year 2019. CBP’s Office of Information and Technology has upgraded 53 network routers and 409 network switches, and replaced more than 10,000 desktop computers, 2,000 laptop computers, and 900 tablet devices. It continues to update its IT infrastructure.

Ultimately, OIG determined that CBP is not well-equipped to assess its technology effectiveness to respond to the deficiencies it faces, adding that CBP has been aware of the challenges since at least 2017 but lacks a standard process and accurate data to overcome it. Overall, these deficiencies have limited CBP’s ability to detect and prevent the illegal entry of noncitizens who may pose threats to national security. 

The deployed 28 percent of planned new technology has been well-received. Border Patrol officials told OIG that the introduction of these new and innovative technologies has improved operations and situational awareness along the southwest border. Senior field agents said that remote video surveillance had doubled their operational capability by providing visibility in low-coverage areas, and added much-needed situational awareness of noncitizen travel patterns and persons carrying weapons. According to senior agents interviewed, modern solutions like innovative towers and small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) have further enhanced Border Patrol’s capabilities. Innovative towers provide alerts directly to field agents, instead of to the Border Patrol command center, which enables quicker field response. Border Patrol uses sUAS aircraft to conduct aerial surveillance of ground activities, and map areas that are difficult for agents to access by vehicle or on foot patrol. 

CBP had requested $385 million for Integrated Fixed Towers (IFT) program deployments that were part of the Southwest Border Technology Plan. However, that funding was not approved, which further delayed IFT deployments, now projected for FY 2021. CBP expects to spend $28 million to deploy 30 innovative towers in FY 2021, but has no process in place to assess the effectiveness of this and other planned technology systems to support current mission operations.

Much of Border Patrol’s existing field technology has exceeded its useful life and has suffered from degraded performance and supportability. For example, some video systems have been used extensively for many years to provide persistent surveillance across each Border Patrol station’s operating area. However, many of these systems range from 15 to 20 years old and suffer from frequent malfunctions or repair issues. Replacement parts are obsolete and these systems are no longer supported by the manufacturer. In some cases, this had led to cameras being out of use for several months. In addition, OIG found that 18 towers had deteriorated to such an extent that they could not be accessed for maintenance or repair.

Executive Order 13767 directed that DHS use appropriate technology to support the physical wall along the southern border, to most effectively achieve complete operational control. The border wall plans included a new Linear Ground Detection System (LGDS). CBP planned to deploy approximately 40 linear miles of LGDS technology by the end of FY 2018. However, CBP did not meet this goal and as of February 2020, only about 12 miles of LGDS equipment had been installed along the border wall. The delays in physical installation of LGDS system equipment were primarily attributed to ongoing disruptions to border wall construction. According to Border Patrol, in an effort to save time and money, CBP aligned the physical installation of the LGDS system equipment with border wall construction. Meaning, as the contractor constructed the wall, it also physically installed the LGDS sensor cable and supporting equipment. However, border wall construction experienced frequent delays due to issues such as extended real estate negotiations and amendments to construction designs, which slowed LGDS installation. Also, border wall construction was planned in segments, with each segment constituting a different project for which land had to be procured or otherwise obtained by CBP. 

Border Patrol expects that security improvements introduced by the new border wall may increase the threat of cross-border tunneling. But, OIG found that CBP currently lacks adequate technology to detect tunnels or tunneling activities, or monitor permanent, cross-border tunnels. Senior Border Patrol officials told OIG there is an urgent need for a technology solution to aid detection efforts and alleviate risks to field agents. For example, the San Diego Sector has 36 storm drain tunnels that require 24/7 monitoring by patrol agents.

In January 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved the CrossBorder Tunnel Threat program – a network of permanently-installed sensors to detect, classify, and localize subterranean activities. According to Border Patrol, the sensors will provide enhanced surveillance in areas where other technologies are hindered by terrain, foliage, or sustainability issues such as harsh climate conditions. In FY 2020, CBP planned to implement 6 miles of Cross-Border Tunnel Threat capability along the southwest border, with nearly 100 total miles planned for deployment by FY 2030. However, as of February 2020, CBP had not yet implemented this technology for use during border security operations. 

To address the various shortcomings, OIG has made three recommendations:

  • Update the 2014 Southwest Border Technology Plan to identify and prioritize the appropriate technology and funding required to enhance operational control of the southern border. 
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive process for measuring technology’s performance to assess its effectiveness in providing situational awareness to fulfill border security mission requirements. 
  • Ensure patch and configuration management controls for all information technology systems comply with documented DHS requirements. 

CBP concurred with all three recommendations. To address the first, it states that it has recently completed its Initial Requirements Document–Domain Awareness, which documents capability gaps, operating environments, capability requirements, and notional solutions for all Border Patrol sectors.

Responding to the second recommendation, CBP said Border Patrol has integrated the Operational Control Framework with the Initial Requirements Document–Domain Awareness. Border Patrol will implement the Operational Control Framework across all southwest border sectors, allowing management of situational awareness performance, and supporting initial evaluation and assessment of assets for situational awareness. By July 30, 2021, Border Patrol will utilize existing simulation capability to estimate total flow for use in calculating situational awareness scores for the FY 2020 southwest border operational control. Once complete, Border Patrol will analyze situational awareness scores to better inform asset procurement and/or deployment decisions, develop simulation capability to estimate the impact assets will have on situational awareness, and better inform procurement and/or deployment decisions. CBP expects to complete these efforts by September 30, 2021. 

Finally, CBP stated that its Office of Information and Technology Cybersecurity Directorate will continue to work with the DHS Chief Information Officer to develop and implement required Security Technical Implementation Guide configurations within CBP, in accordance with DHS policy. Established policy configurations will be implemented within various management systems, such as Active Directory and Puppet, as well as being “baked” into the Windows/Linux Operating System baseline images. CBP expects to complete these efforts by September 30, 2021. 

Read the full report at OIG

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Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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