Technology for border and perimeter security

Oct. 24, 2017
Sensors, data processing, interoperability, open systems, and wireless networking are only a few of the enabling technologies for securing the nation's borders and critical infrastructure.
Sensors, data processing, interoperability, open systems, and wireless networking are only a few of the enabling technologies for securing the nation's borders and critical infrastructure.

ByJ.R. Wilson

Refugees and immigrants, legal and illegal, are moving across the globe in numbers not seen since World War II, stressing the politics and security capabilities of dozens of nations. While this phenomenon has been divisive and costly, it is not something upper tier nations were unable to handle previously, even if it took a generation or two to fully assimilate the new population segments.

Today, however, an already complicated issue has been made more complex — and potentially devastating — to the target nations by the presence of far more criminals and terrorists, some from well-organized and -funded organizations, some "freelance" fanatics, but all carrying the potential for violence and chaos.

The situation has grown beyond the capabilities of traditional human and dog patrols, official manned checkpoints at borders, seaports, and airports, and coastal water patrols. The reaction by individual nations across the world has ranged from significantly raising the level of vetting new arrivals to increasing security checks at official entry points, adding more border patrols, limiting the number of new arrivals allowed, or trying to close their borders to all new immigrants.

The problem is especially acute for the United States, whose only two land borders include the world's longest with Canada (5,500 miles) and nearly 2,000 miles with Mexico — both largely desolate — plus 95,000 miles of shoreline, 15,000 airports, and government and military facilities in nearly every nation on Earth.

"The simple issue of building a physical versus a smart barrier, where 21st Century technologies are used, is a battle that has just begun," Nelson Balido, CEO, Border Com-merce & Security Council, said in an interview with Institute for Defense & Government Advancement (IDGA) before its 2017 Homeland Security Week conference.

"Local and state issues must be taken into consideration, private land owners will certainly have skin in the game, as will various other groups," Balido said. "In the end, we need solutions that give our front-line agents a force-multiplier effect to keep everyone safe and accomplish the mission."

Standardized processes

What border security authorities also need are standardized processes for surveillance and reconnaissance, says Emily Keplar, intelligence functional manager at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, who oversees intelligence collection and reporting.

The DHS needs ways to establish multi-layered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) plans that align resources and command structures to synchronize DHS activities, Keplar says.

"We have to provide timely intelligence to our DHS components and our federal, state, local, and tribal partners, allowing a proactive approach rather than strictly a reactive approach to threats," Keplar says. "Infrastructure and architecture will be key to generating actionable intelligence. Ensuring we have proper connectivity to sensors, customers, and decision-makers is critical... Finding new solutions and sharing existing resources is becoming more necessary."

The DHS Silicon Valley Innova-tion Program — a partnership of high-tech industry, DHS Science & Technology (S&T), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — is working to enhance the situational awareness of Border Patrol agents who often operate in harsh terrain under extreme physical conditions, with backup often miles away. In an April 2017 Customs and Border Protection blog entry, Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan wrote that one of the most successful initiatives under the program involves small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Border security is a hotbed of new technologies, but sometimes the best solutions have been in use for hundreds of years, as Border Patrol agents still rely on horses for use in difficult terrain.

"Developing technologies and capabilities to secure our hardware and software platforms is critical for deploying SUAS [small unmanned aircraft system] technology," McAleenan wrote. "We have been looking for technologies that will help adapt SUAS platforms for use in Customs and Border Protection, and specifically border patrol missions, such as new sensors, user interfaces for law enforcement officers, and cybersecurity.

"We have received a number of proposals from quality companies who have applied for the program and we view this interest, and the success of these companies thus far, as a sign of great things to come with respect to Customs and Border Protection and S&T's collaborative efforts with the technology community," McAleenan added.

Advances in technology in the 21st Century's first two decades have resulted in smaller, lighter, faster, more capable, and more mobile platforms, sensor fusion, data analysis, and automatic targeted distribution.

"The technologies are a mixture of things that have advanced, in some cases, slower than the commercial industry, which has been pushed by smartphones," says Keith Riser, an identity intelligence engineer at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development & Engineering Center (CERDEC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.


"In the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the focus has been on fingerprints and imperfect environments," Riser says. "We're looking to move toward more commercial sensors in the future. Mobile devices that adhere to the same set of standards open a larger set of devices that can be used by the DOD. Fingerprints, eyes, face are the primary uses now." Riser is part of CERDEC's Intelligence & Information Warfare Directorate's Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance & Targeting (ISRT) activity.

ISRT's fielded technologies to help warfighters secure borders, checkpoints, and U.S. military and government facilities overseas include Tactical Reconnaissance & Counter-concealment Enabled Radar (TRACER); Vehicle and Dismount Enabled Radar (VADER); Wolfhound Handheld Threat Warning System; Vigilant Pursuit; and Distributed Common Ground System–Army (DCGS-A).

Upgraded Remote Video Surveillance System sensors are taking their place in U.S. border security.

TRACER enables long-range, wide area detection of targets under camouflage, concealment, and deception conditions and mapping for complex environments. It enhances situational awareness by detecting small roadside targets and buried weapons caches through onboard image formation and change detection.

VADER is an advanced Ku-band ground moving target indicator radar that can detect and track moving vehicles and pedestrians. It also can provide wide- and small-area air-to-ground moving target indication, high-range resolution target scanning, real-time (or forensic analysis) detection of large numbers of targets, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging of fixed targets.

Wolfhound fills coverage gaps and other limitations of traditional systems through frequency threat and direction finding. The handheld device enables warfighters to geo-locate spotter positions and observation posts.

Vigilant Pursuit combines human intelligence and signals intelligence from any source. Its information helps soldiers identify persons of interest and uses cross-cuing and tipping to help with decision-making in the field. It hosts DCGS-A workstations, dismounted human intelligence collection, and several National Security Agency (NSA) enterprise solutions. DCGS-A is the Army's primary system for posting data, processing information, and disseminating ISR information.

While not developed specifically for border security or immigration control, each of those systems can be applied to elements of the Army's overseas missions in both areas. They also could be modified for use by DHS in patrolling U.S. land borders, shorelines, official ports of entry, and coastal waters.

Dual-use technologies

ISRT research programs look at how sensors can share biometric data. How CERDEC and DHS interact in this effort can be seen in the Automated Biometric Identification System — called ABIS by the military, IDENT by DHS.

Both provide centralized, system-wide storage and processing of biometric and associated biographic information for national security, immigration and border management, and intelligence and background investigations.

"You first take an individual's fingerprints and eye scans, which enrolls them in IDENT, says CERDEC's Riser. "The goal is to have an authoritative response within three minutes. Another aspect is a watch list on the devices themselves. These can provide a lot of nuances indicating why the individual is there.

"These basically offer a passive defense. If you can identify someone who has malicious intent before they cross a perimeter, you can detain them for further screening. That improves soldier safety without targeting an entire group," Riser says.

Unmanned ground vehicles are taking a role in border and perimeter security to block drug smugglers and other intruders.

DHS is converting the 20-year-old Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) sensor towers into hosts for an improved RVSS developed by General Dynamics Information Technology in Fairfax, Va. As part of that program for Customs and Border Protection, General Dynamics also developed and is field-testing a mobile, relocatable version called R-RVSS.

"We were able to bring a modern, current system that updates electro-optical and infrared, but also includes a laser illuminator, spotlight, a loud hailer, all as integrated components," says Robert Gilbert, senior program director at General Dynamics Information Technology. Gilbert is a retired chief of the Customs and Border Protection agency.

"The operator in the command center can click the mike and tell people what to do, including warning an agent of someone he may not see," Gilbert says. "It significantly reduces the time agents previously wasted responding to false alarms. The system also can see into Mexico, giving Border Patrol field leadership knowledge they did not have before so they can deploy their human assets where they are most needed. It is a phenomenal deterrent. Anyone looking at crossing the border illegally or smuggling drugs can see these systems and know they are being observed."

Upgrading legacy systems

There also are legacy RVSS installations on the U.S. border with Canada. Gilbert says he expects that expanding the use of RVSS on the U.S. and Canadian border will replicate what is being done on the Southwest border — upgrading legacy installations and expanding into new areas as they update their requirements.

The stationary RVSS is mounted on towers, poles. Upgrades are in progress on 70 sites in Arizona and 80 in Texas. The R-RVSS uses a retractable mast as high as 80 feet mounted on self-sustaining trailers that can run for as long as 45 days, and then change locations in less than a day.

Border Patrol agents for decades have relied on sensor towers, yet these are giving way to networks of fixed and mobile sensors for enhanced situational awareness.

General Dynamics also has installed a pilot Law Enforcement Application Platform (LEAP) at Los Angeles International Airport. LEAP is designed to detect perimeter intrusions along the airport's fence line. Its components and sensors correlate with more than 3,000 cameras that General Dynamics is deploying throughout the massive facility. Gilbert believes LEAP also may be of interest to the Border Patrol.

"The primary application we've been looking at, especially in airports, is facial recognition," says Peter Howard, senior business development director at General Dynamics Information Technology. "We also have License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology, which we look at as enhancements to the video system. We can bring in a number of sensors in a common operating picture."

Customs and Border Protection is demonstrating facial recognition exit technology at five high-traffic U.S. airports and is collaborating with airlines to integrate facial recognition technology into passenger gates at three others. The agency notes there are several laws directing DHS to record the arrival and departure of non-U.S. citizens.

"You never know what new and cool technology is starting to emerge and the potential for that technology to be integrated into the immigration process," says Paul Hunter, chief of biometrics strategy at DHS U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). Hunter made his comments in an interview with IDGA prior to the July 2017 Biometrics for Government & Law Enforcement International conference.

"Voice holds a lot of promise in the digital age," Hunter says. "Facial recognition holds huge potential to improve and eliminate face-to-face interaction with the government. Person-centric processing versus form-based is the next leap in transformation."

Federal authorities are converting the 20-year-old Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) sensor towers into hosts for an improved RVSS system.

IDENT, developed in the 1990s, will be replaced by a new system, Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART), to handle the growth of stored biometric identities, says Shonnie Lyon, acting director of the DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management. The number of biometric identities has risen from hundreds of thousands initially to more than 200 million.

"HART will deliver more robust performance, greater capacity and functionality, and multi-modal matching, storing, and sharing capabilities," Lyon said in an accompanying interview. "Another challenge is the pace of change in the biometrics and identity space. Technological advances and customer demands are moving so quickly that, in many cases, an overall policy framework has not yet been developed."

Safeguarding privacy

An additional challenge relates to balancing privacy and mission needs, Lyon explains. "Privacy protection is of utmost importance. Balancing the natural tension between a commitment to privacy protection and the need to exchange biometric data means we need to be especially vigilant in what data is shared and with whom."

Several technologies are in the works to enhance the speed, accuracy, and safety of border security. Those include palm prints, DNA, gait, space between the eyes, license plate recognition, and vehicle detection and tracking.

Palm prints can be lifted from bombs or fragments, and can be stored in IDENT. Federal experts still are considering how to tie DNA into their processes for screening refugees and immigrants in border operations, identifying family lines, and augmenting existing forensic processes. DNA is expected to have a much more significant role in the next five to ten years.

Gait, or how someone walks, is unique. A gait that differs significantly from the norm may indicate a suspect is carrying a heavy or dangerous load. Micro-expressions and Interocular Distance (space between the eyes) could benefit down the road. License plate recognition and vehicle detection and tracking could help resolve any questions before a suspect is close to human guards. LPR is more common in the U.S.

"Any of those new modalities require creating ways to collect and store them on the database, then put into the watch list, and match them in real time," CERDEC's Riser says. "We're definitely looking at data collection and dissemination from any platform, but we also want to move processing into the cloud, so the collection device is agnostic. The goal remains providing a rapid response following data collection."

Another CERDEC directorate, Night Vision & Electronic Sensors (NVESD) at Fort Belvoir, Va., estab-lished a counter-terrorism branch shortly after 9/11 to develop electro-optical threat sensors. Their current focus is on perimeter security.

"We began working about 10 years ago with DHS on joint urgent operational requirements called Base Expeditionary Targeting Surveillance Systems−Combined (BETSS-C)," says Len Ramboyong, chief of the NVESD Counter-Terrorism Branch. "That resulted in a group of force protection equipment used for perimeter security. Part of that suite was a system called Cerberus, consisting of visual and infrared imaging, unattended ground sensors, and radars to detect targets."

A major drawback with BETSS-C was the inability of five or six of its different systems to talk to each other. Each had to have its own operator sending information into a technical operations center to make sense of the different inputs. That led to a real push for interoperability in the systems CERDEC developed later.

Resolution and deployability

"We are working on enhancements that will go into the Ground-Based Operational Surveillance System-Expeditionary (GBOSS-E) to meet a new requirement for better resolution and be more deployable, so they can be moved easily without a large logistic footprint," Ramboyong says. "We're working on sensor resolution, improving processing speed, and algorithm development that will allow us to more quickly identify targets, bring in some automation, and reduce operator reaction time, while enabling better sharing of information by making the systems more interoperable."

NVESD is developing on systems to increase stand-off capabilities and enable users to detect individuals and vehicles at longer distances. Processing and resolution enhancements will enable faster detection of anomalies, with some of the detection capabilities becoming more automated. That does not include the use of artificial intelligence (AI), Ramboyong adds, which, while potentially helpful, is still too early in development.

"There are a lot of different AI technologies, so we have to identify the proper one for each application, given the environment and mission, finding something that will enhance, rather than hinder, the system," agrees Gilbert of General Dynamics. "When you integrate technology, if you haven't done due diligence, you may create problems you didn't have before, so you have to make sure any improvement is an actual improvement. At this point, we're not yet ready to deploy AI."


As is true throughout electronic high-tech, these systems will be targeted by hackers. This has placed ever-higher requirements on network and system security.

"Everything is moving from wired to wireless connections," points out Chris Collura, sales director in the federal sector of Ruckus Wireless Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. "New security technology doesn't work if it isn't simple to expand and deploy in a world where all our tools are needed everywhere, all the time. If I need to move a checkpoint, even if just to the other side of an airport, the only way to do that quickly is with a wireless network.

"We have security mechanisms to allow different devices to connect only to the right networks," Collura says. "Next-generation security is not only for mobile phones, but also to ensure sensors are on the right network and no one else can connect with them. Bandwidth and reliability, in general, have advanced to give wireless connections comparable capability to wired, which was impossible just five years ago. That has been a game-changer."

Wireless networks and miniaturization of power and sensors have allowed cameras to move away from buildings or even fixed locations and be mounted on UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles, aerostats, and possibly unmanned surface vessels. That increases the area covered and the amount of data gathered.

At the same time, the imposition of government standards to certify wired and wireless networks has become a key to cybersecurity.

"If something happens, next-gen, certificate-based security allows me to force something off the network and require it to re-authenticate," Collura says. "Having devices pre-authorized to join the network before deployment limits the ability of someone to interfere with those."

Technology advancements in security systems have been spec-tacular in the past few years, but also have increased the need to secure deployed technology, and prevent the use of "backdoors" in U.S. technology.

"The problem with miniaturization is whether the data remains with the sensor or is sent back," Collura says. "It's not just one or two devices now, either, but a lot of different sensors. One thing we're working on is different technology from Bluetooth to LTE to Wi-Fi to make a single, secure network managing all that."

All the technologies for border and perimeter security are designed to increase speed, accuracy, and safety in dealing with millions of people on the move worldwide. They also raise numerous questions about privacy, system security, integration, and interoperability.

"Operating in gray areas is going to become more and more common," CERDEC's Riser says. "In the future, we are likely to be dealing with huge numbers of individuals, so having this capability in place now will help then because we won't have to target everyone.

"As we move forward, we will increase the speed and how we parse our sensing, increase partnering with industry and academia and leverage our subject matter experts to integrate all that knowledge," Riser says. "We want to make sure we aren't creating multiple stovepipes, so if we are developing something someone else also is developing, we can converge to solve both our needs without duplication."

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