Computer Electronics

Building Walls and Fences: Technology and Border Security

30 December 2016

War and crisis, as well as elections, revive interest in U.S. border security that typically translates into more law enforcement personnel and advances in technology. But how advanced is the technology behind the scenes? Can more be done? In a climate of “securing our border,” what exactly does it, or could it, mean?

The Evolution of Border Control

From vehicle-borne radios as early as the 1930s, through WWII airplane surveillance of national borders, to seismic and magnetic sensors detecting movement along the borders in the 60s and 70s, to the low-light night-vision goggles in the 80s, technology advances have come somewhat slowly to border protection.

By the late 1990s, after an influx of illegal aliens—especially on the country’s southern border—thousands of new patrol agents were hired, and security attempts focused on deterring people from crossing into the U.S. Programs put in place included:

  • The Integrated Surveillance Information System's (ISIS) use of remote cameras linked via global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and geographic information systems (GIS).
  • An increase in sensor deployment.
  • The use of mobile stadium lighting in remote areas.

Then came September 11, 2001. The border patrol morphed into homeland security and terrorist interdiction, creating two separate bureaus from the Immigration and Naturalization Service: Enforcement and Benefits. Enforcement duties fell under the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE is tasked with investigation duties, and CBP monitors ports of entry and the land and coastal waters in between.

Technology that Exists Now

The Border Patrol has more than doubled its forces since 2001. The CBP screens 100% of southbound rail shipments for illegal weapons, drugs and cash, and it has expanded its Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) efforts at the Southwest border, including the approximate 650 miles of existing fencing. The CBP uses canine teams, non-intrusive inspection systems, mobile surveillance, remote video surveillance, thermal imaging, radiation portal monitors and license-plate readers in the protection of the Southwest border.


The terrorist attacks spawned a company called Passport, founded in 2002 by MIT physics professor emeritus William Bertozzi, that delivered two commercial scanners: the cargo scanner, for use at borders and seaports; and a wireless radiation-monitoring system, for use at public events.

The cargo scanner, called SmartScan, inspects trucks and identifies radioactive material that could indicate a dirty bomb, weapon of mass destruction or explosive, as well as drugs, tobacco and firearms. Passport’s technology provides precision scanning in minutes, without opening a container.

Sensors, Cameras and Communications

Tucson, Arizona’s 90,000 square miles of desert is guarded by nine tall towers complete with sensors, radar, and daytime and infrared cameras. Each one is in line-of-sight with at least one other tower, and all are linked via microwave communications that transmit imagery to a control room in real-time. Radar scans are constant. A mobile video surveillance system (MVSS) adds a laser range finder mounted on trucks to complement the towers. There is also a system of underground sensors buried in the desert that trigger alarms when they detect movement. Support is also available from airplanes, helicopters and, increasingly, drones.

Now Enter Politics, Walls and Fences

It does not matter which side of the political aisle one is on—fences and walls have been built, planned and bandied about by all parties. So what are the realities of walls and fences?

Approximately a third of the Southern border is already fenced and is effective at making crossing more difficult; the balance is guarded by Border Patrol. The fence, however, only protects the flat areas of the boundary, ending at steep terrain. The estimated cost to build a fence that spans the entire border is $22.4 billion.

What prompted a public outcry for more fencing was the request by President Obama to Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds for the immigration crisis, with a fraction of the funds to be used for border security. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed by former President George W. Bush, approved construction of a long stretch of fence along the Southern border, additional checkpoints, cameras, vehicle barriers and lighting. Since the 2006 law was passed, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added 300 miles of vehicle fencing and 350 miles of pedestrian fencing.

Several arguments in favor of fencing or walls crop up based on international use of both. Israel, for example, is cited often based on its walled border. After multiple terror attacks in the early 2000s, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved building security fences in Judea and Samaria, which effectively stopped terrorism. Israel’s solution combines electric touch-fence, trenches and concrete walls. A similar barrier at the U.S. border would cost approximately $6.4 billion. Why wouldn’t it work on the Southern border the same way it works in Israel? Because the military in Israel is ordered to kill anyone that attempts to breach the wall. Obviously that will not work in the U.S.

What Then?

So what will be the technology employed? So far, vetting and facial recognition technology are the two suggested solutions (after walls and fences). Extreme vetting, however, requires improved and smarter data. As with all other industries, that would require the creation and analysis of the right information rather than just becoming even more bogged down in data. According to Donna Roy, executive director of the DHS' Information Sharing and Services Office (ISO2O), smart data is data that is independent of software, applications and networks. Agencies can share smart data with one another, and project the information on a wide variety of devices. Roy said she is working with the intelligence community on standards related to extreme vetting. She also indicated that facial recognition technology could be an important aspect of extreme vetting.

Roy says that government agencies spend 80% of their time understanding the value of their data, and not analyzing it; therefore, information sharing could represent a better and more effective use of time. The DHS now connects to all federal agencies, as well as 200 countries. Roy recommends focusing on the kind of data to compute—not how to compute it.

Unless President-elect Trump can actually get Mexico to pay for the construction of a wall, it seems that safety is relegated primarily to non-physical structures and a tougher policy platform. In reality, however, safety is most dependent upon a country prioritizing and upholding existing immigration laws—which, as we have seen, is extremely tough to do.

Powered by CR4, the Engineering Community

Discussion – 0 comments

By posting a comment you confirm that you have read and accept our Posting Rules and Terms of Use.
Engineering Newsletter Signup
Get the Engineering360
Stay up to date on:
Features the top stories, latest news, charts, insights and more on the end-to-end electronics value chain.
Weekly Newsletter
Get news, research, and analysis
on the Electronics industry in your
inbox every week - for FREE
Sign up for our FREE eNewsletter
Find Free Electronics Datasheets