WASHINGTON – The U.S. Border Patrol is erecting 16 more video surveillance towers in Michigan and New York to help secure parts of the U.S.-Canadian border, awarding the contract to a company criticized for faulty technology with its so-called "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
The government awarded the $20 million project to Boeing Co., for the towers designed to assist agents stationed along the 4,000-mile northern stretch. Eleven of the towers are being installed in Detroit and five in Buffalo, N.Y., to help monitor water traffic between Canada and the United States along Lake St. Clair and the Niagara River.
At present, Border Patrol agents are posted along the river to keep an eye on water traffic.
The cameras will be used to zoom in on a boat that left Canada, for instance, and watch where it goes and what it does, said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative at Customs and Border Protection.
"So the idea is to have cameras watch, and then agents are freed up to respond," Borkowski said in an interview with The Associated Press. The cameras will cut down the agent's response time by minutes, he said.
Four similar video towers have already been erected in Buffalo. Security operations along the northern border include the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and coordination and intelligence sharing with local law enforcement.
Boeing is the firm responsible for a 28-mile stretch of technology erected along the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson, Ariz., as part of the government's Secure Border Initiative. The company was widely criticized for delivering an inferior product.
Last year the government withheld some of the payment to Boeing because technology used in the test project near Tucson did not work properly. Boeing also was late in delivering the final product.
Borkowski said he is confident the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Secure Border Initiative, will not run into the same problems it had with Boeing in the past.
Boeing spokeswoman Jenna K. McMullin said the company has "learned quite a bit from our previous SBInet experience and demonstrated how to implement lessons learned."
Deployment of the surveillance cameras will allow the Border Patrol to evaluate whether the technology can be effective in monitoring movement in often a cold-weather, river environment.
"We're committed to providing (Border Patrol) agents along the northern border with improved border security capabilities to enable them to do their jobs even better," said Steve Oswald, vice president of Boeing's Intelligence and Security Systems. "At the same time, the lessons learned from this deployment will contribute to even greater enhancements in the future."
Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Secure Border Initiative has been a disaster since its inception.
"The technologies don't work, they're not weather-resistant and they're certainly privacy invasive," Sparapani said. "Putting them in America's backyards only invades the privacy of Americans, it doesn't add to our security."
In a few cases, the Border Patrol will have to address land-use issues, such as determining whether the technology will hurt the environment, before installing the towers.
Borkowski acknowledged that as cameras pan an area it might point at a private residence. He said that is not the cameras' intended targets and the resolution of the video won't be clear enough for residents to be concerned about privacy issues. In addition, only law enforcement officials will be operating the cameras.
The Border Patrol says its 1,500 agents along the northern border were involved in the arrests of 7,925 individuals last year. During the same time, 705,005 people were arrested on the southwest border with Mexico, where 16,500 agents currently are assigned.
Generally, there is not as much traffic between northern border points of entry as there is along the southern border.
Borkowski said the additional technology on the northern border may not lead to more arrests. He said there are parts of the northern border that are vulnerable to terrorist and drug trafficking.
"What we don't know is how often that vulnerability is exploited," he said. "If, in fact, there's a lot more going on than we thought, then this technology will help us identify it and it will help us respond and apprehend those people in ways that we haven't before," he said.