After revealing last week that a pilot installation of controversial, buggy border-security scanner towers had finally been accepted into service, the US government has now admitted that the project is a technical failure. Plans to build a so-called "virtual fence" along the Mexican border will proceed, but there will be long delays and very little of the current technology will be used.
The Washington Post quotes Richard Stana of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) saying that the initial nine-tower "Project 28" setup "did not fully meet user needs, and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future... development".
The expected rollout of the first 100 mile stretch of scanner-swept, networked border has now been moved back to 2011. The planned line south of Tucson in Arizona was to have been huddled-mass proofed by this year.
The idea of the virtual fence - officially termed SBInet, the network-tech aspect of the Secure Borders Initiative - is simple in outline. Moving-target-indicator radars of the type increasingly used by military recce aircraft are mounted atop tall towers, along with telescopic multi-spectral cameras.
The radar can pick out all human-sized or larger moving objects across a wide stretch of territory. Then the all-seeing infrared or low-light eyes atop the towers swivel round and stare at each radar blip, making sure it is a group of intruders rather than a cow or something.
The info all gets plotted on a networked map, allowing Border Patrol agents in their vehicles to intercept and cuff all the wannabe Americans before sending them homeward to try again.
According to the Post report, Boeing - contractor for SBInet - used inappropriate police-despatch software which was unable to handle the data loads produced by military sensor hardware.
The sensors themselves also had problems - false alarms caused by rain, for instance. And the cameras, much like the Eye of Sauron in the films, often struggled to spot unwelcome visitors.
Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has already paid Boeing an additional $65m on top of the $20m for Project 28 to replace the police software with military-grade code, which may have been a foolish move if - as is suggested - none of the tech will be carried forward into the new, better Eye-o-Sauron 2.0 to be rolled out by 2011.
The troubled, potentially multibillion-dollar radar barrier is nonetheless still seen by many in the States as part of the solution to the southern border and its constant waves of illegal immigrants. Effective physical barriers would potentially be at least as costly, would involve the acquisition of much more property, and would be wildly unpopular in many border areas.
The Post reports that some more liberal US politicians see SBInet as an acceptable way of getting immigration hardliners' support for plans to legalise the estimated 12 million illegals already in the US.
DHS chief Michael Chertoff, who appeared to suggest that all was hunky-dory with the man-sniffer masts last Friday, has previously been accused by oversight bodies of seeking to cover up bugs in the Project 28 programme. However, he did admit last week that the Project 28 configuration might not always be the chosen method for delivering an omniscient border tech-zone.
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