Glitch Renders ‘Virtual Fence’ Unusable

Arthur H. Rotstein, Associated Press, September 19, 2007

TUCSON, Ariz.—Because of a software glitch, the first high-tech “virtual fence” on the nation’s borders remains inoperable, three months after its scheduled debut.

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Nine 98-foot towers laden with radar, sensors and sophisticated cameras have been built in an area heavily trafficked by illegal immigrant and drug smugglers. The towers, each a few miles apart, are intended to deter or detect border crossers and potential terrorists and enhance the ability of Border Patrol agents to catch them.

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“We are now looking to begin acceptance testing in about a month,” Chertoff said—meaning the point at which contracting officials give the go-ahead for testing—“and we will then kick the tires again.”

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The virtual fence is the first stage of a plan to smother the Mexican and Canadian borders with 1,800 such towers, all aimed at enabling the U.S. Border Patrol to pinpoint crossings and improve their ability to intercept crossers.

About three-fourths of the $20 million cost for the 28-mile project has been paid, homeland security officials said. The fencing was announced as part of a $67 million initial contract awarded last September to Boeing, the bulk going to set up program management, systems engineering and planning support.

The virtual fence system is supposed to coordinate camera, sensor and radar sightings and provide a common operating picture to agents on the ground to intercept those entering the country illegally.

“The integration of all the systems into a common operating picture continues to be the challenge,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. Boeing has put new people on the project who are working to resolve the problems, he said.

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In his Sept. 5 testimony, Chertoff said the original plan was to begin acceptance testing in June “so that we could make a determination that we were satisfied with the product and take possession of it I think in July.”

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