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Back to Archives | Back to September 2009 Contents 

Technology Talk

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Use of Technology to Better Secure U.S. Borders

By Tiffany Williams, IACP Technology Center Outreach Coordinator

he mission of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) (U.S. Border Patrol) is to “…secure America’s borders; to protect the American public against terrorism and the instruments of terror; and to enforce the laws of the United States while fostering its economic security through lawful international trade and travel.”1 As a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Border Patrol comprises approximately 20,000 agents that work at and around U.S. borders in an effort to keep Americans safe. The U.S. Border Patrol patrols the United States’ southern border from Texas to California, all of the Floridian border continuing along the Louisiana (the gulf coast) border and the Caribbean Ramey sector of Puerto Rico. To the north, U.S. Border Patrol patrols the U.S. border from Washington to Maine.

The U.S. Border Patrol is responsible for securing America’s borders beyond the specified ports of entry. This encompasses different terrains and remote locations varying from the desolate deserts to water borders. To better secure the borders, there are three main components employed: technology, infrastructure, and personnel. The Enforcement and Information Technology (EIT) division of the U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters in Washington, D.C., focuses on the technology aspect. Due to the breadth of the issues surrounding border protection, it is not surprising that the U.S. Border Patrol’s responsibility for patrolling thousands of miles of the border requires its technology “tool belt” to include emerging technologies that not only promote mobility, but also create the best possible level of surveillance and protection.

Remote Surveillance Systems

Patrolling remote areas of the border is an arduous task as these areas are ideal locations for persons intending to illegally cross the border. The U.S. Border Patrol is able to better patrol these areas due in part to its deployment of the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS). The RVSS is strategically placed along the northern and southern borders and consists of two sets of camera systems affixed to a platform atop an 80-foot pole. One is a thermal nighttime camera; the other, a color daytime camera. Their pan-tilt ability allows them to move in different directions to ensure a comprehensive level of surveillance, for example, while one set of cameras looks east, the other looks west, overlapping each other to cover all areas.

To date, there are about 290 RVSS sites across both the northern and southern borders. Some of these sites are situated in such remote locations that they operate by solar energy and generators. The remote location of these RVSS sites allows the U.S. Border Patrol to focus on potentially prime crossing points for illegal traffickers. EIT division chief Steve Evans emphasizes that the system is “not a catchall.” But it is one of many helpful tools used to fight illegal border crossings and ultimately allows the U.S. Border Patrol to strategically place its manpower.

Mobile Surveillance Systems

In conjunction with the RVSS, the Mobile Surveillance System (MSS) that is used by the U.S. Border Patrol allows the same type of security and surveillance as the RVSS, but it has the mobile component that is necessary to cover a larger area. The MSS is a camera mounted on a high pole affixed to a large flatbed truck, thus allowing it to be mobile. In addition to the camera bundles, the MSS has a radar unit that is particularly helpful in the desert environment. Moreover, the U.S. Border Patrol uses Mobile Remote Video Surveillance Systems (MRVSS), or “scope trucks,” that are smaller than the MSS trucks and permit access to more remote locations.

Unattended Ground Sensors

The U.S. Border Patrol has been using sensors to detect motion for years; however, it has adapted to evolving technologies that are more precise and intelligent. These modern sensors are strategically placed upon the recommendation of the field agents in problem locations. The Unattended Ground Sensors (UGS) come in three main forms: seismic, magnetic, and infrared. The seismic sensors detect ground movement; the magnetic ones recognize metal in passing vehicles; and the infrared sensors respond to the breakage of spatial planes. The U.S. Border Patrol is mindful of the environmental limitations of sensors, for example, the seismic sensors are not appropriate for northern borders because of frozen ground affecting their functionality. The U.S. Border Patrol analyzes different terrains to decipher which areas would benefit from what particular types of sensor in order to ensure their effectiveness.


The E3/IDENT is a technology that was created to assist in evaluating arrests and in collecting the biometrics and photographs of apprehended persons. This technology allows agents to secure this information and forward it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Within 8 to 10 minutes, agents will receive historic federal criminal information on individuals. Moreover, it will display whether or not an individual currently is wanted for a criminal offense. Another component is its capability to access the INS/IDENT database in order to search for possible immigration violations.

Results and Moving Forward

Assistant Chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, Robert Nelson, claims that EIT “fills the immediate technology gap.” Both Chiefs Nelson and Evans stress the importance of using technology to better secure U.S. borders. Chief Evans is constantly searching for and learning about emerging technologies that will better assist his team in their mission. It is imperative to note that all three components—technology, infrastructure, and personnel—play important and interconnected roles in securing U.S. borders. Overall, the combined use of all three contributed to 723,825 apprehensions in fiscal year 2008 and ultimately assisted in keeping U.S. citizens safe.

Special thank you to Division Chief Steve Evans and Assistant Chief Robert Nelson of the U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, for providing the information that contributed to this article. &9632;


1Customs and Border Protection, “CBP Mission Statement and Core Values,” (accessed August 10, 2009).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 9, September 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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