Tech companies showcase surveillance gear at border expo
Among the din of conversations among the hundreds of attendees of the Border Security Expo at the Phoenix Convention Center this week was the sizzling sound of a taser.
With the sparking taser in hand, Alex Solis shows off the protective properties of a line of clothing made by Thor Shield, a Tucson-based company, by pressing the weapon against a dark grey shirt.
The shirt, made of a proprietary cloth, conducts electricity away from the wearer, and can be made into bullet-proof, stab-proof vests, a point Solis makes as a Border Patrol agents and police officers gather around him.
Solis’ demonstration was part of the Expo, a showroom for surveillance and weapons technology designed to pique the interest of officials from a range of federal and local agencies.
Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spent more than $350 million on border security, fencing, infrastructure and technology, and has requested more than $362 million for 2015. While the increase is modest, if some members of Congress get their way the budget would increase dramatically.
Last summer, the Senate tacked $46 billion in border security spending on the stalled immigration reform bill. A similar bill failed after passing through the House mandating spending of $1.6 billion on infrastructure, personnel and technology, including 700 miles of new fencing.
Despite two fizzled bills, there’s still a wealth of products on display for both the U.S. market and the increasingly lucrative market abroad.
Attendees from 14 nations got to study gear and services from more than 150 companies all designed around the goal of “disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal organizations,” including gadgets from companies based in Arizona and multinational manufacturers.
The event was hosted by Eagle Eye Expositions, which also runs the Border News Network and is preparing for a similar event in Detroit based around security issues on the U.S.-Canada border. In addition to the floor show, the event also included several panels sessions focused on securing the border, new technologies, and procurement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
The floor show, held in a large carpeted convention hall, included remote controlled robots, including a “toss-able” version that can look inside buildings or underneath cars at a checkpoint, aerial drones, firearms dealers, boot manufacturers, knife-makers, and even a company called Timberspy that makes polyurethane cacti, trees and rocks that can hold cameras for live video surveillance.
Elbit Systems of America, the Texas-based subsidiary of the Israeli defense company, was on hand to present high-tech binoculars and their own small drone. In early March, the company won a $145 million contract to design and build a prototype for the Integrated Fixed Tower system in the next year.
Bobby Brown, a vice president with Telephonics, stood next to a truck-mounted surveillance system, an updated version of a mobile system already deployed in Arizona with Border Patrol.
Atop a mast was an infrared camera, laser designator, a television camera, and radar that can be guided from a reclining seat fitted with arm-rests bolted inside the truck, using a video-game controller.
As an operator slewed the camera around for a video crew, Brown talked about the importance of surveillance gear like his company’s truck.
“Agents are in real danger and we’ve built a system that can see long ranges, detect an item of importance like an illegal alien, a vehicle, or an ultralight aircraft,” said Brown. “ This gives agents a complete picture of the environment to make sure they can coordinate and stay safe from threats.”
The truck can detect and track people 12 miles out and costs up to approximately $800,000 for the latest version.
Salesman Drew Dodds has his own truck-mounted surveillance system, but the one from StrongWatch is more modest, costing $150,000 to $350,000 and mounted on a smaller truck.
Dodds said that the StrongWatch system, sold to the Phoenix Police Department and the multi-agency, anti-terror “fusion center” in Phoenix, was tested in Iraq and Afghanistan on the back of the hulking armored vehicles called MRAPs.
As he talked about the system’s benefits, including the ability to use the cameras while on the move, an officer with the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center also came by, mentioning how the vehicle has been deployed to keep watch on protests in Phoenix and a boat regatta on Lake Havasu.
“It’s a less aggressive approach,” said Gary Kennedy. “We move along with a protest crowd and keep watch.”
Such tactics are cheaper than a helicopter, he said.
More than a dozen of these systems are deployed with agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.
StrongWatch just recently announced a purchase from Santa Barbara, Calif. where according to Dodd, the police department will use the system to spy on traffickers smuggle drugs in from the ocean.
The money used to purchase these systems comes from a mix of federal grants, many of them built around counter-terrorism.
The system in Phoenix was funded by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management’s Urban Areas Security Initiative, a $558 million program that helps cities “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.”
It’s all part of a burgeoning market, selling defense industry products like the Lenco Bearcat, a ponderous armored car painted tactical black.
Further up the row, Kevin Haskins from Cognitec showed off facial recognition software.
An inconspicuous camera mounted on a monitor tracked the faces of everyone who has passed by the booth, tracking reporters and law enforcement agents alike.
Haskins said that the software is already operating with 18 drivers license databases in the United States and is part of Australia’s “smart gate” system for airports. A few off-the-shelf computers can access federal and state databases and scan through thousands of faces until it finds the right match.
For Haskins, not only is the Expo a chance to show off his wares, but it’s also a chance to talk to like-minded businesses.
“DHS knows about our product,” he said. “But, by coming here, we get to talk to other vendors and look for partnership opportunities.”
He nodded at StrongWatch. “We could work with them to make our software work with their camera and do long-range facial recognition," said Haskins.
While much of the show is built around protecting officers in the United States, there’s also a reminder of the drug war’s casualties in Mexico.
Among exotic electronic gear is a bullet-ridden 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Once owned by Minerva Bautisa Gomez, the security chief of the Mexican state Michoacan, the vehicle was armored by TPS Global and endured a fusillade of gunfire and grenades from cartel assassins in 2010.
“We counted at least 808 hits,” said Enrique Bilbao, national commercial manager for TPS Armoring. He tapped at the glass, which appears to have melted. "But not one penetrated, and everyone came out with only minor injuries," he said.
The company, based in Monterrey, Mexico has established an office in Austin, Texas hoping to sell armored SUVs in the United States.
While there remains a major political push for technology and surveillance, a surge of such equipment may run into problems.
The ill-fated SBINet (Secure Border Initiative) was cancelled in 2011 after cost-overruns and technical problems made the networked radar and sensor system ineffective.
The replacement, the $700-million Arizona Border Surveillance Technology plan was criticized by the General Accountability Office, which notes that the new program may have the same weak oversight and testing problems as SBINet, including a lack of performance metrics.
Despite these questions, Customs and Border Protection will continue to pursue new surveillance technology.
During a House committee hearing last week, Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, argued that the agency had to build a “sophisticated approach tailored to meet the challenges of a 21st century border.”