By Aliya Sternstein
February 9, 2012
As Customs and Border Protection prepares to remotely screen travelers at the first-ever unstaffed checkpoint along the border between the United States and Mexico, a former CBP executive says instituting similar stations elsewhere and validating travelers' identification documents with facial recognition tools may not be too far off.
Some unstaffed checkpoints exist along the Canadian border, but opening one at the arguably more treacherous Mexican border is unprecedented. The success of the planned robotic crossing at Big Bend National Park, in an isolated stretch of southwest Texas, could spawn more self-service ports of entry in other sparsely populated locations, said Seth Stodder, who served as a CBP policy director and now is a consultant to the agency on counterterrorism issues.
"I could see it becoming a trend if this works out, but the government is going to move slowly," he said. Deciding factors for opening additional automated checkpoints likely would include the reliability of surveillance technology, daily traffic volume, and the amount and type of illegal activity at the location.
Under the agency's plan, people carrying passports or other citizenship documents embedded with computer chips will approach kiosks to enter the United States. The kiosks will be mounted with digital scanners connected to a staffed entry point in El Paso, Texas, where CBP officers will see them through one-way video cameras and check their IDs. When near the scanner, the microchip, a radio frequency identification transmitter, signals a remote database to draw up biographical records and a photo of the document-holder. Officers then can confirm that the person in the database is the person on the camera.
Stodder said facial recognition, when the technology becomes more accurate, could perhaps quicken the clearance process. "It's the way of the future," he added. "That said, you have to create a one-to-one match." Spokesman Bill Brooks said CBP is using proven technology at Big Bend, adding the agency cannot speculate about tools it may use in the future.
But, he said, CBP's Science and Technology Directorate tests innovations that could be advantageous to the agency's mission, providing the equipment can withstand the environment.
CBP officials acknowledge that the kiosks, even as currently proposed, could malfunction at times.
"There's a lot of redundancy built into the system, just like there is at any port of entry, so we would cross our fingers that it doesn't happen. But it does happen," Brooks said. "And when it does, we would have to stop granting access while it has to be repaired or it would have to be done manually." CBP officers stationed at the closest port of entry in Presidio, Texas, a couple of hours away, might have to drive to the station to perform the manual verifications, he said. Also, U.S. Border Patrol agents in the park would be available for on-site assistance.
Federal officials expect to pay $1.6 million the first year for all the technology, including the kiosks, surveillance equipment, connectivity and an agricultural waste disposal system. The plan, made public last fall, still must be approved by other agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and CBP's parent department, Homeland Security, Brooks said.
Passage through the park has been blocked since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Before national security concerns surfaced, American tourists were able to buy crafts and eat in the neighboring town of Boquillas del Carmen. But today the nearest crossing is 100 miles away, forcing park rangers, visitors and researchers to drive hours for legal passage.
Improving relations between the United States and Mexico prompted a move to reopen the Big Bend crossing. In addition, Stodder said, the site is ideal for testing the concept of an automated checkpoint because it is not heavily traveled by foot or vehicle. There are no roads over the border, which is demarcated by the Rio Grande River, that could enable mass smuggling. Only pedestrians will be admitted through the kiosks. The National Park Service estimates between 15,000 and 20,000 people will use the border crossing during the first year. By comparison, the El Paso port typically processes between 40,000 and 85,000 travelers per day, according to CBP officials.
"If there's any place you want to try this, it's there," Stodder said. If illegal immigrants "really wanted to get across, they'd probably try to wade across the river someplace else."
Still, there are some technological pitfalls officials may encounter initially. "That network of video surveillance could fail," Stodder said, but noted the setup is less precarious than a virtual fence of camera-covered watchtowers that actually did fail in Arizona. DHS officials pulled the project, called the Secure Border Initiative network, early last year.
Whereas the SBInet towers were exposed to the Southwest's extreme weather, the kiosk cameras will be somewhat sheltered by a Park Service building that also houses a visitor center, he said.
By Aliya Sternstein
February 9, 2012