DHS leaks possible trade secrets on Southwest border project

Officials shut down a password-protected government website and ask vendors to destroy documents that could contain confidential commercial information.

Homeland Security Department officials accidentally released information that may have contained proprietary contractor data related to a Southwest border video surveillance project, prompting officials to delete online documents and block a website.

DHS officials did not state whose confidential information was exposed. Boeing Co. is the incumbent contractor on the department's now-defunct virtual fence in the same region. The company also operates the northern border's video surveillance project.

After issuing a solicitation for bids on a remote video surveillance system, or RVSS, Customs and Border Protection officials in March discovered that certain specifications posted online to help prospective vendors may have included corporate proprietary information, according to the contracting website FedBizOpps.gov. The data in question was in a password-protected reading room accessible only to authorized vendors on a need-to-know basis and that had signed nondisclosure agreements.

"CBP has been notified that a document posted to the CBP RVSS Virtual Reading Room may contain information considered to be commercial/trade secret information," the alert states. "CBP has also identified one other document that contains similar information. In order to withdraw access to those two documents, CBP has withdrawn access to the entire reading room posted at www.fbo.gov."

The problematic documents, named 80' Monopole Dwgs.pdf and 80 Foot Monopole Spec's V1.0.pdf, apparently showed contractors' drawings and specs for monopole communications towers.

The video surveillance equipment is part of a larger DHS initiative to replace the $1 billion flawed virtual fence with proven weather-resistant technologies that already are on the market. Boeing supplied towers and other structures for the botched Secure Border Initiative network, or SBInet, and now provides CBP with a remote video surveillance system along the northern border.

The March CBP notice requested that everyone who has viewed the files "immediately delete and/or destroy any copies of those documents" and inform contract specialists after they have done so. CBP already has a list of everyone who accessed the files, so the agency also will be contacting individuals directly and asking them to confirm, in writing, that they have trashed the documents.

On Wednesday, CBP officials announced they had reopened the reading room after moving it to a different Web address.

It is unclear whether CBP's leak may have placed any companies at a competitive disadvantage, or will spark contract protests. Agency officials on Thursday said a tower manufacturer notified the agency that it believed a proprietary drawing of its tower was in the reading room. "CBP is reviewing the assertion that the material is proprietary," spokeswoman Jenny Burke said. "In the meantime, out of an abundance of caution, CBP has removed the questionable drawing."

She added, "The procurement under discussion is for cameras to attach to a tower and not for the towers themselves, so we do not expect the tower drawing information to impact competitive advantage in any way."

Boeing officials said they have no comment at this time.

In early March, shortly after the agency published an initial request for proposals, Boeing signaled its intent to compete for the new Southwest work.

"Boeing is proud of its role as the prime contractor to provide critical video surveillance capabilities along the U.S. northern border for Customs and Border Protection agents," the company said in a March 2 statement. "Our expertise and understanding of lessons learned delivering effective border-security capabilities -- often under extreme environmental conditions -- gives us confidence we can continue to deliver a cost-effective, commercial-off-the-shelf solution that will satisfy our customer's enduring need for the detection, tracking, identification and classification of illegal entries."

The video surveillance system is intended to let Border Patrol agents observe illicit activity across wide areas of the Arizona border and potentially at Texas locations, according to the solicitation. A draft work request stated that the "procurement is one element of a broader CBP strategy to rapidly acquire nondevelopmental (and ideally, commercially available,) systems to support border protection efforts."

CBP officials simultaneously are preparing to award a separate contract for rugged stationary towers in Arizona that would be available from military or industrial production lines immediately.