The Future of the Nation's Borders

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The Future of the Nation's Borders

Although there have been some important changes in the way America's borders are being secured, there is much more to be done. For example, government officials say that while the scrutiny of Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants has been important since the September 11 attacks, they are hoping that in the not-too-distant future it will be possible to keep track of immigrants less conspicuously, and without appearing to single out any one group.

Better Documentation

One way this can be accomplished is to require all temporary visitors to the United States to have the same ID document. That would mean getting rid of the passport in its current form because they are easy for criminals to both obtain and to forge. After the terrorist attacks, it was discovered that several of the hijackers had entered the country using stolen or forged passports. In some cases, a valid passport is altered by changing the picture or biographical data to match the thief. In other cases, the passport is left as it is, in hopes that the border agent would be unable to notice the difference between the picture and the carrier.

Since December 2002, at thirty points along the U.S.-Mexican border, agents have been experimenting with a special new identificaion card for people entering the country. Resembling a driver's license or credit card, the card is called a biometric ID, which means that a 1.4-inch metallic strip at the bottom contains encrypted information, such as a digital photograph and an image of the cardholder's fingerprint. As the cardholder puts a finger on a special scanner, a machine "reads" the fingerprint and the encrypted information, making sure the two match.

Border agents using the new system have apprehended 150 people trying to enter by using another's card. In a case that most impressed inspectors a woman was caught using her twin sister's card—a catch that would never have happened with a traditional ID card.

"A Tiny Hard Drive"

Some security companies see these cards as a mere beginning. One company is experimenting with a card that contains a second memory strip which can store 20MB (megabytes) of data, roughly the capacity of fourteen floppy disks, says one technology expert, "essentially giving the card a tiny hard drive."98 The data contained on this strip would be iris scans (the iris of a person's eye is as individual as a fingerprint), facial scans, medical data, and even DNA sequences. In addition, the cardholder's criminal record or known associations with terrorist groups could be included.

Another improvement envisioned for the future is making the card even more tamperproof by embedding a microscopic radio frequency chip and antenna within the photograph on the card. If a terrorist or other criminal attempted to alter the photo, the chip and antenna would be disturbed, and would alert the border agent when the card is put into a reader.

Not surprisingly, the idea of storing a great deal of data on individuals has provoked much debate among citizens and immigrants alike. One immigrant says that while the information could make the ID cards tamperproof, there is no guarantee that the data contained inside the card would be accurate. "What if they get me mixed up with a man who is a murderer?" he wonders. "What if they have the wrong fellow? Then who do I appeal to as I am standing in line at the airport with a machine buzzing at me? I think it is a mistake."99

Hidden Cameras and Flying Saucers

Less controversial are some ideas for patrolling the nation's land borders. At the onset of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, the U.S. military used unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance, which greatly reduced the threat to troops. However, military experts said that the uninhabited aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are not always easy to use, especially because they can only be launched from a runway.

However, a new UAV has been tested in recent months which may be launched from almost anywhere. The UAV is very small—a little more than 14 feet across—and its shape looks

more like a flying saucer than an airplane. It would be equipped with cameras and computer equipment that could send up-to-the-minute images of the more likely spots for illegal crossing areas to border agents. Because it will be almost silent, the tiny UAV will be unnoticed by those who are trying to evade patrols.

High-tech infrared cameras, too, may soon be added to more of the remote points on the U.S.-Canadian border. They are expensive, but Department of Homeland Security officials believe that the more eyes and ears—even nonhuman ones—at the border, the safer the nation will be.

An Impossible Goal?

Robert Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, is confident that the billions of dollars being spent by the department is a very good sign that the nation is taking border security seriously. "Technology is our greatest ally in preventing terrorists from getting weapons of mass destruction across our borders," he says. "It is technology that is allowing us to facilitate the movement of goods and people, while simultaneously giving us the capacity to detect weapons of mass destruction."100

But while many agree that the increased technology is making a difference in the ability of border and immigration agents to do a more effective job, some have doubts. Consumer advocate and 2000 presidential candidate Ralph Nader worries that too much money is being used on detectors and machines. "We could spend our entire gross national product on security," he says. "I mean, there is an infinite demand, right? Look how much we can spend searching every truck and vehicle that comes from Mexico. So we have to realize that there are some limits. While you can reduce some risks, avoid some risks, mostly we have got to be alert."101

Balancing the need for national security with important questions about privacy, openness, and civil liberties may be a task just as challenging—and every bit as important—as any that the nation has faced in the war on terrorism.