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We Paid What for That Virtual Border Fence?

The government scraps an expensive prototype of its highly touted "virtual fence" -- a multimillion-dollar waste of taxpayer money.
 
 
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Well, they've done it again. They (those who govern us) have figured out how to design a mouse the size of an elephant. Here, read this first:

U.S. scraps $20 million prototype of virtual fence

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- The government is scrapping a $20 million prototype of its highly touted "virtual fence" on the Arizona-Mexico border because the system is failing to adequately alert border patrol agents to illegal crossings, officials said.

The move comes just two months after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced his approval of the fence built by the Boeing Co. The fence consists of nine electronic surveillance towers along a 28-mile section of border southwest of Tucson.

Boeing is to replace the so-called Project 28 prototype with a series of towers equipped with communications systems, new cameras and new radar capability, officials said.

What's wrong with these people? Are they crazy, inept, corrupt or a bit of each? There really is no other explanation.

Now I am not an engineer or a systems administrator nor do I play on TV. I'm just a guy who purchased the first PC sold to the public back in the '70s. (Tandy TRS80, 9 Mghz, 16K, two 5" external drives and a dot matrix printer that sounded like a machine gun.)

But as I read that story, I said to myself, "Don't these people ever choose cheap generic solutions to these kinds of problems? Why is their first choice always to, not only reinvent the wheel, but do so in the most expensive and risky ways possible.? Which almost always results in cost over-runs and failure."

If someone asked me to design a virtual border fence I'd begin by finding a top-of-the line Web cam, one that can be operated (moved and focused) remotely over the web able to see in both daylight and total darkness. Then I'd find the best ruggedized laptop on the market, design a weather-proof, secure box for it.

So, let's see how much under the $20 million (failed system) they choose, I can come:

Length of virtual fence: the same 28 miles.

  • Number of poles: 60 (Since Web cams tend to have lower resolution than high-end cameras, I will place them at half-mile intervals rather than one-mile intervals. ( Example of a panning Web cam -- Legal Sea Foods Boston Harbor.)
  • Number of Web Cams: 60
  • Number of Laptops: 60

How am I doing? I've now got a fence the same length as they tried, and twice the number of cameras.

Let's see how the costs rack up:

Cameras: I have chosen a top-of-the line RISYS IRI-1011 camera/thermal imager, or equivalent. Cost: web-capable cameras like this, with good lenses and nightvision, retail for around $2900. But I figure if we buy 60 at one crack, they'll give us a break. So I will log $2,500 each x 60 = $150,000.

Laptops: I'm going expensive here. I could try individual Wi-Fi networked Web cams, but I am afraid half a mile is just to far between cameras for that to be reliable. So I have chosen to hook each camera to its own dedicated laptop. The computer I chose for this is Getac A790 Rugged Laptop, retail price, $4985. Let's call it $5,000 each x 60 = $300,000.

Lockboxes: 60 weather proof, secure lock boxes plus installation: $250 each x 60 = $15,000

Poles: 60, 40 foot metal poles: fabrication, shipping and installation: $4,000 each x 60 = $240,000

Desktop PCs: Even though I assume Homeland Security has warehouses full of PCs just sitting around collecting dust, nevertheless I will throw in some desktop computers to monitor the cameras. One desktop for each 2 Web cams: 30 x $700 = $21,000.

Connectivity: High-speed T1 line connecting the laptops/cams to the Net: $1,000 a month. (Maybe the government can get those friendly phone companies that were so anxious to help them spy on us to run this line for them too.)

Total Cost of My Virtual Fence: $735,000

Hell, even going with high-end components I can't break a mil. Go ahead and double it to account for labor and we're still ahead -- way ahead. Their fence, which didn't work, cost $18 million more than my fence -- and my fence would work from day one.

Now, admittedly their fence was supposed to be able to tell the difference between a cow and person. Maybe it's because I'm a former dairy farmer, but I've never confused a human for a cow, or visa versa. I suspect even government workers can learn to this as well. (Hint: the cow is the one that has four legs and moves horizontal to the ground. Humans have two legs and move perpendicularly to the ground.)

I can hear defense contractors ridiculing my fence as I write. "Web cams… hah hah hah. What's this guy think this is, Facebook or something? This is serious business. We can't use the kind of computer crap teenies us to chat each other up."

Really? Why not? You can't say it doesn't work, because it does. And, BTW, those "teenies" are a tough crowd to please when it comes to communication technologies. If they use it, and they like it, trust me, it works.

What we need in government are people able to think outside the standard-issue box. One way to do that is to leverage public sentiment to their advantage. The folks at SETI ( Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) did this over a decade ago. When government funding was cut they turned to the public, tapping into the power of distributive processing, to get the number-crunching they could no longer pay for with taxpayer money.

So stick with me on this for another minute or two. Say only a third of the people in the United States want a virtual fence. That's nearly a 100 million people. Say only 25 percent have computers and with a high-speed connection. That's 25 million. Say only 1 percent care enough about illegal immigration to volunteer to watch a border-cam, that's 250,000 folks potentially willing to watch their screens for a couple of hours everyday/night. If they see someone trying to sneak across they instant message the camera number and time to the border control agency in charge. This would be on top of those on the government payroll to monitor the cams. That would not only fill any gaps, but will keep those on the payroll on their toes, knowing that if they slack on the job someone is going to blow the whistle on them.

I know the whole border thing is controversial. Some want it, some don't. Some think it's needed, some think it's folly. I'm not going to get into that argument. All I am offering here is a way to stop wasting taxpayer money on the damn thing.

Some folks aren't waiting for the government to get a clue on this issue, but installing their own Web cams on the border.

"Self-appointed border-watchers are increasingly using remotely operated cameras to help catch people sneaking into the country. The cameras represent a high-tech twist on the usual practice of sitting in lawn chairs or pickup trucks close to the border. ... The cameras include a daytime color videocam and a thermal imaging device for nighttime viewing, both mounted on a motor home. The others are mounted on telephone poles on private property. ... The TechnoPatriots claim that from the program's launch in November through late March, they made 160 sightings that led to 118 people getting caught. The Border Patrol could not confirm those numbers, saying it does not log the names or affiliations of tipsters." ( Full)

But for those who still doubt Web cams work check out these:

http://www.opentopia.com/hiddencam.php (And do try to stay out of web-cam gutter at the bottom of that page)

So there, I just saved us around $18 million. You're welcome.

Stephen Pizzo is the author of numerous books, including Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans , which was nominated for a Pulitzer.

 
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