U.S. eyes high-tech security boost at Canadian border

The U.S. Senate homeland security committee is holding a field hearing in Montana today to examine the challenges of the northern border. Democrat Sen. Jon Tester says installing sensor technology could be a low cost measure to monitor who and what is crossing the international line.

Could cable sensor along border stop smuggling, terrorism without slowing trade?

Canadian border guards are silhouetted as they replace each other at an inspection booth at the Douglas border crossing on the Canada-U.S. border on Aug. 20, 2009. The U.S. Senate Homeland Security committee holds hearings in Montana today aimed at strengthening border security.

A U.S. senator says a low-cost, high-tech cable sensor system could be planted along the Canada-U.S. border to boost security without impeding business.

Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester, who will chair a special field meeting of the U.S. Senate homeland security committee today focusing on the northern border, said cutting-edge technology, private partnerships and bilateral collaboration are key to closing potentially critical gaps — especially at expansive unmanned stretches.

"I think there’s some real opportunity to save money and get better border security," Tester told CBC News. "I'm not talking drones here, I’m talking low-level radar. I’m talking things like Blue Rose technology, where you can lay a cable in the ground and determine whether a gopher runs over it, or a human being, or a horse."

Blue Rose is an in-ground perimeter defence and security system developed by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center and based on fibre optic technology. According to an abstract summary prepared for Homeland Security, the system detects the sound and vibration of intruders, such as people and vehicles, moving near the sensor.

System would detect, distinguish intruders

It has potential border security applications that could reduce manning requirements and overall costs, according to the abstract, but it is not yet being used along the Canada-U.S. border.

Sheriffs, border patrol agents and business representatives will be among the panelists at the hearing in Montana. With $600 million in trade and 130,000 jobs at stake in Montana alone, tackling the security challenges of the remote, largely agricultural border is critical to the economy, Tester said.

With money tight on both sides of the border, costs of implementing and maintaining the program could be worked out and shared by the two countries, he said.

Surveillance technology could monitor who’s coming to the border, could prevent drug smuggling and terrorism, and is particularly effective in  vast areas like Montana.

"I don't think we need a border guard every thousand feet — I do think there are opportunities with technology to save money and help secure the border," he said.

Technology at expense of human resources?

Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union in Canada, said there could be environmental concerns about ripping up land to install sensor cable. He also worries about the trend of increased reliance on technology and equipment for security over human personnel.

"Right now we’re going down a slippery slope because you do need the right balance between the facilitation of the public and merchandise versus national security," he said.

Keep border 'unpredictable'

Fortin said the best way to keep the border secure is to keep it "unpredictable." Rather than using more automation, mobile teams of officers strategically placed and able to intervene when necessary would bolster security, he said.

Don Brostrom, the sheriff in Montana's Hill County, said an expansive terrain, sparse population and scarce resources make the border vulnerable to exploitation – and securing it a challenge. But he believes the bottom line for security is collaboration and communication between U.S. and Canadian authorities.

"You can throw money at it, you can throw technology at it, but you simply need to get together and talk, whether it’s a formal meeting or over a coffee," he said. "The majority of the problems and issues we have we can work out as long as we communicate."


Kathleen Harris

Senior producer, Politics

Kathleen Harris is the senior producer for CBC.ca in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau.