Got a Problem? Throw Technology at It.

E-mail Tom Kevan

The U.S. government has been turning to sophisticated technology to solve domestic and international problems for some time. Although the results are often successful, the path to the solutions is all too often clumsy, inefficient, and expensive. Recent attempts to secure our borders reinforce the idea that sometimes we are better at devising technology than using it.

The Secure Border Initiative
This month, the House Science Committee held a hearing to review plans to provide the U.S. with comprehensive border security. In his testimony, Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary for Science and Technology Jay Cohen stated that numerous new technologies eventually could be applied to the task. According to written testimony, the government is investigating the use of radar, electro-optic and infrared cameras, unattended ground sensors, fiber-optic tripwires, emergent sensors, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

One idea put forth at the hearing was to create a network of 10,000 sensors in the lands along our borders that would include devices that harvest energy for their operation from the chemical reactions occurring within such plants as cacti and trees.

Whatever its final composition, this network will not come cheap. The Department of Homeland Security has budgeted $2 billion to implement this part of its plan.

The Catch
Although the department will select contractors for the border initiative later this month, a clear idea of what technologies will constitute the security system has yet to be established. This glitch has not been overlooked by the congressional committee.

"My sense is that we haven't done a very good job of that so far," said Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). "We haven't methodically thought through what technology to deploy, how to deploy it, and how to integrate it with the people who will actually be apprehending those trying to cross the border illegally."

When asked by Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) whether it is wise to move forward and award the contracts for the border surveillance system before the government had settled on a plan, Gregory Giddens, director of the Secure Border Initiative executive office, said the strategic plan is a "continuum that goes beyond borders" and aims to be "technology agnostic."

Appearing to Do Something
These words lead me to believe that at least one of the objects to this exercise is to appear to be doing something about a hot problem, even though a concrete plan does not exist. The $2 billion price tag makes this pretty expensive PR. After all, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery pointed out: "A goal without a plan is just a wish."

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