Canada-U.S. Border Surveillance
BLAIR WATSON
© 2009 FrontLine Security (Vol 4, No 4)

For six generations, approximately 95 percent of the Canada-US border was undefended; official crossing points were the chief exception. The boundary between our nation and the United States spans 6,416 kilometres – 2,878 km on land and 3,538 km on water – and includes terrain that is flat, hilly, and mountainous, vast tracks of prairie and forests, and lakes, rivers, creeks, and marshes. For decades, governments on both sides have tried to curtail smuggling and human trafficking. Since 9/11, American politicians and homeland security officials have been concerned that terrorists would enter the U.S. across the porous northern border.


Shiprider patrols involving RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard personnel and vessels patrol the Canada -U.S. marine boundary to thwart illicit activities.

The 9/11 Commission expressed its concern in late 2002 that getting into the USA illegally from Canada was not difficult. Nearly five years later, in September 2007, US government investigators were able to cross into the United States from Canada carrying a duffle bag with contents made to look like nuclear material. According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), they encountered no one. “Our work clearly shows substantial vulnerabilities in the northern border to terrorist or criminals entering the United States undetected,” said GAO investigator Gregory Kutz.

Very Lucrative “Businesses”
During the past decade, an estimated $35 billion worth of “BC Bud,” a popular type of marijuana, has been “exported” to the United States. According to police estimates, the “BC Bud” industry has grown from $1.5 billion in 2000 to $7 billion in 2008. South of the border, the cannabis sells for $3,000 to $10,000 per pound, depending on the potency of its psychoactive drug. People have been paid up to $7,500 to transport ­several kilograms of “BC Bud” on foot in a backpack across isolated sections of British Columbia into Washington State. On the U.S. side, they have been met by drug ­traffickers at pre-arranged Global Positioning System coordinates and swap their ­marijuana load for cocaine, cash, and light weapons. Helicopters and small airplanes have also been used for smuggling.

In eastern Canada, contraband cigarette smuggling on the Mohawk Akwesasne reserve near Cornwall, reportedly makes millions of dollars each year for organized crime. The reserve encompasses land and rivers in a corner of Quebec, Ontario, and New York State. According to one study, “As much as 50 percent of the smoke filling Canadian lungs comes from smuggled cigarettes.” Ten illegal factories on the US side of the reserve make an estimated 50 million cartons of cigarettes each year, and about 45 million cartons are smuggled to Canada annually.

Sergeant Michael Harvey of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) ­Cornwall detachment told the Toronto Star in November that an arrested cigarette smuggling “kingpin” revealed that he made $250,000 per week and paid his ­couriers $6,000 weekly to meet smuggling boats on the Canadian side and deliver contraband cigarettes to retailers. The “smokes” sell for as little as one-eighth the price of legal, taxed cigarettes. Cigarette smuggling is costing Ottawa and provincial governments $2 billion in lost tax revenues each year.

The Review, a community newspaper serving eastern Ontario and western Quebec, reported in May that “Every day – year round – it’s estimated that about 60 trips happen across the border near Cornwall Island. In the summer, smugglers use speedboats across the St-Lawrence. In the winter, they use snowmobiles.” Sergeant Harvey told the Toronto Star reporter, “The public just think it’s a way to buy cheap cigarettes, but this is a breach of our international border, and drugs and firearms and people are being brought across this border daily. It’s illegal and it’s a big public safety issue.”

High-tech Border Surveillance
When asked for information about the technologies used by the RCMP to monitor the Canada-U.S. border, the force’s media relations in Ottawa replied in an e-mail: “The RCMP uses a variety of technologies to secure the northern border. To protect the safety and security of investigators and the public, and to protect the integrity of operations, the RCMP does not disclose details of technology used to monitor illegal border activity (such as location or how many).” However, online RCMP video of a speedboat laden with cases of contraband cigarettes making a daytime dash across a river on the Akwesasne reserve and a smuggler’s boat moving at night proves that video ­surveillance is used.

In April, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) issued a press release stating that “Accipiter Radar Technologies Inc. [of Fonthill, Ontario] will lead a study to examine the feasibility of using radar networks for surveillance on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes.” The DRDC webpage lists the RCMP as a project partner. The Accipter website says the company “provides affordable, high-performance radar target information solutions for homeland security applications including border enforcement, interdiction, critical infrastructure protection, harbor and port security, coastal surveillance and search and rescue.”

Accipiter’s security radar systems can be deployed on towers, rooftops, trailers, and trucks, and provide day-night situational awareness in all types of weather with automated, advance warning of user-defined threats. Each system is “network-enabled to facilitate continuous, wide-area radar surveillance, remote target information distribution and remote operation” and “supports integration and fusion of multiple radars and other sensors such as cameras and automatic identification systems.”

Across the border, the Washington Post reported in September 2006 that “Aerospace and defense giant Boeing Company has won a multibillion-dollar contract to revamp how the United States guards about 6,000 miles of border in an attempt to curb illegal immigration. Boeing’s proposal relied heavily on a network of 1,800 towers, most of which would need to be erected along the borders with Mexico and Canada. Each tower would be equipped with a variety of sensors, including cameras and heat and motion detectors.”

Boeing executive Wayne Esser said that while most of the company’s experience involved aircraft, it wanted to keep its border surveillance systems on the ground because “The aerial platform just goes off the map from a cost standpoint.” In March 2009, an Associated Press (AP) report said, “The U.S. Border Patrol is erecting 16 more video surveillance towers in Michigan and New York to help secure parts of the U.S.-Canadian border, awarding the contract to a company [Boeing] criticized for faulty technology with its so-called virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.”

“The government awarded the $20 million project to Boeing for the towers designed to assist agents stationed along the 4,000-mile northern stretch. Eleven of the towers are being installed in Detroit and five in Buffalo, NY, to help monitor water traffic between Canada and the United States along Lake St. Clair and the Niagara River. At present, Border Patrol agents are posted along the river to keep an eye on water traffic.”

Mark Borkowski, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) at U.S. ­Customs and Border Protection (CBP) explains that cameras are used to zoom in on a boat that left Canada, for instance, to watch where it goes and what it does. “So the idea is to have cameras watch, and then agents are freed up to respond,” he says, adding that the surveillance cameras will reduce agents’ response time by minutes.

Boeing was responsible for a 28-mile stretch of surveillance equipment erected along the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson, Arizona as part of the Secure Border Initiative. According to the AP report, “the company was widely criticized for delivering an ­inferior product. Last year [2008], the government withheld some of the payment because technology used in the test project near Tucson did not work properly. Boeing also was late in delivering the final product.”

Borkowski is confident that the Department of Homeland Security, which ­oversees SBI, will not continue to experience the same problems it had in the past on the northern ­border surveillance towers project. Boeing spokeswoman Jenna McMullin says the company “learned quite a bit from our previous SBInet experience and demonstrated how to implement lessons learned.” Steve Oswald, vice president of Boeing’s Intelligence and Security Systems, added, “We’re committed to providing (Border Patrol) agents along the northern border with improved border security capabilities to enable them to do their jobs even better. At the same time, the lessons learned from this deployment will ­contribute to even greater enhancements in the future.”

A prominent critic of SBI has been Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, who insists the program has been a disaster from the start. “The technologies don’t work, they’re not weather-resistant and they’re certainly privacy invasive. Putting them in America’s backyards only invades the privacy of Americans, it doesn’t add to our security.” Borkowski responds that the video resolution of the surveillance cameras is not good enough for residents living near the border to be concerned about privacy issues.


U.S. Customs & Border Protection Pilatus surveillance and tracking airplane flies near the western Canada-US border.

CBP has about 1,500 agents along the Canadian border. In 2008, they arrested 7,925 individuals involved in smuggling or trying to enter the U.S. illegally. The agency has 11 times as many officers on the southern border, where 705,005 people were arrested in 2008.

Despite the significantly lower arrest rate along the northern border, U.S. officials still worry about the ­vulnerable northern flank. “What we don’t know, is how often that vulnerability is exploited,” notes Borkowski. “If, in fact, there’s a lot more going on than we thought, then this [surveillance] technology will help us identify it and it will help us respond and apprehend those people in ways that we haven’t before.”

“Eyes” in the Skies
When asked for information about federal aerial patrols on this side of the border, the RCMP response was brief: “The RCMP uses helicopters and fixed wing aircraft as part of its aerial border patrol duties,” said an e-mail from Ottawa. CBP information about its operations is more replete. There are five Air and Marine branches at bases in Great Falls, Montana; Bellingham, Washington; Plattsburg, New York; Grand Forks, North Dakota; and Detroit, Michigan. The Bellingham and Plattsburg branches opened in 2004, the Great Falls and Grand Forks units in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and the Detroit branch began operations in August 2008. Each branch is equipped with as many as 11 aircraft, including Sikorsky Blackhawk interdiction and apprehension helicopters, Eurocopter observation rotary-wing aircraft, Cessna Citation interception jets and ­Stationair piston-engine surveillance and training airplanes, and Pilatus surveillance and tracking turboprop aircraft.


U.S. Blackhawk interdiction and apprehension helicopter flies over northwestern Washington State near the Canadian Border.

The CBP Northern Border Air Branch at the Grand Forks International Airport began border surveillance, in February 2009, with a $10-million unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with sensors capable of detecting people and vehicles from 10 kilometres away. The Predator B drone from General Atomics can fly as high as 50,000 feet (higher than jetliners), stay airborne for up to 28 hours, and cruise at 300 kilometres per hour. Using electro-optical/infrared sensors and its multifunction synthetic aperture radar, the UAV relays what it sees to a ground station. The radar can detect moving vehicles and persons, and the sensors can track heat sources – including humans – and transmit video imaging in real-time to CBP agents. If suspicious activity is detected, officers are ­dispatched to investigate and apprehend intruders.

At the August 2008 opening of the fifth Air and Marine Branch, near Detroit, Assistant Commissioner Michael Kostelnik said, “With the expansion of our air and marine operations in the Great Lakes-Canadian border region, Customs and Border Protection is helping to assure the American people of our dedication to secure the nation’s borders. Working closely with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners and our Canadian leadership in the north we can bring added law enforcement resources and a greater sense of border security to the Great Lakes region.”


Unmanned U.S. Customs & Border Protection Predator drones patrol near the Canada-U.S. border searching for smugglers, illegal aliens, and possible terrorists.

A related CBP press release said, “Once fully operational, the Air and Marine Branch will consist of over 75 Air and Marine Interdiction Agents, Air Enforcement Agents, and mission support staff, in addition to 29 contractor employees.” Congresswoman Candice Miller was present at the opening and said, “The decision to place the Great Lakes Branch of the Northern Border Air Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base was an important strategic decision because of the proximity to some of the busiest ­border crossings in the country; one of the largest freshwater bodies in the world and the center of the domestic automotive industry. This air and marine wing is a great asset in securing our borders from smuggling, illegal border crossings and ­terrorism.”

Eric Rembold, Director of Aviation Operations for the branch, added, “during the last four years CBP has been enhancing the security of the northern border by increasing its air and marine presence. Today, we are commemorating the establishment of these operations to secure the last 863 miles of the border.”

Randolph Gallegos, Chief Patrol Agent, Detroit Border Patrol Sector, commented that, “the new CBP Great Lakes Air and Marine Branch here at Selfridge will bring tremendous capability to our border enforcement efforts moving us closer to operational control of our nation’s borders.”

No government or law enforcement source could definitively say whether new detection capabilities are needed right now. While Canadian and American authorities have made considerable progress since 9/11 to guard what was once the world’s longest, mostly-undefended border in the world, it remains to be seen how they will deal with unorthodox methods used by criminals to enter the United States such as tunnelling (detected along both north and south ­borders), and the use of underwater craft. Protecting the vast Canada-U.S. border is an unfinished and evolving story.

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Blair Watson is a freelance writer based in British Columbia.
© FrontLine Security 2009

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