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United States Your Rights Online

Patrolling the US Border Via Webcam 249

Posted by timothy
from the observe-and-report dept.
The BBC features a story today on a controversial effort to patrol the border between Mexico and Texas by means of 21 hidden cameras, the output of which is streamed online for viewers at home, who can then report suspected illegal border crossings; more than 130,000 people have registered to observe the streams, from as far afield as "Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Israel, New Zealand and the UK."
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Patrolling the US Border Via Webcam

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  • They're not really hidden cameras if the output is streamed to the web, now are they?
    • Re:Well... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by belmolis (702863) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:45PM (#30558646) Homepage

      They're hidden if they are difficult for people in the area to see. "hidden" is not the same as "secret".

  • Absurd! (Score:5, Funny)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:39PM (#30558582) Journal
    Why is a wholesome, All-American, project to Defend the Homeland(tm) letting dirty foreign IP addresses in?

    I read on freerepublic that foreign IPs can carry tuberculosis and communism.
  • by tonyahn (859878) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:40PM (#30558592)
    Now if Mexico was registered to monitor the hidden cams..... "quick, duck, I can see you on the webcam"
  • Mexico? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by whoever57 (658626) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:42PM (#30558602) Journal

    more than 130,000 people have registered to observe the streams, from as far afield as "Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Israel, New Zealand and the UK."

    Could it be that Mexicans have registered for the purpose of locating the cameras?

    • Re:Mexico? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Eudial (590661) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:51PM (#30558708)

      more than 130,000 people have registered to observe the streams, from as far afield as "Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Israel, New Zealand and the UK."

      Could it be that Mexicans have registered for the purpose of locating the cameras?

      ... or to continuously report a bunch of fake border crossings all the time so that the real events drown in a sea of fake ones.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by noidentity (188756)

        ... or to continuously report a bunch of fake border crossings all the time so that the real events drown in a sea of fake ones.

        Caller: "I saw someone on the border cam! Go get him!"
        Operator: "Let me review the last 5 minutes"
        <5 seconds later>
        Operator: "I didn't see anything from that camera in the past 5 minutes."

  • Mexico? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by RsJtSu (569959)
    So this is for people to view and observe the border and report any activity right....well I guess this plan is already in the toilet now that people IN MEXICO can view the cameras and see exactly where they are pointed.

    Ok yes, we see you. We will mark that crossing off our list of possibilities. Ok, a little further...there I can see you...keep going....now I can't, mark that with a flag or something.

    Well played Border Control, well played.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      The way to play that would be to point cams in one direction and patrol the others.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by causality (777677)

      So this is for people to view and observe the border and report any activity right....well I guess this plan is already in the toilet now that people IN MEXICO can view the cameras and see exactly where they are pointed.

      Ok yes, we see you. We will mark that crossing off our list of possibilities. Ok, a little further...there I can see you...keep going....now I can't, mark that with a flag or something.

      Well played Border Control, well played.

      I heard one simple idea that probably would solve the illegal border crossing problem: landmines. Line our side of the border with antipersonnel landmines, everywhere except the legitimate entrances/checkpoints. Post highly visible signs in English and Spanish, and also with graphics in case the person is illiterate, warning that it is a minefield. The purpose of this is to establish a deterrent, not to actually hurt anyone (though if that happens, they can't say they weren't warned). Maybe those signs

      • I heard one simple idea that probably would solve the illegal border crossing problem: landmines.

        And when dozens of cattle and feral horses are left maimed or dead, we'll just say "serves those stupid animals right! They should learn to read!" What, you didn't realize there is a significant amount of non-human traffic in those areas?

        Or, for that matter, how desperate some people are when they're trying to escape severe poverty or starvation? Or do you just not care? A rudimentary knowledge of fairly recent history would have told you land mines don't deter the very poor from attempting to use land - th

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by causality (777677)

          I heard one simple idea that probably would solve the illegal border crossing problem: landmines.

          And when dozens of cattle and feral horses are left maimed or dead, we'll just say "serves those stupid animals right! They should learn to read!" What, you didn't realize there is a significant amount of non-human traffic in those areas?

          Or, for that matter, how desperate some people are when they're trying to escape severe poverty or starvation? Or do you just not care? A rudimentary knowledge of fairly recent history would have told you land mines don't deter the very poor from attempting to use land - they just send people out into the fields/paddies with poles in an attempt to blow up any mines before planting their rice (yes, we're talking about a country in southeast Asia). If mines didn't stop them from entering land they'd use multiple times, it's not likely to stop illegal aliens from attempting a one-time crossing.

          The person who modded me "Funny" had the right idea.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by JackieBrown (987087)

          How will Mexico ever improve if the people that want to make better lives for themselves leave for the US?

          (For the record, I don't agree with the mines theory that the poster was joking about, either.)

      • Re:Mexico? (Score:5, Informative)

        by spasm (79260) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @07:28PM (#30559692) Homepage

        So that's why the US is one of the few nations not to ratify the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa_Treaty)..

      • by daveime (1253762)

        Partially deflated hovercrafts, seems to work for the North Koreans at the DMZ.

      • Re:Mexico? (Score:5, Funny)

        by fast turtle (1118037) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @08:27PM (#30559950) Journal

        Nah - Landmines are to cheap. You aint thinking like an American Politician. It's got to cost at least 1 million per emplacement, ensure it can detect not only ilegals crossing the border but the drug runners, sniff out radioactive materials and shoot down exocet cruise missles and the damn idiot tourist who flys to close to the No Fly zone.

        Don't forget it's got to be a long term defense contract that'll cost 10-20 billion dollars for a 10 year contract and give plenty of jobs to our favorite congress critters districts so they'll vote for him in the next election. That's the Real American Way.

    • by Ksevio (865461)
      Well with all the miles of border, what are the chances someone will be able to recognize an area of desert or brush from a point of view they haven't seen in an area they haven't crossed over?
  • If only there were a way for them to stay on their side of the border,
    yet still do work on our side of it: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0804529/ [imdb.com]

  • The moment these people are signedup and logged in -- that's when we'll know the locations and capabilities of those cameras.

  • by billstewart (78916) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:44PM (#30558630) Journal

    Really, crowdsourcing a problem like this shouldn't be hard - 21 cameras, lots of geeks, Google Earth? How long will they stay hidden? Let's have a contest to find the things!

  • by Karganeth (1017580)
    I hope AI is used to bring the webcams which have humans moving on it to peoples attention (rather than having everyone looking at random webcams, 99% of which will have nothing interesting on them).
  • So instead of lining some contractor's pocket how about we just do as the Romans did and actually patrol the damned border?

    Sure boots on the ground isn't as flashy as a web cam but it might be actually effective.

    Of course actual patrols might be too effective...

    • Re:When in Rome... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by belmolis (702863) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:52PM (#30558716) Homepage

      The US border with Mexico is long. Patrolling it effectively would probably take more guards than we want to pay for. Furthermore, in situations like this were most of the time nothing is going on, guards tend to get bored, inattentive, and sleepy, which makes them miss things. Having lots of volunteers allows each one to monitor for a short time while alert and interested.

      The Romans did not routinely use intensive foot patrols as you suggest. Their strategy was much like tat of the US, with walls instead of fences and occasional patrols.

      • by Duradin (1261418)

        We do have a standing army which we already pay.

        Hadrian's wall had troops stationed in posts every 5000 feet along with observation towers and the occasional large garrison. If they could do it (in a foreign country none the less) we should be able to do it at home.

        • Re:When in Rome... (Score:4, Informative)

          by belmolis (702863) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Saturday December 26, 2009 @05:11PM (#30558842) Homepage

          Using the army might work in times of peace, but at present the army is stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I doubt that they have personnel to spare. The Roman troops along Hadrian's Wall mostly stayed in the milecastles and the towers on either side. Intensive patrolling was not their strategy. Hadrian's Wall was only 73.5 miles long. The US border with Mexico is 1,969 miles long. To staff it the way the Romans staffed Hadrian's wall would require approximately 50,000 troops.

          • by cheekyboy (598084)

            50000 cylon type robots would do the trick.

          • That's less than half the troops we have accomplishing nothing of value in Iraq/Afganistan.

            Plus, we could do two birds with one stone if we had the Army patrolling the border. They could run all sorts of training exercises up and down along the border.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            I always thought we could just consolidate all US military bases into one, long skinny one along the border. :-)

            The whole controversy is weird. It's like we're not allowed to have a border. You'd think it was Kashmir, but even India and Pakistan mange to have a little fun with it.

            http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1689795,00.html [time.com]

            I can't think of any other border where people act like it's an offense against the universe. Meanwhile, you see all sorts of anti-illegal immigration laws being tightene

          • by shaitand (626655)

            So in other words it would be a relatively trivial task for our military if we weren't trying to police the world and engage in holy wars.

      • I Feel Asleep.....

      • by couchslug (175151)

        Modern surveillance systems a combination of manned patrols and surveillance systems would make a modern "Morice Line" practical. The purpose isn't to stop them all, just most of them.

      • by daveime (1253762)

        Patrolling it effectively would probably take more guards than we want to pay for.

        Couldn't we use some illegal Mexican immigrants ?

        Dey tuk ur jerbs !!!

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by couchslug (175151)

      That's actually quite practical, especially with UAVs and manned surveillance posts, but there is little political support in Washington for effective border control.

      It's easy to build small operating bases, easy to stage patrols to monitor what sensor and cameras detect, and while it would not halt border crossings it would reduce them to a more reasonable level.

      What isn't easy is doing this when Mexico objects (failed narcostate that it is, every dime sent from Yanquiland is welcome) and when Mexicans in

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        If they've got the vote, they are no longer "Mexicans". They are Americans.

  • by RobinEggs (1453925) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @04:59PM (#30558768)

    ...we would be concerned that the cameras might encourage vigilantism. That people would think they saw an illegal immigrant and then jump in their truck with a gun.

    That criticism shows up at least twice in the BBC article, but it doesn't make sense to me. The cameras might attract some people already partial to vigilantism, but I don't believe they flat out encourage vigilantes in general.

    What's more, the locations of the cameras are secret; otherwise immigrants and traffickers would learn to avoid all those spots within days. The watchers shouldn't be able to find the camera locations, so this stuff about "jumping into their truck with a gun" isn't even possible.

    I don't know whether I agree or not with the program, but the "concerns" quoted here seem a little far fetched. Furthermore, vigilantes present as much danger to law enforcement as to their prey, so I don't believe the Border Patrol or sheriff's offices will continue the program if there's significant evidence of more people hunting illegals.

    • by StikyPad (445176)

      I agree with the part about vigilantism being a non-issue, but as for the location of the cameras, it should be easy enough to locate them (roughly) using astronomical markers on the images they record, then get better accuracy by overlaying a view from Google Earth and matching landmarks. If someone wanted to, they could find the cameras pretty quickly.

    • by radtea (464814)

      The watchers shouldn't be able to find the camera locations, so this stuff about "jumping into their truck with a gun" isn't even possible.

      Others have pointed this out by why not pile on a little. Are you really seriously saying that it isn't possible to find when you can see what it's pointed at?

      Why, exactly, do you believe that?

      These cameras are in fixed locations and will be showing pretty much the same thing for years to come. Even without active intervention involving guys with flags wandering along

    • by westlake (615356)

      The watchers shouldn't be able to find the camera locations, so this stuff about "jumping into their truck with a gun" isn't even possible.

      I read these posts wondering if the geek has the least idea of what the Mexican border looks like. Its length. Its terrain. If the cameras are set properly there will be no point of reference.

  • other uses? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by belmolis (702863) <billposer AT alum DOT mit DOT edu> on Saturday December 26, 2009 @05:01PM (#30558780) Homepage

    I wonder if something like this couldn't be used to provide more effective protection than the police currently provide for witnesses, abused women, and others under threat. All too often even when such people get some protection it takes the form of a patrol car driving by now and then or officers posted outside the front door, often for limited hours and not for very many days. Providing really effective protection takes a lot of manpower that is hard for police to provide. And then there are cases where te police are unsympathetic or consider that there isn't enough hard evidence of a threat. If cameras could be set up to monitor building and in some case apartment entrances and exits and streamed to sites where volunteers would monitor them, that could provide a large increase in the manpower available.

    • Re:other uses? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ceoyoyo (59147) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @05:27PM (#30558988)

      Good idea. Posting video feeds from in and around the buildings where witnesses and others in need of protection live sounds like a great idea.

      Law enforcement: "Please watch these cameras and let us know if you see something suspicious."

      Mafia: "$5000 for the first person who recognizes the building in this picture."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by belmolis (702863)

        I think you misunderstand my suggestion. I'm not suggesting this for the small number of cases where the location of the threatened person is secret. Clearly you don't want to do this if the witness is being kept in a safe house or other secret location. However, most witnesses, even those who are at risk, are not housed in safe houses. It is way too expensive to do this other than for very important witnesses or those who are under a very serious threat. Similarly, women at risk from abusive ex-partners o

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          True, but I'm not sure a guaranteed single-and-vulnerable woman would want her location and status broadcast to the world any more than a witness protection witness would want the world knowing where he or she was holed up.

          The jealous husband/boyfriend might be able to think of a few interesting uses for the video feeds too. Nothing like video stalking your ex without having to break in and install the video surveillance yourself.

          • by shaitand (626655)

            That is easily solved by semi-randomizing the feed volunteers view. Make sure it is another city (based on requester ID) and otherwise randomize. Every 15 mins, switch feed. And of course don't set the cameras up to show building numbers or street numbers.

            It might be possible to trace a feed, but it would take a lot of effort and there is no guarantee which feed you are tracing.

            It would be pretty useless for tracking specific people.

            • by ceoyoyo (59147)

              Never underestimate the cleverness of motivated people and the Internet.

              You'd be releasing private information to the public. Sure, it might seem like you've figured out all the angles, but what if you miss one?

              It's not even clear what the benefit would be. Okay, you see someone come into the building you're watching. Do they live there? Okay, they're sufficiently suspicious. Now what? Press the call the cops button? In the ten minutes it takes them to get there, the guy, who knows he's being watched

      • by nametaken (610866) *

        Pipe stills into Amazons Mechanical Turk service, take the most common locational guesses and go verify it in person. Cheap n' easy.

  • Hidden? (Score:4, Informative)

    by mcorner (168581) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @05:08PM (#30558822) Homepage

    There is a fairly straightforward way to locate the cameras if you have a bit more time than me. Using the time of the sunrise and sunset (and the length of the day), you should be able to get a decent fix on the location (people use the same technique on whales and sea turtles.)

    • Hmmm good point. I suppose a couple of seconds of random delay would introduce enough noise into the position to make the camera hard to spot.

    • There is a fairly straightforward way to locate the cameras if you have a bit more time than me. Using the time of the sunrise and sunset (and the length of the day),

      Simple solution: delay the feeds by the approprite amount of time so that the sun rises on all cameras at the same moment. Though I suppose this wouldn't protect against using solar eclipses to determine the time delays, heh.

  • It's a good idea (Score:2, Insightful)

    by mysidia (191772)

    I believe the term is "crowdsourcing", or in this case, "sponsored crowdsourcing", where the citizens want their border protected, and there is not enough manpower or money for the government to do it.

    However, I doubt it will catch on much, unless there is incentive/award to successfully identify illegal crossing that requires a high 'hit ratio' or low rate of false reports to claim a reward.

    It is not vigilantism for citizens to assist law enforcement in enforcing the laws of the country. It is respo

  • The border is massive, and 21 cameras cannot possibly cover a significant portion.

    It's good as a pilot project, but the border is thousands of miles long.

    Would-be illegal immigrants will eventually get word about regarding which reasons are "safest" or that they're most likely to succeed at in crossing.

    Probably forested most geographically hostile areas, where cameras can't easily be placed, are going to be more favored crossing points.

    The low number of border agents places them at significant ad

    • by selven (1556643)

      Also, if the cameras connect wirelessly the signals will be easily detectable. If there are wires, the wires will have to run for dozens of kilometers, and they will get found and cut by illegal immigrants (or natural events like some tree deciding to grow a root somewhere).

      • by dgatwood (11270)

        Not at all. Use solar power and a small satellite uplink dish. You could potentially do that in a way that is concealed from the ground, is pretty hard to detect, and only has wires between the location of the camera and the location of the uplink gear. Oh, and if those wires get cut, you could immediately dispatch someone to investigate, repair, and apprehend.

    • by shaitand (626655)

      "Probably forested most geographically hostile areas, where cameras can't easily be placed, are going to be more favored crossing points. "

      Forested? Are there any forested areas on the border? I was under the impression the entire region was a desert without much vegetation beyond sage brush.

  • by CAIMLAS (41445)

    What we need now is an additional camera every, oh, quarter mile. Figure $250 per camera installation (small ARM network board, camera, connectivity). That'd be a good start.

    Then put autocanons on them designed to only shoot south.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Why use autocannons? Just link the cameras and guns to an online sniper game and let the crowd do it!
      Heck, you could probably charge $1 per shot and make money!

    • Shaped-charge high explosives filled with shrapnel designed to turn anyone climbing over their fence into a colander.

      Mind you, the East German security people were total douchebags. Presumably that is what you want the US Border Patrol to become also. Or perhaps you think they already are.

      The East Germans took them down after a while (well before the Wall came down). Even they realized how scummy it was.

    • $250? Try $25,000 (and this isn't a jab at government inefficiency)

      Sure, a small ARM board and low-resolution camera would probably cost about $250. However, you'd need to make it able to withstand a harsh outdoor environment, and also consider things such as visibility in the rain and at night (otherwise, people would just wait until these times to cross). Also make sure your field of view is sufficient to legibly capture an eighth of a mile in both directions.

      Next, factor in power and connectivity at a

      • by CAIMLAS (41445)

        I know. I was going for intentional understatement.

        But, I do think $25k/camera is a bit high. Maybe for the camera-turret system. :)

        For optics, you could get what you need for under $450. That would be a webcam with a wide-angle lense, a gen1 nightvision monoscope (IR and the like would be useless in the desert), and a wide-angle lens enclosure for them both (to reduce any moving parts - doesn't matter if everyone looks fat, as long as you get more area).

        Tying it all together might be a little more difficul

  • And the point? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @05:47PM (#30559130) Homepage Journal

    After being on hold for 30 minutes: "Officer, i saw a crossing, 50 miles from any human post.. "

    By the time they mobilize, all the cameras will do is allow us to count how many crossed over, for the census.

  • by bcrowell (177657) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @06:22PM (#30559330) Homepage

    TFA says: "the administrators of the site maintain the primary goal of the initiative is to tackle crime, not illegal immigration." In other words, this is about the war on drugs. At a cost of about 4 million dollars, 21 arrests have been made; "Critics say this does not represent value for money."

    This is a fascinating proposition. Let's figure out the value-per-dollar supplied by the war on drugs in general, and see if it's better than the value-per-dollar supplied by this program.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs. (The term was first used by Nixon in 1969.) I don't think it will come as a surprise that it's been a failure [wikipedia.org].

    What about the "per-dollar" part? Well, I don't know about your state, but mine (California) spends more on prisons than it spends on education, and the vast majority of prison spending arises from drug prohibition. First of all, you have all the people in prison for buying, selling, or using drugs. Then you have all the crime directly associated with the illegal drug trade; just as the stereotypical Chicago gangster of the 1930's wouldn't have existed without Prohibition, gangs today wouldn't exist without drug prohibition. And then you have all the crime that indirectly arises from drug prohibition. Drug prohibition makes drugs expensive, so people commit crimes to support their habits. So we have all the costs of incarceration, the social costs suffered by the victims of violent crime, etc. It's a lot of money.

    So I would estimate that the value-per-dollar of the war on drugs over the last 40 years equals x/y, where x is a number so small that it's controversial whether it's positive or negative, and y is huge.

  • ... in 3...2...1...

    If the Department of Vaterland Zecurity thinks for one second that people won't find a way of monkeywrenching this, they're even more deluded than they seem.

  • As much as I am against American immigration policy, I fail to see why these webcams are more controversial than just a webcam set up looking over New York downtown ?

    On another topic - how many years until mexicans overtake us in population in america ?

  • Redundant (Score:3, Informative)

    by WGFCrafty (1062506) on Sunday December 27, 2009 @04:09AM (#30561830)
    I knew I saw this years ago on here, and they sure weren't talking about any controversy then. Both were reported from the BBC :

    http://news.slashdot.org/story/06/06/02/1250244/Texas-to-Provide-Online-Bordercams?art_pos=4 [slashdot.org]

    Dr_Barnowl writes

    "The BBC reports that Texas intends to erect a network of online webcams at its border to Mexico. [bbc.co.uk] The intention is apparently to use viewers as a kind of distributed processing network, with a free phone number to report border-jumpers."

    From the article:

    "'A stronger border is what Americans want and it's what our security demands and that is what Texas is going to deliver,' Mr Perry said. The cameras will cost $5m (£2.7m) to install and will be trained on sections of the 1,000-mile (1,600km) border known to be favoured by illegal immigrants "

    Hey, it's working for Britain, right?

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