IN AMERICA TODAY, an expanding network of surveillance cameras tracks our bank deposits, our shopping expeditions, and our workplace trysts in the supply closet. When we venture online, hundreds of companies diligently note the websites we consume, the files we download, and the comments we make. Our smartphones are even worse stool pigeons than our computers, constantly keeping tabs on our precise geographic coordinates. If you grow weary of such oppressive attention, if you long for a little Waldenesque solitude outside the cross-hairs of our panoptic culture, there is still one place you can go to get away from it all: the borderlands of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
That situation is ironic, of course. Long before Google Street View existed, long before we started sending out alerts every time we breached the perimeter of Starbucks, the U.S. government embarked on an epic quest to establish a "virtual" fence along the Mexican border.The year was 1997. And while the U.S. Border Patrol's surveillance technology then consisted primarily of sunglasses, border hawks and bureaucrats dreamed of a thin technological line of motion sensors, infrared cameras, and video-driven command centers producing the same sort of omniscience we now exert over 7-Eleven parking lots.To realize this bold but improbable vision, Congress approved funds for a pilot project called the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System, or ISIS.
Thus began a long stretch of failure: cameras that wilted from the heat when thermometers hit a relatively temperate 70 degrees, ground sensors that could not tell a native cactus from an illegal intruder, inept project management, insinuations of fraud and corruption. Periodically, the quest would be canceled and then revived under a different brand name. ISIS begat America's Shield Initiative, which begat the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBINet. In January 2011, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano officially pulled the plug on this latest incarnation, thereby ushering in what arguably has been the project's most successful two-year run. Zero functionality was added during this time, but at least spending came to a standstill too.
Now the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is ready to give the virtual fence still another go. According to the trade publication Defense News, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), a division of DHS, has earmarked $91.8 million in its fiscal 2013 budget for the...