Digital video patrols border
- By William Jackson
- Dec 15, 1997
Now Scobey is the first pilot site for a joint U.S.-Canadian Automated Permit Port,
which uses remote video and voice recognition to let residents on both sides pass across
the border 24 hours a day.
"It's working quite well," said Diane Hinckley, chief inspector and
supervisor of the land border team for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Residents "more or less inspect themselves and pass through," she said.
Four other automated ports of entry are operating in Montana, New York and Maine, and
three are scheduled to go into operation this year in Alaska, New Hampshire and New York.
Eight more are budgeted for 1998.
So far, Scobey is the only port fully automated with a biometric system for identifying
enrolled participants. The other ports rely on remote video inspection, sometimes
accompanied by magnetic-stripe enrollment cards.
Either way, border inspectors keep tabs on the sites with off-the-shelf video
surveillance equipment and dial-up telephone links so that low-risk, low-volume crossing
points can stay open 24 hours a day.
The Automated Permit Ports are a cooperative effort of the INS and the Customs Service
with Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Revenue Canada. They are part of a broader INS
automated inspection initiative to speed up routine passage through U.S. ports.
The U.S.-Canadian border is a low-risk area. Many of its entry ports are remote and
have such low traffic that staffing them 24 hours a day is not cost-effective, Hinckley
People passing through the ports must state their citizenship and make a customs
declaration. Because documents usually need not be shown by those who declare U.S. or
Canadian citizenship, a video surveillance system for customs inspection does the whole
Electronic Data Systems Corp. is systems integrator for the program, but the remote
setup was developed by the Transportation Department's Volpe National Transportation
Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.
"This has been an interesting program, one of the few we got to build from the
ground up," said Bill Baron, a Volpe computer engineer. The building blocks were
almost all commercial products.
The heart of the system is the RemoteWatch Pro digital video surveillance system from
Alpha Systems Lab Inc. of Irvine, Calif. Its advantage is its ability to work over any
type of communications link.
The mag-stripe card readers came from International Bar Code of Glastonbury, Conn., and
Scobey's voice recognition system is a product of Voice Strategies Inc. of Troy, Mich.
The RemoteWatch Pro video system on a PC can interface with communications links
ranging from microwave and cellular to T1, Integrated Services Digital Network and regular
Alpha Systems Lab's proprietary compression board can deliver 24 frames per second to
30 frames per second over any medium, company president Rose Hwang said.
"The quality of the video is in the compression," Hwang said. "It
doesn't depend on the communications line."
Although video quality is good, frame speed is poor over low-bandwidth telephone
connections. That's the major complaint of users in the field, Baron said.
"We'd always like it to be faster," he said. ISDN lines could boost the
bandwidth if they were available, but remote areas where automated ports are in use are
unlikely to get ISDN service soon.
"We could possibly multiplex over multiple telephone lines" to improve speed
in the future, he said.
The remote visual inspection system dials up an inspector whenever a car pulls up to
the gate at a crossing point. The remote crossing has four cameras: one on a kiosk to show
the driver's face, a document camera, and two inspector-controlled cameras to show the
inside of the car and the trunk.
Enrolled residents in Scobey, in addition to undergoing remote visual inspection, can
swipe a mag-stripe card through a reader to identify themselves, then use a telephone
handset for voice verification by Voice System software from Veritel Corp. of Chicago.
The inspector can check out the car as the verification occurs, and if the voice print
and identification match, the person is passed through. If there is a discrepancy, the
inspector can see and talk with the person.
The video system is one-way only. "It has the drawback that the person being
inspected can't see the inspector," Hinckley said.
She said INS plans to have two-way video in the future. Another planned enhancement is
Alpha Systems Lab software that will automatically bring up the enrollment record on the
inspector's PC screen, complete with photo, as a card is swiped through the reader.
Systems similar to Scobey's but without voice verification are in operation in Maine at
Orient and Forest City. Crossing points at Champlain, N.Y., and Whitetail, Mont., do
remote video inspection but have no enrollment system for frequent crossers.
"The public response has been tremendous," said Stacy Day, Automated Permit
Port team leader in INS' IRM Division.
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.