Australia’s federal, state and local law enforcement and border patrol agencies are facing unprecedented challenges in their fight to secure Australia’s borders and stay a step ahead of criminals.
Advancement in technology – such as biometrics, automation and Artificial Intelligence – offer opportunities to improve capabilities – however, as the technology used by national security agencies becomes more sophisticated, so too does the approach of the criminals they are working to apprehend.
So how can we effectively plan, prepare and respond to outpace the would-be perpetrators?
Washington-based Assistant Chief Patrick Stewart – the Branch Chief of the Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) program for the United States Border Patrol and the program lead for U.S. Customs and Border Protection – believes the answer lies with geospatial technology.
Stewart and his team have set global benchmarks in developing innovative Geographic Information System (GIS) technology solutions that support risk-informed, intelligence-driven operations. This has enabled the US Border Patrol to significantly strengthen its operations, including apprehending nearly a million illegal aliens and seizing more than two million pounds of cannabis since 2016.
Ahead of his visit to Australia next month, when he will deliver the keynote presentation at the Australian Security Summit, Assistant Chief Stewart has shared some insight into his agency’s award-winning approach to using geospatial technology to secure the United States’ borders.
Q: Let’s start by discussing how the United States Border Patrol currently uses GIS technology. Could you please tell us about your primary geospatial platform and how it works?
A: Our enterprise geospatial solution is called ‘eGIS’ and it’s a portal that consolidates all our data and enforcement information on apprehensions, seizures, significant incidents, intelligence reports and real-time detection activity. The system is built on the ArcGIS platform and allows us to visualise critical information and insights, on a map as it unfolds, so we can make decisions based off the most complete view of a situation possible. It has been a game changer for border protection and is a solution we continue to invest in and evolve. It underpins most of our operations at USBP and we’re increasingly opening access to the solution to other government departments and agencies, to share data and insights that may be valuable to their operations or joint-missions.
Q: What areas of border security does the solution currently support?
A: We use GIS technology is almost every aspect of our border security – and I can confidently say our operations are faster and better all-around with GIS. One of the most important things we can do with the technology is look at a problem area and understand our challenges and deficiencies in border protection. GIS has allowed us to better assess the areas in which people are getting away from us, and scrutinise the ‘why’ so we can plan a better response in future. With GIS, we begin to understand the total flow of traffic getting into the US – and see how or why some suspects may be evading enforcement.
Q: What is made possible with the technology that couldn’t previously be achieved?
A: Previously, without GIS technology we were limited to tracking suspects based on wide areas using landmarks. For example, we may have recorded that we saw three people at a particular area on our border – and we would go back over our records and see that collectively we’ve had 20 people who had escaped via this window. Because it was so large, let’s just say an area with a one-mile radius, suspects could have got away from us from anywhere in this window.
Now with GIS technology, we can provide and record the exact coordination of the location where people got away from us. We can very clearly identify traffic patterns of where suspects are coming from or going. We can fuse that information up with the location of known established trails, stash houses and the highway system, to get an accurate understanding of where suspects are likely heading. Essentially, we can create a real-time map of each movement they have made. With this insight, we can effectively track these people down. We know they’re going two miles up the interstate highway to a stash house, and we can find them and catch them. As a result, we have significantly less people getting away from us now – and for those who do get away, we can deduce where they’re likely going and record that too.
To give you some perspective, we went from having nearly about 600,000 suspects evading us in 2006, down to around 180,000 a year, thanks in-part to the insights provided from our GIS technology. As GIS continues to complement our use of new technology and enable a growing work force, we believe we will continue to see this number decrease.
Q: Has this approach helped apprehend illegal aliens or transnational criminal organisations before they cross the border?
A: GIS technology is pivotal in helping us catch smugglers, drug traffickers, criminal organisations or illegal aliens before they enter the country. Our regional command centres store and share data on where we’ve seen signs of foot traffic, or other evidence of people crossing, like abandoned vehicles, trash and left behind clothing and supplies. This data is visually represented on a map so command can do a quick eyeball analysis in real-time, to provide directions to agents in the field. The system is also then accessed by our analysts who can compare reported sightings with known local activity, so we can filter out tourist traffic areas and narrow down our search.
We also use our GIS to analyse imagery-based maps to track drug mules. We use ground based imagery to identify large bundles and oversize backpacks. We track and monitor their activity from the first sign of their presence, such as footprints, until we apprehend them and make the seizure. GIS is a major contributor to our ability to track them so quickly and effectively.
This becomes critically important when we’re dealing with suspects in dire conditions. In the United States we find many of the areas they’re trying to cross are barren, hot and treacherous – so a lot of people are in danger and putting themselves in harms’ way by trying to cross. We want to ensure we can apprehend these people quickly to ensure the security of the border, but also to show compassion and ensure their safety. We get lots of calls for rescue tracking – last seen foot sign, known trails, or evidence of people crossing are critical in ensuring a timely response.
Q: Overall, how has the technology made a difference to your operations?
A: We have started thinking of GIS as the “Science of Where” and through this use of GIS, we have caused a paradigm shift in how we view enforcement – and that has been humbling. Starting this process, I didn’t expect it would be so profound. The difference is that the agency now understands that no matter where you are, you are “somewhere”. Our suspects are “somewhere”. Thinking of this as the "Science of Where" is understanding that location is what ties everything together. It seems simple, but by embracing that, we’ve been able to create a more efficient operational environment.
This is the first interview with Assistant Chief Patrick Stewart in a three-part series. In the following instalments, Assistant Chief Stewart shares USBP’s interoperability approach, and their innovative use of AI and Machine Learning.
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