Flashy New Camera is Geared to Catch Smugglers!

Flashy New Camera is Geared to Catch Smugglers!
Posted by FoM on December 26, 1998 at 06:49:13 PT

  SAN DIEGO -- It can't sniff drugs or rifle luggage. But the newest weapon against smuggling boasts blink-of-an-eye speed that border officials hope will be just as useful.   
The weapon is a high-tech camera that feeds the license plate numbers of passing cars into a computer that can tell if the vehicle is stolen or tied to a crime, and how often it crosses the border and when.   Part of a nationwide push by customs officials to stanch the flow of drug proceeds and firearms south to Mexico, the new system is but one example of how officials along the U.S. border are increasingly relying on emerging technology to cope with challenges ranging from smuggling and illegal immigration to chronic traffic snarls.  Customs inspectors already have gizmos that peer down gas tanks and spot drug stashes inside tires. They may also soon be scanning the payloads of big trucks with deep-penetrating gamma rays and searching all types of vehicles for drugs with hand-held sniffing machines. In addition, the hunt is on for high-tech ways to disable cars whose drivers elude border inspections.  Soon to open at the San Ysidro crossing are two special commuter lanes that will allow many regular commuters to avoid long waits with the swipe of a card. A similar program is in place in Otay Mesa, where officials also are testing a remote voice-recognition system that someday could allow U.S.-bound cars to clear the border without stopping.  "What we see now is just the beginning of the trend," said Raymond D. Mintz, director of applied technology for the U.S. Customs Service in Washington, D.C. "In another year or two, the whole face of the way things are done at the border is going to change."  The newly installed license plate readers in San Ysidro offer one such change: Vehicles, always scrutinized upon entering the United States, will for the first time be recorded as they head into Mexico. The readers take an electronic snapshot and send the digitized data into a computer bank. That information pops up when the car re-enters the country.  Officials say a log of departing cars may help establish the patterns of drug-cartel couriers and make it easier to crack criminal rings that operate across the border.   "You don't fight the drug war unless you get the complete picture. The complete picture is what's going outbound as well as what's coming inbound," said Ruben Carrasco, U.S. Customs traffic manager at the San Ysidro port.   The installation of the license plate readers, also in place at crossings in Calexico and Otay Mesa, coincides with a heightened effort by customs to search outbound vehicles for contraband.   In San Ysidro, a special team combining nine inspectors and a a cash-sniffing black Labrador was formed in February to set up impromptu checkpoints for southbound vehicles at the border almost every day. The operations are often done in conjunction with local police seeking stolen cars or fugitives.   Customs administrators say the southbound operations are fruitful. Inspectors turned up $1.2 million in bundles of undeclared cash in searching a Mexico-bound van at a checkpoint last March. Other seizures have involved tens of thousands of dollars each.The license plate readers, mounted on concrete barriers a few hundred feet north of the border, will tell inspectors whether a car nearing a checkpoint is sought by police and log all cars leaving.   Similar readers have been in place in U.S.-bound lanes at San Ysidro for about eight months. Data is checked against a customs computer and a separate national crime database to see if a vehicle warrants special attention. By the time the car pulls up to the booth, the information is on the inspector's computer screen. Officials say the advanced notice can prove an important warning for inspectors.   Information technology may also play a role in speeding cargo. One idea is to create detailed profiles with scores of facts about commercial trucks -- where they've been, what they're carrying and for whom. Computers could instantly sift through the checklist to help inspectors pick which loads warrant a closer look.The commuter lanes being prepared at San Ysidro promise shorter waits for frequent crossers who pay a $129 enrollment, and are fingerprinted, checked for a criminal past and deemed to be low-risk. An INS spokeswoman said the lanes should be running early in 1999. Officials expect about 10,000 people to sign up.  A voice-recognition system is being tested at Otay Mesa that would allow a driver and passengers to gain clearance by speaking into a hand-held computer inside the car.   A cruder version in use in one rural spot along Montana's border with Canada permits residents to cross each way at night, when the nearest immigration inspector is 70 miles away, watching by video monitor. In other remote crossings on the Northeast border, cars are searched at unmanned crossings by robot cameras.   In this way, "one inspector at a port of entry can handle multiple low-volume ports of entry," said Ronald Collison, technology chief for the INS in Washington, D.C.   That doesn't apply to San Ysidro, swamped by more than 40,000 vehicles daily and busy even in the wee hours. But Collison said even more modest commuter advances there will relieve the load on conventional lanes, where the wait to enter the United States averages 20 to 30 minutes. 
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