NPR Story
3:33 pm
Thu September 12, 2013

Defense Contractors Look To Border For New Business

Yesterday, we reported that in the coming months, the federal government will finalize contracts — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — for new surveillance technology to be deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration reform — if it passes — will likely include new funds for security and border enforcement.

And that’s generating a buzz among defense contractors and private tech companies that see border security as a lucrative business venture.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Jude Joffe-Block of Fronteras Desk has the report.

Reporter

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, yesterday we reported that in the coming months, the federal government will finalize contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for surveillance technology along the U.S.-Mexico border. And if an immigration reform bill ever passes, it will likely include new funds for additional security along the border.

Defense contractors and private sector tech companies are hoping to cash in on that potential new market just as the war in Afghanistan is winding down. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, the Fronteras Desk, Jude Joffe-Block reports.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: Imagine this scenario: An intruder hops a fence and starts to walk in a forbidden zone. Instantly a camera senses his movement, spins around to record him and detects he' a human, not wildlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)

JOFFE-BLOCK: An alarm like that would alert agents back at a command center. They would get a video of the intruder and his geo-coordinates. As it turns out, a Phoenix-based company, PureTech Systems, makes software that does exactly this. Larry Bowe is the company president.

LARRY BOWE: You'll notice that as this target moves, this person, the camera is panning, tilting and zooming simultaneously to keep him in the center of the image.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Bowe's software isn't being used at the border. But he wants to be ready in case there's a future need. Other companies are also getting ready, mostly huge defense contractors, but also small niche companies that specialize in things like thermal imaging or laser-based sensors that detect when fences are being tampered with. Some make products you never would think of.

PAUL CHIBA: We'll call it a pee bag or a poo bag.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Paul Chiba works for an Escondido-based company called Brief Relief. They make sanitary baggies with chemicals inside to neutralize odors and prevent the spread of bacteria. One of their main customers has been the military out in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Chiba says if there are more boots on the ground in the Southwest border region...

CHIBA: After a while, they're all going to have to use a restroom at some point or another, and our products are perfect for that.

JOFFE-BLOCK: It's immigration reform negotiations in Washington that are driving hopes for new spending on the border. At a recent town hall, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake explained that when he and others were working on the technology provisions of the Senate's immigration bill, they went to the heads of each border sector and asked...

SENATOR JEFFRY FLAKE: What new technology do you need, what manpower, what infrastructure? And they gave us a punch list. Here's what we need to achieve 90 percent effectiveness. And that is in the legislation.

JOFFE-BLOCK: The list in the Senate bill is surprisingly specific, naming over 25 categories of technology and the exact number of units per each sector. For example, the San Diego sector will get precisely 393 ground sensors, 41 remote video surveillance systems and one radiation detector, among other things.

One businessman who has high hopes of such a tech-heavy bill passing is Laurie Pane. He works in the Burbank, California, office of a company called Grabba Inc. That's a subsidiary of an Australian company. Grabba makes a gadget that lets law enforcement use smartphones or tablets to check IDs, passports and fingerprints. It's already being used by some Border Patrol agents.

LAURIE PANE: So I can go into a vehicle such as a bus, for example, and check all the passengers on the bus without the passengers having to leave the bus.

JOFFE-BLOCK: If the federal government ups its order - and there's no guarantee they will - Pane claims his company will start manufacturing the devices here in the U.S., which could create domestic jobs.

PANE: It is and can be a really game changer for us.

JOFFE-BLOCK: And a border security boost would come at a good time for many of these companies used to high levels of defense spending. Thad Bingel is a Washington-based consultant who previously was chief of staff at Customs and Border Protection.

THAD BINGEL: Many of the companies who in the last decade relied on that spending, who developed great new technologies for application overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan, they are looking for a customer to replace that.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Of course, to many, bringing these new technologies developed for the military and war zones is a frightening prospect, and there's significant pushback not just from border residents, but from some members of Congress who are reluctant to spend billions more on border enforcement. In Phoenix, I'm Jude Joffe-Block. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.