How the Virtual Border Fence Works

By: Jacob Silverman

Virtual Border Fence Technology

Border Patrol agents work with a helicopter flying overhead to police the border.
Border Patrol agents work with a helicopterflying overhead to police the border.
Public domain image

So how can a "virtual" fence work? Whenever a suspicious person or potentially illegal activity is detected near one of the fence's components, that information transmits to the Border Patrol offices in Tucson and Sells, Arizona. Agents in those offices notify agents in the field. The exact coordinates appear on laptops that the agents have in their vehicles. Images, coordinates, radar scans and all other information are combined to make a Common Operating Picture.

Using aerial photos of the border area, Boeing attempted to figure out how long it takes someone illegally crossing the border to "blend into" nearby urban areas [Source: NPR]. Physical fencing has been built at those spots, rather than along the exact border. The area leading up to that demarcation will be closely monitored by the virtual fence.


The virtual fence system is supposed to be able to operate at all times of day and in all types of weather. The hope is that it will significantly improve border security and provide a compliment to the physical fencing and Border Patrol personnel already in place. In the coming months and years, more security measures are supposed to go online. Boeing has presented a plan for 1,800 towers like those used in Project 28, to be placed along the United States' borders with Mexico and Canada. The U.S. government plans to hire 6,000 new Border Patrol agents by 2008. Until those new agents are in place, 6,000 National Guard members are at the border, helping with patrols, installing security systems and training Border Patrol agents.

In all, the virtual border fence seems like a very impressive project, a way of using cutting-edge technology to better monitor America's massive borders. The intended advantage of the virtual border fence is that it offers more flexibility than a strictly physical fence. But the project has also received a significant amount of criticism. In the next section, we'll look at some of the controversies surrounding the virtual border fence.