The conversation about border security has been missing one important element, former “border czar” Alan Bersin told me: cyber security.
“We’ve been focused on cross-border flows for a long time but usually are thinking in terms of people or goods — from the aftermath of 9/11 to the immigration issues receiving heated attention right now,” Bersin said. “The old border lines on a map don’t tell us from where the intrusive activity is launched but only the location of where the harm is done.”
Bersin spent nearly five years as the attorney general’s southwest border representative, responsible for coordinating federal border law enforcement from South Texas to Southern California under President Bill Clinton. He oversaw a crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling and the construction of much of the existing border fence.
During the Obama administration, Bersin served in several posts in the Department of Homeland Security, including assistant secretary and special representative for border affairs, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer.
There has been attention on cyber security at the federal level — although the United States is still quite vulnerable to such attacks. A February 2017 report from the Defense Department’s Science Board Task Force on Cyber Deterrence concluded that other nations’ cyber defense capabilities exceed those of the U.S. and argued that this will continue to be the case for at least another five to 10 years.
Last month, the government issued an alert that Russian hackers had gone after the U.S. electrical grid.
Bersin said that, unlike people crossing the border by foot illegally, cyber attacks don’t quite resonate in the same way.
“There’s concreteness to the harm done by illicit flows of cargo that is quantifiable — the deaths, for example, of individuals who overdose on opioids as drug users,” he said. “In the cyber world, the harm thus far largely has been in terms of financial fraud, identity theft and personal data appropriation. There is real harm here to be sure, but it is not physical or fatal. However, cyber intrusion is quite capable of affecting the physical world catastrophically.”
Where you have electrical grids, the disruption of the network could result in massive blackouts. Compromised control systems at dams could cause massive flood damage for miles around, Bersin said.
At the border, where we share infrastructure with Mexico, cyber security requires something beyond what it might for other places in the country: bilateral cooperation. An attack on systems in Baja California would impact Southern California and Arizona, and vice versa.
There are 11 border-crossing transmission lines along the U.S.-Mexico border, including one in San Diego-Tijuana, according to the North American Cooperation on Energy Information, an initiative between U.S., Mexican and Canadian energy agencies. And those cross-border power connections are expected to grow in the coming years, according to the IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Back in 2011, a problem with a transmission line in Arizona led to cascading outages throughout Arizona, Southern California and Baja California. In San Diego, nearly 1.5 million people lost power, for as long as 12 hours. That outage wasn’t caused by a cyber attack, but it shows how a vulnerability or problem in one part of our system impacts both sides of the border.
“We share critical infrastructure with Mexico and Canada, [such as] electric grids and river systems,” Bersin said. “We are just at the threshold of examining how we design and implement cyber security in the cross-border context. Right now, it is conspicuous in the public sector by its absence.”
When you live in San Diego, crazy stories about people smuggling drugs and humans across the border pop up in the news every week. What always sticks out to me is how many of smugglers are U.S. citizens. Here are some of the recent ones:
• A horse trailer carrying 19 unauthorized immigrants flipped on Interstate 8 in Campo last weekend. All are being processed for deportation except for one woman who has been hospitalized. It’s still unclear who the driver is, and what will happen to him or her. (Union-Tribune)
• Two teenagers were caught smuggling Fentanyl through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. It’s part of a growing trend of teenagers — many of whom live in Mexico and cross the border daily to go to school — smuggling the drug. (10News)
• A mom shuttling five of her children across the border last Monday was arrested after authorities discovered 231 pounds of drugs hidden throughout her minivan. (Union-Tribune)
More Border News
• California Gov. Jerry Brown was going to send National Guard troops to the border, but on Monday the state rejected the federal government’s initial plans, saying the work is too closely tied to immigration enforcement. (Associated Press)
• The Department of Homeland Security gathers data on migrants in Mexico through screening terminals in Mexican detention facilities that take their fingerprints, ocular scans and screen for other identifying features, like tattoos and scars. The program currently exists in two detention facilities in Mexico City and Tapachula, but will be expanding to three more facilities, including one in Tijuana and one in Mexicali, in coming weeks. (Washington Post)
• There are lots of Mexicans in the United States who will be voting in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election. Los Angeles has the highest number in the country, with more than 85,000. In San Diego, there are more than 11,300. (Union-Tribune)
• In light of what’s happening in California and other states, Mexico’s minister of tourism said Mexican states should be allowed to legalize marijuana while they wait for reform on the federal level, Reuters reported. Right now any legalization efforts would have to happen at the federal level, unlike in the United States. I wrote about how California’s cannabis culture has been influencing Mexico last month.
• Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy for migrants caught entering the United States illegally at the border. The Houston Chronicle has a great explainer of what that means.
• The new Border Patrol chief in El Centro is the only woman currently serving as a sector chief for the agency, the Union-Tribune reported. That’s big, considering Politico reported last year that only 5 percent of all Border Patrol agents are female.
• There’s a new initiative trying to record the biodiversity of the borderlands. (High Country News)
• A plan to pipe treated wastewater from Tijuana to Valle de Guadalupe could help decrease some of the overburdened San Antonio de los Buenos plant’s discharge into the Pacific Ocean. (Union-Tribune)
• Hector Barajas, an Army veteran who had been deported to Mexico, became a U.S. citizen After he was deported, Barajas became a voice for deported veterans, and started the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana, which provides deported veterans with food, clothing, shelter and other resources. (KPBS)
• Apprehensions of people illegally crossing the border spiked last month across the southwest, including in San Diego. (Union-Tribune)