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The San Ysidro border crossing / Image via Shutterstock

Last year, former “border czar” Alan Bersin told me that one aspect of border security is often overlooked by the public: cybersecurity.

Bersin’s point was recently driven home after a hack of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection contractor exposed the faces and license plates of thousands of U.S. travelers who crossed the border as well as the inner workings of a complex surveillance network operated by federal authorities.

The Washington Post reports that hackers appear to have breached the computer systems of Perceptics, a private company with an obscure presence in the federal contracting world.

Some of the hacked files “offer extensive detail on — and, in some cases, a literal road map to — equipment that has been installed at U.S. military bases and the United States’ most highly trafficked border gateways,” according to the Post.

Over the last year, there has been more attention paid to cybersecurity at the federal level — although the United States is still quite vulnerable to such attacks.

“The harm thus far largely has been in terms of financial fraud, identity theft and personal data appropriation,” Bersin told me. “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.”

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 United States and argued that this will continue to be the case for at least another five to 10 years.

This March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the Federal Emergency Management Agency mistakenly released personal information of 2.3 million survivors of 2017 hurricanes and wildfires to a contractor.

In March of last year, the government issued an alert that Russian hackers had gone after the U.S. electrical grid.

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. 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 cyberattack, but it shows how a vulnerability or problem in one part of our system impacts both sides of the border.

Despite these concerns, in May The Daily Beast reported that the government asked cybersecurity employees if they wanted to leave their infrastructure and cybersecurity work to go to the border to help with the “ongoing surge of migrants.” The leadership shakeups in DHS also have cybersecurity experts worried, Wired reported.

It’s unclear the extent of the damage in this most recent hack, security-wise.

CBP acknowledged the intrusion in a statement June 10, saying it had learned of the cyberattack on May 31. The agency blamed an unnamed contractor, which the Post later identified as Perceptics, for leaving confidential material vulnerable to attack and said it had violated agency rules by transferring license plate and travel images onto its private network. (The agency hasn’t responded to, or confirmed, the Post’s reporting.)

The breach reinforces concerns over how automated license plate reader and facial recognition technology is being used and safeguarded by public agencies. Many local and state agencies have been grappling with privacy and security issues regarding the use of the same technology.

Last month, San Francisco banned law enforcement and other city departments from using facial recognition technology. And just last week, California lawmakers approved an audit of the use of automated license plate readers by local law enforcement agencies in the state.

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Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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