Border Security:

Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Collection of Unmanned Aerial Systems and Aerostats Data

GAO-17-152: Published: Feb 16, 2017. Publicly Released: Feb 16, 2017.

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What GAO Found

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses Predator B unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for a variety of border security activities but could benefit from documented coordination procedures in all operating locations. CBP uses its Predator B UAS to support a variety of efforts, such as missions to support investigations in collaboration with other government agencies (e.g., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and to locate individuals illegally crossing the border. GAO found that CBP established various mechanisms to coordinate with other agencies for Predator B missions but did not develop and document coordination procedures in two of its three operational centers. Without documented coordination procedures in all operating locations consistent with internal control standards, CBP does not have reasonable assurance that practices in all operating locations align with existing policies and procedures for joint operations with other federal and non-federal government agencies.

CBP uses aerostats—unmanned buoyant craft tethered to the ground and equipped with video surveillance cameras and radar technology—to support its border security activities along the southern U.S. border. In south Texas, the U.S. Border Patrol (Border Patrol) uses relocatable tactical aerostats equipped with video surveillance technology to locate and support the interdiction of cross-border illegal activity. At eight fixed sites across the southern U.S. border and in Puerto Rico, CBP uses the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) program to support its efforts to detect occurrences of illegal aircraft and maritime vessel border incursions.

CBP has taken actions to assess the effectiveness of its UAS and aerostats for border security, but could improve its data collection. CBP collects a variety of data on its use of Predator B UAS, tactical aerostats, and TARS including data on their support for the apprehension of individuals, seizure of drugs, and other events (asset assists). For Predator B UAS, GAO found mission data—such as the names of supported agencies and asset assists for seizures of narcotics—was not recorded consistently across all operational centers, limiting CBP's ability to assess the effectiveness of the program. CBP has not updated its guidance for collecting and recording mission information in its data collection system to include new data elements added since 2014, and it does not have instructions for recording mission information such as asset assists. In addition, not all users of CBP's system have received training for recording mission information. Updating guidance and fully training users, consistent with internal control standards, would help CBP better ensure the quality of data it uses to assess effectiveness. For tactical aerostats, GAO found that Border Patrol collection of asset assist information for seizures and apprehensions does not distinguish between its tactical aerostats and TARS. Consistent with internal control standards, data that distinguishes between support provided by tactical aerostats and support provided by TARS would help CBP collect better and more complete information and guide resource allocation decisions, such as the re-deployment of tactical aerostat sites based on changes in cross-border illegal activity.

Why GAO Did This Study

As the lead federal agency charged with securing U.S. borders, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) CBP has employed a variety of technologies and assets to assist with its border security efforts. In support of its mission, CBP operates a fleet of remotely piloted Predator B UAS and uses aerostats, including tactical aerostats and TARS. GAO was asked to review CBP's use of UAS and aerostats for border security.

This report addresses the following questions: (1) How does CBP use UAS and aerostats for border security activities, and to what extent has CBP developed and documented procedures for UAS coordination? and (2) To what extent has CBP taken actions to assess the effectiveness of its UAS and aerostats for border security activities? GAO reviewed CBP documents; analyzed Predator B UAS, tactical aerostat, and TARS data on use and effectiveness from fiscal years 2013 through 2016; interviewed field and headquarters officials; and conducted site visits to observe CBP's use of UAS and aerostats along U.S. borders.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that CBP document coordination procedures for Predator B operations in all operating locations, update guidance and implement training for collection of Predator B mission data, and update Border Patrol's data collection practices for aerostat asset assists. CBP concurred and identified planned actions to address the recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of July 17, 2018, we are awaiting a response from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to our request for an update.

    Recommendation: To improve its efforts to coordinate Predator B operations among supported agencies and assess the effectiveness of its Predator B and tactical aerostat programs, the Commissioner of CBP should develop and document procedures for Predator B coordination among supported agencies in all operating locations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of July 17, 2018, we are awaiting a response from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to our request for an update.

    Recommendation: To improve its efforts to coordinate Predator B operations among supported agencies and assess the effectiveness of its Predator B and tactical aerostat programs, the Commissioner of CBP should update and maintain guidance for recording Predator B mission information in its data collection system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of July 17, 2018, we are awaiting a response from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to our request for an update.

    Recommendation: To improve its efforts to coordinate Predator B operations among supported agencies and assess the effectiveness of its Predator B and tactical aerostat programs, the Commissioner of CBP should provide training to users of CBP's data collection system for Predator B missions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2017, we reported on U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) collection of Predator B unmanned aerial systems (UAS) data. We found that CBP's system for recording Predator B mission data-Tasking, Operations, and Management Information System (TOMIS)-did not record air support request forms documenting Predator B missions for non-CBP law enforcement agencies. By not logging or recording these requests in TOMIS, CBP does not document in a single system complete information about its use of Predator B aircraft for non-CBP law enforcement purposes. Recording air support request forms in TOMIS could allow CBP to further facilitate implementation of provisions included in the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 to develop a process and procedure for the submission, approval, prioritization and coordination of air support requests from non-CBP law enforcement agencies for command, control, communication, surveillance, and reconnaissance assistance through unmanned aerial systems by ensuring such requests are documented in the same system as mission data. Further, by documenting Predator B air support request forms in TOMIS, CBP could also better oversee implementation of procedures related to Predator B air support requests along with mission information. In response, CBP implemented policy changes regarding information tracking in TOMIS as of March 2017 which included uploading air support request forms for Predator B missions. These actions will help CBP standardize data collection on Predator B missions and oversee use of Predator B UAS for non-CBP law enforcement agencies. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve its efforts to coordinate Predator B operations among supported agencies and assess the effectiveness of its Predator B and tactical aerostat programs, the Commissioner of CBP should record air support forms for Predator B mission requests from non-CBP law enforcement agencies in its data collection system for Predator B missions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2017, we reported on the U.S. Border Patrol's (Border Patrol) collection of aerostat data. In collecting and recording asset assist information, we found Border Patrol does not distinguish between tactical aerostats and Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS). Without a separate mechanism to record tactical aerostat asset assists, users could potentially misidentify asset assist information related to tactical aerostats to TARS, limiting the completeness and usefulness of the data. For example, CBP officials told us the data were used to inform the relocation of a tactical aerostat site in south Texas due to changes in cross-border illegal activity. Better data collection practices to distinguish between asset assists associated with tactical aerostats and TARS would help CBP to better ensure its data are complete to help guide resource allocation decisions. In response, Border Patrol implemented a mechanism in November 2017 to separately track asset assists associated with tactical aerostats and TARS through Border Patrol's Tracking, Sign Cutting, Modeling System (TSM). These actions will help CBP and Border Patrol better collect and use information on tactical aerostats and TARS such as the re-deployment of tactical aerostat sites based on changes in cross-border illegal activity. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve its efforts to coordinate Predator B operations among supported agencies and assess the effectiveness of its Predator B and tactical aerostat programs, the Commissioner of CBP should update Border Patrol's data collection practices to include a mechanism to distinguish and track asset assists associated with TARS from tactical aerostats.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

 

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