Webcam Border Patrol

When John Spears gets home from his sales job in New York, he sits down at his computer with a bottle of beer and starts patrolling the US border.

And to do it, he does not need to stir from his sofa.

He is one of tens of thousands of people around the world who are volunteering to patrol the 1250-mile long (2000 km) stretch between Texas and Mexico via the web.

The controversial $4m  Texas Virtual Border Watch Program invites civilians to log on to Blueservo.net.

There they can monitor live feeds 24/7 from 21 hidden surveillance cameras placed at intervals along the border.

Supporters see the initiative as a step forward in US efforts to curb illegal immigration, drug smuggling and border violence.

Critics say it is encouraging vigilantism and stoking anti-immigrant sentiments.

Value for money?

Since the site went live in November 2008, it has received more than 50 million hits, and more than 130,000 people have registered to become ” virtual deputies”. They are located as far afield as Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Israel, New Zealand and the UK.

The increased focus on the border comes amid concerns that drug-related violence is spilling over from Mexico into the US.

So far, some 21 arrests have been made under the programme which is operated by the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition (TBSC). The majority were for drug smuggling, leading to the seizure of 4,720lbs (2,140kg) of marijuana.

Critics say this does not represent value for money. State Senator Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat from El Paso, described the scheme as a waste of money.

He argues that border cameras will “invite extremists to participate in a virtual immigrant hunt”.

The Bush administration tried to curb illegal immigration and drug smuggling by erecting a wall along parts of the US-Mexico border.

The surveillance cameras are focused on those stretches not protected by the wall or border guards.

Controversial measure

The website tells users what to look for: groups crowded into boats trying to cross the Rio Grande, individuals carrying backpacks or packages, cars parked in isolated areas and people crawling through the undergrowth.

If the virtual deputies spot anything suspicious, they click a button on the website and send a message to the sheriff’s office in the corresponding location.

The sheriff’s office will then decide whether to investigate or to refer the sighting to the US Border Patrol.

“Having those extra pairs of eyes makes a big difference,” says TBSC executive director Don Reay. “If we can prevent crime by our mere presence then that is a very good thing.”

The scheme has drawn criticism from politicians and civil liberties groups, who say patrolling the border is the responsibility of the US government, not volunteer citizens.

Federal backing

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union says that while it is “legitimate to protect the country’s border, we would be concerned that the cameras might encourage vigilantism. That people would think they saw an illegal immigrant and then jump in their truck with a gun.”

But the administrators of the site maintain the primary goal of the initiative is to tackle crime, not illegal immigration.

The criminal justice office of Texas Governor Rick Perry awarded the programme $2m in federal funds in its first year and has provided an additional $2m to fund another year. More cameras will also be added in the months ahead.

Governor Perry has been criticised locally for pandering to the right-wing fringes of the Republican Party, and the scheme has been mocked on national television. Governor Perry’s office did not return calls for comment.

Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at the global intelligence company Stratfor, says cameras are not the solution for the border, but that they are a tool.

According to the TBSC, the surveillance cameras act as a powerful deterrent to potential drug traffickers and illegal immigrants.

Mr Reay says that it is “impossible to quantify how much criminal activity we are deterring but we’ve seen a high volume of ‘turn-backs’, where people come right up to the border then turn around again.”

Like real police work, online border patrolling seems to consist of hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of high excitement.

Despite this, Deanna Blythe spends about an hour a day logged on the site. The housewife from Athens, Ohio, says that it gives her a feeling of doing her civic duty and helping to keep the borders secure.

Virtual deputy John Spears says it is more than that. He actually gets “a kick out of coming home from a day in the office and playing border guard. It’s more interesting than TV”.

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