Border Intelligence

March 4, 2010     
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Why talk about border intelligence?

Despite much discussion concerning the decline of the influence of the state, the reality is that the state can chose to exercise significant control over its territory. Borders still exist and the state can exercise its influence when it chooses. In order to cross a border into a state, (physically or electronically) the individual, commodity or transaction is still subject to border controls. Ironically, as we advance towards a more globalized world, individuals and commodities are increasingly subject to surveillance and interception as they must cross borders to be a part of this globalized existence.

Border rules are different from most other inland rules, so the intelligence collected will be different from other domestic or international means of collection. By simply asking for access to another country, you agree to give up certain rights which exist under other circumstances. When you are in the “grey zone” between two borders, you are subject to an entirely different regime of rights and obligations. And the rights are few while the obligations area many. Border officials in almost all countries have strong powers to question, search or detain individuals as they attempt to cross national borders, unlike inland officials or police agencies.

Border intelligence exists and will grow as an independent discipline because borders are real and globalization is spreading. By the simple act of asking for access or by crossing a border, you are required to provide certain information. When information is collected at a border because of national requirements and it is subsequently analysed and used to provide warning or understanding, this is border intelligence. In terms of purpose, the use of border intelligence is not really any different than other forms of intelligence: it is there to provide advice to decision makers.

But should we be looking at border intelligence as a separate construct or should we examine it for its purpose. The answer would seem to be as a construct, as that is where the differences lie.

The state will often choose not to exercise its will at borders, preferring to allow the free flow of commerce, even thought it knows individuals will smuggle consumer goods across the border. The state could choose to inspect every car and truck, but this would be economically inefficient. The state chooses to risk manage these problems instead. Border intelligence is a pre-condition to managing risk, as risk management could not be achieved without intelligence-led indicators determining which entry to target.

However, the concept of “borders” is now regaining strength and it will gain further influence as we learn to face a series of asymmetric and symmetrical threats. Many threats now, such as transnational terrorism and organized crime, are from non-state actors. These non-traditional threats cannot be met with raw power. The only effective way to meet asymmetric threats is knowledge (i.e. intelligence).

For the purposes of intelligence collection, what are borders and where do they exist? The classic border is a line drawn on the ground which demarcates the territory of two bordering states. The Canada-US border and the US-Mexican border come to mind for most North Americans. However, we also have maritime borders which are essentially the same, albeit no line drawn in the water. International airports have “borders” even if they are located inland and are distant from the nearest land border. Countries also have “air borders” which they can choose to control of defend. At a certain point in space, an aircraft must ask for permission to enter airspace or face retaliation. The concept of multiple borders has also advanced the notion that one nation has various points along a continuum where collection and interdiction can be achieved.

Many Canadians think that their country has one border and many Americans think that they have only two borders with Canada and Mexico. The reality is, however, that the number of borders for Canada and the USA is really closer to 200. Air travel and marine transportation now mean that anyone can travel from anywhere on the globe and enter North America in 24 hours or less in most cases. As such, the state must concern itself with goods, services and people that originate in 194 officially recognized states or other territories that are not states (Taiwan, the Palestinian Territories etc).

And what of cyber space? Is it really “borderless?” The reality is that the Internet is not some imaginary or ethereal non-corporeal being. It is a collection of wires, fibre optic cables, computers, servers, satellites and other forms of real-life hardware. The hardware is on national territory or under national control. When you send an email message from one country to another, the reality is that it leaves the country at some point (though a server) and it has to enter the country at a certain point (though a server). The state could, if it chose, shut down the flow of information through the main servers, albeit economic, social and legal implications would be quite staggering.

A larger national discussion on border intelligence should be occurring now so as to define it and understand it. The concept of oversight for intelligence is expanding and will continue to do so. Oversight will come to the Canadian Border Services Agency and others, so it may be best to lead the discussion now rather than react to it later.

The opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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