This Is the High Tech Fence Bulgaria and Hungary Want to Keep Out Refugees

These cameras can see who's coming across the border and what they're holding.

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Sep 8 2015, 5:00pm

Image: Magna BSP

Last week, Reuters reported that in order to stem the tide of refugees coming from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, Hungary and Bulgaria have made preliminary inquiries about acquiring the Israeli-designed fences the country has built on its border with Egypt.

The Israel-Egypt barrier, which had the project name "Hourglass," was initially built in reaction to a similiar issue of refugees coming into Israel from Darfur, Sudan, and other war-torn African countries. In 2011, following increasing attacks by Islamic extremists crossing the same border, Israel contracted a company called Magna BSP to upgrade the fences with high tech sensors that could better detect people trying to get across.

Magna's chief technical officer Levy Zruya told Motherboard that he hadn't heard of the report in Reuters, which claimed only early talks between Bulgaria's, Hungary's, and Israel's ministries of internal affairs. But were the two countries truly interested, Zruya is confident that his company's technology could do exactly what Bulgaria and Hungary are hoping it will do: detect refugees trying to get into the country.

"[With Magna's solution] you know exactly what's happening on the border," Zruya told Motherboard. "If it's a pig, if it's a person, if it's a group of people, if they're armed or not, if they have suitcases or if they don't have suitcases, you can see everything, and you can see it in real time."

The key to Magna's security system is a pair of cameras that, like a pair of eyes, can see the kind of depth you can't see with one eye or one camera. This depth allows Magna's system to detect the size of the object, its speed, how close it is to the fence, if it's in the air or on the ground, what direction it's going in, and a number of other parameters that define almost anything you'd find in the field. With that information in hand, the system can then automatically identify and mark what should and shouldn't set off an alarm.

Here's a video showing Magna's system at work, parsing out vehicles, animals, and people with and without objects in hand:

"This is what gives us a near 100 percent detection probability and almost a zero chance for false alarms or false positives, which is not the case with other systems," Zruya claimed.

Israel previously contracted Magna to similarly secure Israel's largest airport, and its sensors have since been added to the more well known, tall concrete walls that separate Israel from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the highly contentious Old City in Jerusalem. Magna also exported its sensors to other countries, where they protect sensitive facilities, like the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

The Israel-Egypt barrier, meanwhile, is built in sections, not one continuous fence along the entire border, nor are all of these sections finished yet, according to Zruya.

In some sections, just a tall, physical fence is enough. In others, Israel uses radar. But where the terrain is most complicated, with rivers and valleys, (in Hungary and Bulgaria forests will be an issue as well) Israel uses Magna's cameras. Nobody has to sit there and watch the feed. The system automatically raises the alarm when needed, and alerts the proper authorities.

Zruya said that Magna doesn't just think that its system is superior to other security solutions like Israel's tall concrete walls—it's convinced.

"It's other people we have to convince," he laughed. "That's all. You can always get around concrete walls. It doesn't matter how high you build them, you can always get a crane and hop a person over the wall, without anyone seeing or hearing anything. You can dig under them. It looks like it's sealed, but it's not really."

Zruya said that drones, for example, make typical concrete barriers useless. Without some kind of optical detection system, a drone can do almost anything it wants and you won't even know it's there.

"A year ago, Americans came to us and asked if we could do anything about detecting drones, because all of a sudden that threat appeared and they weren't prepared," Zruya said. "They didn't develop anything to deal with that because there wasn't a need. All of sudden they were stricken with panic and started to look for solution."

Israel has a history of developing advanced cameras of this kind for consumer use too. In 2013, Apple acquired PrimeSense, an Israeli company that developed technology for the Xbox peripheral Kinect, which also uses cameras to detect depth and movement. In 2012, Facebook acquired Israeli company Face.com, which uses cameras to detect faces, and in 2015, Facebook subsidiary Oculus bought Pebbles, another Israeli company that specializes in 3D gesture tracking.

According to Zruya, the reason this technology comes out of Israel is very simple.

"The threat here is so big, that we're forced to develop this kind of technology," he said. "I know the United States and other countries, they're not even interested in this until it's a problem."

Israel is a leading weapons and security technology exporter for this reason, but buyers are usually looking to deal with terrorism and other violent threats, not refugees. A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz today said that the growing refugee problem is prompting European countries to buy similar solutions from Israel, but in order to deal with the influx of people trying to escape war-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Haaretz, in addition to the initial inquiries from Hungary and Bulgaria, yesterday the Swiss parliament approved a deal in which the country will buy six unarmed, Hermes 900 drones for an estimated 240 million Euro, meant to monitor its borders.