Border Patrol’s electronic eyes will spot you long before you spot them.
If you walk along the United States border in remote stretches of New Mexico desert, or in the grasslands between North Dakota and Canada, you might not hear the buzz of what could be flying above you: A Predator drone — the same vehicle that has been outfitted to drop bombs over Afghanistan and Iraq. From five miles away, the drone’s cameras can see so well they can tell if you’re wearing a backpack.
If you’re in the Florida Keys, you may be spotted by an altogether different set of eyes in the sky. Up 10,000 feet in the air, a football field-sized zeppelin floats with an array of cameras, sensors, and radar systems so sophisticated that it can track every car, aircraft, and boat within a 200-mile range.
And if you’re near the deserts of southern Arizona, it won’t be hard to notice the 160-foot towers that rise up from the sandy landscape, equipped with advanced thermal imaging that can sense your exact movements from over seven miles away.
Because large portions of the border are so remote, and because U.S. citizens seem more willing to endorse surveillance programs that specifically target non-citizens, American borderlands have become a testing ground for cutting-edge surveillance tech.
To call this technology “Orwellian” would be anachronistic. Even George Orwell, for all his dreary imagining, never conceived of an infrared camera that could detect a person’s faintest movements.
Even as privacy hawks on the left and the right warn about the government’s embrace of surveillance tech, it’s been impossible to stop the fast-accelerating development of new infrastructure. President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress might clash over the need for a border wall, but there’s a growing consensus in Washington that the country needs a “virtual wall.” The terms for this concept vary: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls it a “technological wall”; other members of Congress have adopted Silicon Valley lingo and refer to it as a “smart wall.”
Jeffrey Tucker, the editorial director at the libertarian think-tank American Institute for Economic Research, says that people who would otherwise have a knee jerk reaction against federal overreach suddenly acquiesce when the government develops enormous power in the name of border security.
“Look what you’re giving up: All your basic constitutional rights that you would normally fight for get confused when it comes to the immigration issue,” Tucker says.
Part of the project’s political momentum comes lobbying efforts by the tech industry. A surveillance surge on the border means yet another gold rush in Silicon Valley. Tech firms have openly salivated at the prospect of a phalanx of surveillance on the southern border.
When the idea of a smart wall began gaining traction in 2017, three higher-ups from Palantir — the secretive data tech giant that has long been behind some of the government’s largest surveillance projects — left to co-found Anduril, a company dedicated to creating cutting-edge tech for border security. Business has been booming ever since.
“Governments are so eager to be at the cutting edge, they eat it all up.”
“Companies see that there’s a long-term source of stable income with government contracts,” says Jacinta González, a senior campaign organizer with Mijente, a pro-immigrant organization that has studied relationships between Silicon Valley and federal immigration authorities. “Companies like Palantir and Anduril have created a business model where they look like they’re going to the market to get new clients.” In reality, González says, tech companies are convincing government agencies they need to create new technologies — not the other way around.
“Decisions made by law enforcement are being driven by vendor. Vendors are wining and dining officials, where they make these miraculous promises about what their tech can accomplish,” says Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization. “Governments are so eager to be at the cutting edge, they eat it all up.”
Today, that cutting edge of surveillance tech is freakily futuristic: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), already blowing through hundreds of millions of dollars a year on tech contacts, has now begun looking for artificial intelligence capabilities that could fly patrol drones autonomously. The dream is of a fleet of surveillance robots, constantly in the air, thinking for themselves, searching out human bodies.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has also gotten in on the dystopian tech game. The agency has begun rolling out kits to rapidly DNA test everyone in immigration detention. With hundreds of thousands of people making their way through ICE detention each year, the new program could supercharge the government’s ability to place ever-larger populations under genetic surveillance.
CBP and ICE did not respond to requests for comment.
The deployment of invasive technology may be done in the name of border security, but they’ll likely find their way deep inside the United States. Almost every technology developed at the border in the last two decades now exists in the armories of local police departments.
In the late 1990s, CBP began to develop automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to spot people fleeing into Mexico or Canada with arrest warrants. The federal government constantly updated the tech and built massive databases of license plate information across multiple states. It found capabilities and new uses for the systems, such as keeping a real-time database of every vehicle leaving and entering the country.
As the technology spread across ports of entry, it became normalized in American’s minds. U.S. citizens crossing the border became inoculated to the fact that cameras were scanning their license plates. Federal government grants helped police departments purchase ALPRs. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, in 2007, only 19% of surveyed law enforcement agencies used them. By 2012, that number had shot up to 71%, and it continues to grow.
Today, there’s a government program that specifically funds cooperation — and technology sharing — between CBP and police departments in border communities. Using funds from the program, codenamed Operation Stonegarden, some police departments on the southern border have developed ALPR and built surveillance towers.
“That’s part of the concern: New technology gets normalized on the border, and then implemented everywhere else,” González says.
This sort of cooperation between CBP and police has already caused some of the most extreme border surveillance to be used on U.S. citizens. During the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016, for example, North Dakota police borrowed a drone from CBP to surveil protestors. Now, the federal government is moving to construct 10 different “integrated fixed towers” on native people’s land on the Tohono O’odham Reservation on the border of Arizona and Mexico.
The towers, intended for border crossers, will be also able to surveil detailed movements of native people traveling across their own land.
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