Alternative Uses to Border Technologies
Alternative Uses to Border Technologies

“Smart” but Harmful: The Risks and Implications of Surveillance Technologies in the U.S.-Mexico Border

Words by Cecy Sánchez, Edited by Josue Rawmirez

For the past 16 years, federal border authorities have deployed surveillance and policing technologies along the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to “strengthen” border security. Nicknamed the “smart wall”, this digital barrier is composed of a variety of experimental tools including robot dogs, aerial drones, sensors, surveillance towers, facial recognition systems, hacking and tracking devices, among others. Such technologies pose several privacy and equity concerns that jeopardize people’s civil rights, particularly those of underrepresented groups.

Building The “Smart Wall”

In 2005 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a project that sought the placement of both a physical fence and a virtual one equipped with surveillance systems like cameras and sensors (SBINet). According to DHS’ Program-Specific Recovery Act Plan, SBInet technology was meant to improve agents’ performance by aiding their response to unauthorized entries. However, the project failed to meet authorities’ expectations and was ultimately terminated in 2011 due to poor management and to the technologies not performing as promised. The SBI project demonstrated that employing novel technological systems does not necessarily represent a smart investment, nor does it ensure intended results. 

 

While the SBI project should serve as a cautionary tale for authorities over relying on unevaluated technology, a new digital border is being implemented under a similar premise. Proposed as a “smarter” and “gentler”, less disruptive alternative to a physical barrier, the “smart wall” promises to protect the border against threats by using allegedly non-intrusive, less expensive methods. The expectation is to build a technological barrier made up of different experimental tools to surveil and identify unauthorized border entries. 

Monitoring the Border

In 2019, as part of their Atlas of Surveillance project the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) partnered with the University of Nevada to identify technologies deployed by the federal government in the U.S. – Mexico border. They found “36 local government agencies using automated license plate readers (ALPR), 45 outfitting officers with body-worn cameras, and 20 flying drones”.  Students also found that in 6 border-facing counties law enforcement agencies often have access to some sort of facial recognition technology through regional partnerships or departments of public safety.

 

These numbers alone illustrate the type of equipment used by border agencies, as well as the level of surveillance and control they hold over the borderland. For example, Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) equipment, provided by Motorola Solutions, captures data about vehicles and their passengers in real time that can be used to identify travel patterns. Local law enforcement agencies along the border have acquired ALPRs through Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that funds local police that participate in border security operations. Another major technology used in the borderland are surveillance towers: Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) developed by Elbit Systems, an Israeli military contractor, are 80-140 ft tall structures equipped with cameras and radars for tracking and apprehending people; the Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) refers to relocatable surveillance towers equipped with color and infrared cameras; and the Mobile Video Surveillance System (MVSS) developed by Tactical Micro (subsidiary of Benchmark Electronics) consists of a truck equipped with thermal and video cameras that incorporate PureTech Systems’ geospatial analytics software.

Alternative Uses to Border Technologies

Autonomous Surveilling

Training personnel to operate emerging technologies can be expensive and time-consuming, so border patrol agencies are deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven devices to more rapidly process information from radars and cameras. A leading company in the creation of such systems is Anduril, whose Autonomous Surveillance Towers (AST) are AI-enabled, relocatable devices that identify and classify people without the direct control of a human operator. Additionally, AST can be used in remote environments and are able to identify and capture human faces. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is currently using Anduril’s surveillance towers for monitoring wide areas of land not regularly covered by agents. In addition to surveillance towers, drones are also used to monitor the Southwest. While Predator B drones were used in the past, CBP started contracting autonomous, smaller drones known as small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for targeted investigations. These collect images and video, and some can automatically sense human activity where prohibited. Other drones like Anduril’s helicopter-style drones, are smaller, relatively silent, and significantly less expensive than sUAS, and they only require one person to operate them.


Sensors are also in use between ports of entry at the US border to detect audio, radar, seismic, acoustic, and magnetic signals. However, because sensors are prone to false alarms (an animal could trigger a sensor) tech companies are developing more sensitive devices for improved accuracy like lidar sensors, a surveying method that can measure and model targets in 3D. Quanergy, a company that offers an AI-powered LiDAR platform, tested lidar technology with local law enforcement agencies in Texas. The company was also awarded $200,000 by the DHS’ Science and Technology division to further develop its lidar capabilities. Another device that’s been proposed is fiber optic sensing technology, thin glass-fiber optic cables buried underground that register nuanced sounds and that can help detect human activity. According to Adelos’ founder and CTO Alex Philp, fiber optics can improve the signal detection precision thanks to the use of machine learning.

Hacking, Tracking, and Digital Platforms

Surveillance technologies are not limited to hardware systems located along the borderland area. Biometrics (physical characteristics used to identify people), databases, and other digital platforms, as well as software for tracking and retrieving data, comprise a large part of the “smart wall”.

To gather biometric information, the DHS uses Biometric Facial Comparison, a tool used in land, sea, and points of entry to match travelers’ pictures to databases. The system includes biometric collection upon both entry and exit of travelers, and data is stored in the Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) database. Similarly, since 2020 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CBP have begun collecting DNA samples from all non U.S. citizens apprehended, storing their DNA profiles in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

In addition to biometrics, the DHS retrieves information via hacking and tracking technologies. CBP and ICE have access to a commercial database that allows them to collect information about people around the U.S. – Mexico border by tracking them. Through data providers like Venntel (DHS spent $250,000 in contracts from this company) authorities can track people’s movements by drawing location data from cell phone apps for which the user has granted permission to log the phone’s location. Civil liberties organizations report ICE uses the location data to help identify immigrants for arrest, and CBP uses it to track cell phone activity in remote areas of the Southwest border region. Further, authorities use proprietary hacking technologies to obtain personal information, and vehicle forensics kits by Berla Corporation to hack personal information directly from vehicles’ infotainment and navigation systems. 

CBP’s One mobile application is yet another system that is used for monitoring purposes, as it has a feature for processing asylum seekers before they arrive at land ports of entry in the Southwest border. Through facial recognition and geolocation, the app collects extensive personal information. Regarding databases, when U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a person at the border, they use the e3 portal to store and transmit biographic and biometric information to the Enforced Integrated Database (EID) as well as IDENT. The latter is set to be replaced by the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART), a centralized database of biometric data hosted by Amazon Web Services.

Technologies’ Limitations and Implications

The increased surveillance of the border poses a myriad of safety concerns, particularly due to the technologies’ intrusiveness and because they provide border agencies access to vast amounts of extremely sensitive data, oftentimes without the knowledge and consent of the individuals subjected to this tech. In the case of drones, for example, while CBP is restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly them between 25 and 60 miles of the US-Mexico border, civil liberties advocates worry that they could be used to surveil beyond the designated areas.

In terms of equity, AI-enabled systems are particularly harmful because of their technical shortcomings; biases embedded in facial recognition systems can result in the misidentification of disabled people, Black and Brown people, and women, making them subject to further scrutiny and to be mistakenly recognized as security threats. Still, even though these tools are known to be inaccurate, they are employed for important decision-making tasks, like helping determine which asylum seekers should enter the country. Here, in addition to posing equity concerns, the digitization of the asylum seeking process gives rise to privacy issues, as it allows for the pervasive tracking of individuals and more invasive information sharing. 

Albeit less politically controversial the digital wall is more of an extension to a physical barrier than an alternative. Under a facade of progress and innovation, the “smart wall” jeopardizes people’s civil rights and promotes the usage of the U.S. – Mexico borderland as a ground for technological experimentation. U.S. residents living near the areas where tech devices are located may be subject to surveillance, and the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border with monitoring devices pushes migrants to take alternative routes that are potentially more dangerous, resulting in an increase in death rates in the desert.

Closing Thoughts and Taking Action

These are only some of the technologies used by USBP (for a comprehensive list take a look at this DHS report) for monitoring the border, most of which raise several safety concerns and have potentially negative implications. It is important that we understand that the further militarization of the border will not result in less unauthorized entries, but instead will lead to many more deaths and instances of abuse of power. A digital wall is an ineffective and costly measure that, while more sophisticated than previous ones, is ultimately much more intrusive, way less transparent, and extremely inaccurate.

 

Roberto Lopez, a community organizer from the Texas Civil Rights Project spoke to us and said that, from their work on the ground with folks from the RGV “We know […] that most residents do not want walls of any form. Mainstream attention has focused on physical concrete and steel walls, but technological walls and surveillance have been growing for years – without the same amount of attention from national groups. Companies are making billions off of surveilling border communities, backed by the politicians who receive their donations.  We must fight back at every chance we can, because tech walls are just as if not more harmful than physical ones.” He believes people should follow the lead of organizations that work on shedding light on the issue of border militarization and develop informational resources, as well as authors that write about the topic: the #NoTechForICE campaign by Mijente provides resources to learn about the tech companies powering immigration and border enforcement agencies; Todd Miller writes about border militarization and has authored different works on the matter, including More than a Wall where he talks about the border-industrial complex; Other organizations that also work on raising awareness include Just Futures Law and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

 

The use of monitoring, experimental, untested technologies in the border is detrimental to individuals’ well-being, and while we may not be able to fully avoid their deployment or being subject to them, we can learn and stay informed; we can take action by raising awareness amongst our peers, building supportive communities, and most importantly, always keeping our authorities accountable.

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