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Border wall technology: Better than concrete, or Big Brother of the borderlands?

As defense startups peddle their wares, privacy activists worry

A fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border is seen at sunset on July 22, 2018, in Nogales, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)
A fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border is seen at sunset on July 22, 2018, in Nogales, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)

Democratic support for installing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of surveillance technology on the U.S.-Mexico border, billed by party leaders as a 21st-century alternative to President Donald Trump’s medieval wall, is worrying privacy activists at the same time that it excites nascent defense startups.

Amid staunch opposition by Democrats, the fiscal 2019 omnibus package signed into law by Trump earlier this month contained only $1.4 billion for wall and barrier construction. That’s compared with about $100 million for sensor towers and remote video surveillance systems, plus an additional $564 million for nonintrusive scanning equipment at border entry points, which was also included.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, advocating against Trump’s agenda, thrust the funding into the spotlight when she said in a press conference last month that her caucus would support building a “technological wall” instead of a concrete one. Democrats have backed increased surveillance at the border for some time, but Pelosi’s proclamation was public enough to raise eyebrows.

Before long, nearly 30 advocacy groups had begun circulating a petition expressing concern that more technology on the border could disproportionately target people of color and result in mass surveillance, including of American citizens who live in border zones. Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, an advocacy group on digital and privacy rights and a signatory to the petition, said the overall concern is “mission creep.”

Greer fears that Trump’s quest for the wall has forced Democrats into supporting anything that seems like a viable alternative, calling it “dangerous” for the party to accept the existence of a major threat “rather than challenge the fundamental assumption that there’s a crisis at the border.”

“The window of debate is one side saying, let’s build a huge, expensive wall to criminalize people and keep them out of our country and the other side is saying, let’s spend hundreds of millions of dollars on privacy-invading surveillance technology to criminalize people and keep them out of our country,” she said. “Those are the options.”

Even privacy-minded Republicans have taken notice. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan took to Twitter earlier this month to satirize the border security debate in Congress, mocking Democrats for agreeing “to some wall funding if you agree to expand the surveillance state.”

“Don’t trade one bad idea for another,” said Amash in a separate tweet.

Greer notes with some satisfaction that a handful of Democratic presidential hopefuls — Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — all voted against the funding bill. She acknowledges that their opposition was more likely a vote against Trump’s wall than the surveillance technology, but she hopes nevertheless to make privacy a key part of the border security debate going into 2020.

Meanwhile, as the left grapples with the liberty-versus-privacy debate, companies developing cutting-edge surveillance tools are betting the “technological wall” is far from fully built and this month’s omnibus is a sign of greater investments in the future.

“There’s good news in the sense that there’s a clear expression from Congress that technology is an integral part of addressing the border security situation,” Christian Brose, head of strategy at Anduril Industries, a defense startup based in southern California, said last week.

Anduril, named for the legendary sword in the Lord of the Rings, was established less than two years ago by Palmer Luckey, who co-founded Oculus VR, a virtual reality software and hardware company. He then sold it to Facebook and later left the social media giant amid controversy over his support for Trump and Republican causes. At Anduril, Luckey and his team want to pave the way for the future of border surveillance.

Anduril’s flagship product, Lattice, uses an array of solar-powered sensor towers, heli-drones and virtual reality headsets — all of which are powered by the same artificial intelligence — to observe, record and analyze movement across a given stretch of terrain. When it records an object, Lattice can predict with some certainty whether it’s a person, animal or something else.

“The machine is doing the thing that machines do best,” said Brose. “No need for bathroom breaks, no need for lunch breaks.”

Lattice is currently deployed on the border in southern Texas and near San Diego, Brose said, as part of a contract with Customs and Border Protection, the division of the Homeland Security Department that oversees the Border Patrol. Anduril is also working with the Defense Department; in a January interview with CNN, Luckey said Lattice is deployed on multiple military bases.

Anduril believes its technology can help the government achieve operational control of the entire border at a cheaper cost than building a wall or hiring more Border Patrol agents. Asked about the privacy concerns raised by Fight for the Future, Brose said he doesn’t view more surveillance on the border as a “trade-off.”

“We’re not doing facial recognition,” he said. “We’re not interested in a pervasive human tracking system. Our objective is to make sure the technology is consistent with American values.”

Greer worries that such rhetoric “spreads the incorrect idea that surveillance makes us safer.”

“Authoritarian governments throughout history have always started with ‘the other’ as they deploy technology or policies that take away basic rights,” she said. “The government is playing on people’s fears to deploy technology at the border because they think they can get away with it. But there’s no way that the technology stops there.”