The Government Is Testing Mass Surveillance on the Border Before Turning It on Americans

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.

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