Border surveillance technology is neither smart nor more humane

An invisible wall of drones and motion sensors may ease the consciences of politicians claiming to support immigration, but the cruelties of border security are far from over.

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In 2018, haunting images of migrant children in cages and heartbreaking stories of family separation began to appear in news media throughout the United States. The revelation of these Trump administration policies sparked an outcry from Americans who demanded an end to the inhumane practices. In hopes of quieting a horrifying news cycle, the Trump administration slinked away from visibly despicable tactics, yet continued to enact its mission under the cloak of technology. While there may be fewer pictures of crying kids flying across the internet in 2021, the cruelties of border security are far from over — they now just lay hidden, like many of us, behind computer screens.

Using technology to “secure” the border is not a new idea. In 2015, President Barack Obama launched the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, or SVIP, which aimed to improve border security by contracting tech companies in the United States and abroad to solve security issues such as locating border-crossers in the desert or expediting queues at airport customs. The SVIP program sells itself as a sleek operation, challenging the “misconception among the startup community that government contracts are too slow and too complex to pursue,” and offering “something different and fast” (watch this video for a sample of these “rapid” solutions).

Behind the curtain of machines, the U.S. government continues to destroy the lives of people seeking safety.

SVIP’s efforts to recruit companies from around the world to enforce the border using technology have been very lucrative for those firms. There are currently 45 different companies contracted by the program, each earning up to $800,000 over a period of two years. Intelleuron, for example, an Idaho based company seemingly without its own website, was given $199,977 in March 2018 to improve drone technology along the border to detect “potential threats, such as armed smugglers.”

SVIP is a symbol of success for the growing band of lawmakers that want to secure the border with technology. Although some Democrats argued against the construction of Trump’s physical border wall, many staunchly support the creation of a “smart” one. As House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn stated in 2019, “We ought to have a smart wall. I defined that as a wall using drones to make it too high to get over, using x-ray equipment to make it too wide to get around, and using scanners to go deep enough not to be able to tunnel under it.”

While an invisible wall made of drones and motion sensors may ease the consciences of politicians claiming to support immigration, the results are the same, if not worse, for those who are crossing the border. Researchers at various universities have found that heightening border security through technology forces crossers to travel through more dangerous terrain where they are less likely to be spotted (one group calls it the “funnel effect”). This, in turn, leads to higher numbers of people dying in their attempts to reach safety.

In 2006, the U.S. government implemented a new system of infrared cameras and motion sensors called SBInet along the Arizona/Sonora border. During the five-year period following SBInet’s debut, deaths in the area increased by at least three fold. Militarized Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents might not have shot and killed these migrants, but their surveillance tactics certainly did. Behind the curtain of machines, the U.S. government continues to destroy the lives of people seeking safety.

The dangers of technologically-driven border security does not only exist in the desert: many American airports have undergone massive technological renovations in customs and immigration processing. Facial recognition technology now matches a traveler’s features with biometrics data in government databases when passing through customs at many airports. This erosion of privacy is deeply problematic for the nearly 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. If the recognition tool cannot match a face in a government database, such as a person without documentation, they can be identified and possibly detained.

These monitors not only effectively detain people: they create borders that did not exist before.

The apprehension and surveillance of immigrants is not limited to airports or the southern border. The U.S. government monitors immigrants’ locations through phone calls, home visits and by shackling GPS devices to their ankles. Ankle bracelets, created by companies like GEO Group, violate the physical integrity and freedom of thousands of immigrants. These devices track individuals’ every movement and confine them to a restricted area, preventing families from visiting each other and limiting their access to basic resources, such as affordable grocery stores or even legal counsel.

The lack of freedom immigrants face when living with such a device is not the only horrific consequence they experience. People have cited physical side effects and injuries, being awoken in the night to beeps of “low battery” warnings, and general shame associated with wearing a monitoring device. These people are not in cages, yet they may as well be: through the use of technology, their prison bars are wrapped around their ankles.

These monitors not only effectively detain people: they create borders that did not exist before. Because of technology, the “border” is now everywhere: shackled onto ankles, in families’ homes waiting for a weekly check-in calls, and in the many government databases that store the stories and fingerprints of families seeking safety. By traveling internationally, a child’s facial features will be recorded and compiled in a mysterious chasm of government databases; by fleeing to the United States, a woman’s every movement within her new “place of refuge” will be tracked and restricted. These technologies allow ICE to monitor, track and enact the same cruelties that occur along the Rio Grande against individuals anywhere in the country, no matter how far from the border.

Technologies such as ankle bracelets are touted by some as an acceptable “alternative to detention,” often placed on stereotypically innocent groups, such as women with young children, instead of holding them in jails at the border. Like the “smart” wall, these monitoring devices are sold as the humane option, or at least as the sensible, cost-effective alternative to immigrant jails and prisons.

However, as the violence of armed border patrols and razor wire fades into the fabric of technological invisibility, it will be far more difficult to capture the cruelties of such practices on the news. Ankle monitors and facial recognition scanners do not create the same Instagram-able evidence to ignite the flames of dissent as the family separation crisis. In the name of technological “improvements,” immigrants and U.S. citizens alike quietly relinquish their rights to the U.S. government as the tech startups happily eye their incoming profits. 

This article was produced by War Resisters League’s Editorial Committee, which puts out periodic calls for submissions. If you would like to be the first to receive our calls for submissions, sign up for our Movement Updates newsletter here:

This story was produced by War Resisters

War Resisters is a joint page shared by War Resisters International and War Resisters League highlighting pressing antiwar topics of today. WRI is an internationalist network of antiwar groups struggling to end the root causes of war around the world. War Resisters League is an independent organization based in New York and a proud member of War Resisters International.

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