'Sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety': has tech­nol­ogy at the US-Mex­ico bor­der gone too far?

The Guardian Australia - - Technology - Olivia Solon in San Fran­cisco

Palmer Luckey, the vir­tual real­ity pi­o­neer, left Facebook in 2017, six months af­ter it was dis­cov­ered that he had se­cretly funded a pro-Trump cam­paign group ded­i­cated to in­flu­enc­ing the US elec­tion through “shit-post­ing” and “meme magic”.

The 25-year-old Ocu­lus founder now has a new ven­ture, An­duril In­dus­tries, this time sup­port­ing Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies di­rectly through the cre­ation of a sur­veil­lance sys­tem de­signed to de­tect unau­tho­rised cross­ings of the Mex­i­can bor­der.

An­duril In­dus­tries is one of a grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies play­ing on the fear of “bad hom­bres” to cash in on gov­ern­ment con­tracts for hi-tech vir­tual al­ter­na­tives to phys­i­cal wall. From drones and sen­sors to AI-pow­ered fa­cial recog­ni­tion and hu­man pres­ence de­tec­tion, these sur­veil­lance sys­tems prom­ise cheaper bor­der con­trol but at what cost to civil lib­er­ties?

“These sys­tems are re­flec­tive of ad­vances in sen­sor and an­a­lyt­ics tech­nolo­gies that are go­ing to have se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions for Amer­i­cans’ pri­vacy,” said Jay Stanley, se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst with the ACLU. “The com­bi­na­tion could turn us into a sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety where our ev­ery move is tracked.”

Ac­cord­ing to an in-depth re­port by Wired, An­duril’s even­tual plan is to of­fer the mil­i­tary some kind of “Call of Duty gog­gles” that tell you “where the good guys are, where the bad guys are”.

How­ever, with no back­ground as a de­fence con­trac­tor, the startup needed a “quick win”; pro­vid­ing AI-pow­ered sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy to the bor­der pa­trol was a way to get a foot in the door of gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment.

The com­pany, which is backed by Peter Thiel’s ven­ture cap­i­tal firm Founders Fund, has de­vel­oped tow­ers that fea­ture a laser-en­hanced cam­era, radar and a com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem. These scan a two-mile ra­dius around them to de­tect mo­tion. The im­ages are an­a­lysed us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to pick out hu­mans from wildlife and other mov­ing ob­jects. Dur­ing a 10-week test in Texas, the tech­nol­ogy – called Lat­tice – helped agents from US Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CPB) catch 55 unau­tho­rised bor­der crossers and seize 445kg of mar­i­juana.

An­duril isn’t the only com­pany tout­ing a vir­tual bor­der wall. The Is­raeli de­fence con­trac­tor El­bit Sys­tems de­signed and built dozens of tow­ers in Ari­zona to spot peo­ple as far as 7.5 miles away. The com­pany won the con­tract off the back of its pre­vi­ous work build­ing a “smart fence” – us­ing sen­sors, cam­eras and drones – separat­ing Jerusalem from the West Bank.

At the US-Mex­ico bor­der, An­duril and El­bit Sys­tems have learned from the mis­takes made by the failed bil­lion-dol­lar SBInet, a 53-mile-long vir­tual wall built by Boe­ing from 2006 but aban­doned in 2011 for be­ing too ex­pen­sive and in­ef­fec­tive.

“While it has gen­er­ated some ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy that have im­proved bor­der pa­trol agents’ abil­ity to de­tect, iden­tify, de­ter and re­spond to threats along the bor­der, SBInet does not and can­not pro­vide a sin­gle tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion to bor­der se­cu­rity,” said the Depart­ment of Home­land se­cu­rity’s as­sess­ment of SBInet.

For Stanley, the episode high­lights the prob­lems with think­ing tech­nol­ogy can elim­i­nate il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

“There is a ten­dency to look at ev­ery­thing as data and think that if we can just track the blips we can close our bor­ders,” he said. “That was proven to be highly naive with SBInet.

“Our bor­ders are thou­sands of miles long and the world is very messy and com­pli­cated. Peo­ple will be try­ing to ac­tively sub­vert these sys­tems so there are no sim­ple so­lu­tions,” he added.

The rel­a­tive cost ef­fec­tive­ness of the sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy made by An­duril and El­bit – thanks to ad­vance­ments in sen­sor tech and AI – com­bined with the fact that CPB con­sid­ers the bor­der to be a 100-mile-wide zone, will prob­a­bly mean even more pri­vacy in­tru­sions for bor­der com­mu­ni­ties.

“It’s one thing hav­ing sen­sors on the ac­tual bor­der, but when it starts creep­ing into Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties there is no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Stanley said. “These sys­tems should never be stor­ing in­for­ma­tion on the com­ings and go­ings of res­i­dents of Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties when there is no rea­son to be sus­pi­cious.”

In ad­di­tion to “vir­tual walls”, the US gov­ern­ment is de­ploy­ing a fa­cial recog­ni­tion sys­tem to record im­ages of peo­ple in­side ve­hi­cles en­ter­ing and leav­ing the coun­try. Se­cre­tive tests of the sys­tem car­ried out in Ari­zona and Texas saw au­thor­i­ties col­lect a “mas­sive amount of data” in­clud­ing im­ages cap­tured “as peo­ple were leav­ing work, pick­ing up chil­dren from school, and car­ry­ing out other daily rou­tines”, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment records.

The im­ages cap­tured by the Ve­hi­cle Face Sys­tem will be com­pared with those stored in gov­ern­ment data­bases, in­clud­ing pass­ports, visas and other bor­der pa­trol doc­u­ments in or­der to iden­tify unau­tho­rised in­di­vid­u­als.

“This is an ex­am­ple of the grow­ing trend of au­thor­i­tar­ian use of tech­nol­ogy to track and stalk immi-

grant com­mu­ni­ties,” Malkia Cyril, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Me­dia Jus­tice, told the Guardian last week.

One fac­tor that might limit the mis­sion creep of sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy is the scarcity of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and an­a­lyt­ics ex­perts.

“Com­pa­nies are find­ing they have to pay at­ten­tion to the eth­i­cal con­cerns of their em­ploy­ees or risk hav­ing trou­ble re­cruit­ing,” Stanley said, not­ing the re­cent ex­o­dus of staff at Google over its work with the US mil­i­tary on drone sur­veil­lance.

“Al­though you can’t rely on ethics to re­strain cap­i­tal­ism,” he said.

Pho­to­graph: Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Im­ages

A sec­tion of the US-Mex­ico bor­der fence near McAllen, Texas.

Pho­to­graph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Im­ages

‘Our bor­ders are thou­sands of miles long and the world is very messy and com­pli­cated.’

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