Dec 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

U.S. deploys AI in "virtual border wall"

Data: Electronic Frontier Foundation; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios
Data: Electronic Frontier Foundation; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

The U.S. government is building a "virtual wall" at the southern border by erecting hundreds of high-tech surveillance towers — some of which use artificial intelligence — to detect people in an effort to reduce drug smuggling and sky-high unauthorized migration.

Why it matters: A record-high number of people have entered the U.S. through the southern border this year, resulting in multiple crises and exacerbating U.S. Customs and Border protection staffing shortages. But the new surveillance technology is giving rise to concerns over civil liberties, digital watchdogs say.

Details: Although there have been surveillance towers at the border for several years, the new autonomous towers can better detect abnormal activity.

  • The U.S. has installed about 300 different types of surveillance towers from the California coast to the tip of Texas, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that monitors civil liberties in the digital world.
  • Using public records, satellite imagery, road trips, and virtual reality, the nonprofit mapped the presence of surveillance towers along the border in remote and highly populated areas.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have praised the autonomous technology as a great asset that helps agents do their jobs, and it has bipartisan support.
  • CBP has said more are coming. The agency has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

How they work: Autonomous surveillance towers contain 360-degree pan radars and sensors that can scan for miles.

  • The towers are outfitted with AI software that distinguishes people from desert animals. Towers can be programmed to block off sections of surveillance areas, like homes on private ranches, so they don't monitor those regions.
  • Images are fed back to Border Patrol personnel who can deploy agents to the area where activity was detected.
  • The towers are solar-powered and can be erected in a matter of hours without drilling holes or requiring concrete, which means they can also be moved with ease.

Between the lines: The influx of new technology comes six years after the U.S. Government Accountability Office faulted the Border Patrol's surveillance technologies for needing improved data quality and effectiveness.

  • In 2011, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano pulled the plug on President George W. Bush's $1 billion initiative to build a 700-mile "virtual border fence" because of problems with the technology and how it was deployed.

Zoom in: Defense contractors such as Anduril Industries and Elbit Systems of America, a subsidiary of Israeli-based Elbit Systems, are among those who have recently built new towers on the border.

  • They sit on public, private and tribal land. Many are located where there are few border agents.
Rancher Albert Miller walks by a Autonomous Surveillance Towers, the new CBP camera tower made by Anduril near his property in Valentine, Texas, on January 17, 2022.
Rancher Albert Miller walks by an autonomous surveillance tower near his property in Valentine, Texas, on January 17, 2022. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

What they're saying: "This is a perfect solution in terms of a way to protect the border. They are better than a wall or just having officers patrolling on horseback," Jorge Guajardo, a partner at Dentons Global Advisors, tells Axios.

  • "I think this is a solution that is very beneficial to the United States and also one that Mexico can work with and be agreeable to."
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not commented on the towers. Last year, he signed a deal with the White House to jointly invest in border technology.

Yes, but: It's unclear if the surveillance towers close to the border are also monitoring people in Mexico, Dave Maass, Electronic Frontier Foundation's director of investigations, tells Axios.

  • It's also unknown if towers near cities are watching everyday citizens, he says.
  • "What are these towers for? How often are they just looking at people who live there or go hiking out there?"

What to watch: The U.S. will continue to build more towers along the border, according to CBP.

  • Ongoing negotiations over potential border security measures could have an impact on funding for surveillance technology.

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