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Democrats' Border Wall Solution Is Raising Privacy and Profiling Concerns

House Democrats are offering $1.6 billion to implement new surveillance technologies at the border and add more border-patrol officers. Human rights groups are concerned.
View of the U.S.–Mexico border wall on January 7th, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico.

View of the U.S.–Mexico border wall on January 7th, 2019, in Tijuana, Mexico. House Democrats recently announced a proposal earmarking $1.6 billion for increased personnel and "smart" surveillance technologies at the border, as a counter to President Donald Trump's demand for a wall.

In the long-running showdown in Congress over border security, Democrats have framed their opening proposal as an alternative to President Donald Trump's "medieval" wall, calling instead for increased security personnel, and the installation at the border of so-called "smart" surveillance technologies designed to clamp down on illegal activity, including drug smuggling.

In a January 30th press release, the House Democratic Conferees announced that Democrats had earmarked $1.6 billion in funding for a "smart, effective border security posture, one that does not rely on costly physical barriers." In addition to providing for a suggested 1,000 additional border patrol officers and expanding Customs and Border Protection's air and marine presence along the border, the Democrats' proposed solution includes the implementation of new technologies that would "ensure all vehicles are scanned before entering the country for drugs and other contraband," and "improve situational awareness."

The proposal, House Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) said in the press release, would be "consistent with our core values as Americans." They are billed, in essence, as a more humane alternative to Trump's proposed steel slats.

But on Tuesday, a group of 25 civil liberties, technology, and human rights groups warned in an open letter to Democrats that the "compromise" solutions being championed by the left could also threaten the fundamental rights of travelers, immigrants, and civilians who live near the U.S.–Mexico border.

The open letter, published on Medium and penned by groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, Fight for the Future, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Muslim Justice League, makes clear that the same "cutting edge technology" being alluded to in the Democrats' proposal could be cause for concern about privacy violation. It identifies the five solutions proposed by Democrats that the letters' signers consider to be the most pernicious: risk-based targeting practices, mass surveillance, the use of facial-recognition software, license-plate scanners, and the collection of biometric data, including immigrants' DNA.

Specifically, the letter stresses that the implementation of such technologies at the border could threaten to exacerbate pre-existing racial disparities in immigration policing.

"All too often, these systems replicate the biases of their programmers, burden vulnerable communities, lack democratic transparency, and encourage the collection and analysis of ever-increasing amounts of data in order to generate risk assessments," the letter reads.

The pushback to the Democrats' proposal comes amid growing concern about the role technology already plays in immigration policy. In June of 2018, as the Trump administration's family separation policy was coming to light, hundreds of employees at the cloud-based software company Salesforce signed an open letter in protest of the company's continued partnership with CBP. One week prior, Amazon employees had signed a similar petition to protest the company's decision to sell facial-recognition technology to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Amazon's involvement with ICE, in particular, prompted a response from eight Democratic members of Congress, who wrote in an open letter that the facial-recognition program in question, called "Rekognition," had the ability to place "disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and could stifle Americans willingness to exercise their first amendment rights in public."

Whether or not the Democrats' proposal moves forward, the expansion of virtual security at the border is already underway. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that noted Trump supporter, and Oculus co-founder, Palmer Luckey had recently been granted a government contract to expand his new company's surveillance technology along the border. Luckey's company, Anduril Industries, has pioneered a security system known as Lattice, which utilizes high-tech towers armed with radar sensors and artificial intelligence in order to detect unauthorized border crossings.

Pointing to systems like Luckey's, activists argue the Democrats' proposal will exacerbate existing problems with U.S. border surveillance.

"The U.S. government's surveillance programs are already out of control, and pose a serious threat to human rights and free expression," says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, one of the letter's cosigners. "Technologies that are deployed at the border to target travelers, journalists, and immigrant families inevitably end up in our major cities targeting low-income communities, religious minorities, and political activists."

"Congress should be reviewing and limiting existing border surveillance programs, not providing additional funding for dangerous technologies that infringe on our basic rights," Greer adds.

Despite the pushback from activists to "smart" solutions to border security, Luckey told the Post that he believes his system will ultimately shore up bipartisan support. "We should understand what's happening on the border, no matter what we believe the policies should be," he said. "Republicans and Democrats both support this."