A surveillance balloon near the Texas-Mexico border, in Los Ebanos, Texas.
A surveillance balloon near the Texas-Mexico border, in Los Ebanos, Texas. Eric Gay/AP

To resolve Trump’s impasse, many lawmakers have proposed boosting surveillance technology to create a virtual border wall. Is that more humane and effective?

Congressional Democrats and Republicans have reportedly come to a deal that would avert a second government shutdown. The details of the agreement are not yet clear, but it appears the Democrats have conceded some funding for President Donald Trump’s border fencing, and tabled their demand to decrease immigrant detention capacity.

One element that’s probably in the mix: funds for a “smart wall.” That’s the term lawmakers from both sides of the aisle often use to refer to sensors, scanners, and drones along the border that would “create a technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under,” as Jim Clyburn, the House Democrat from South Carolina known for popularizing the term, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill. Republicans representing border districts, like Will Hurd from Texas, have also supported it.

When compared to the expensive physical border wall Trump is so keen on, a virtual one laden with high-tech features might seem like an appealing option: a more efficient, responsive, and humane way to address the president’s border-security fixation. At least, that’s how some Democrats presented the idea in their “smart, effective” border security proposal from January.

But civil liberty groups and academics who have studied the effects of border surveillance are raising alarm—pointing to the inefficacy of past surveillance initiatives and the heightened potential for abuses and migrant deaths as a result of such approaches in the future.

The first bit of pushback comes from a recent paper published in the Journal of Borderland Studies by Geoffrey Alan Boyce, the academic director of the Earlham College Border Studies Program in Tuscon, Arizona, and geographers Samuel N. Chambers and Sarah Launius. In it, the authors used GIS to model the effect of a 2006 surveillance initiative called SBInet (Secure Border Initiative). This was the smart wall of its era—an elaborate security system for the border that boasted a network of ground sensors, watch towers, roving patrols, and aerial and marine surveillance that siphoned communication about illegal crossers to Border Patrol agents.

But this version of the “virtual wall” was discontinued in 2011 because it was found to be ineffective and badly implemented. As the Washington Post reported in 2010, previous similar efforts had also failed:

SBInet is the federal government's third attempt to secure the border with technology. Between 1998 and 2005, it spent $429 million on earlier surveillance initiatives that were so unreliable that only 1 percent of alarms led to arrests.

Per the paper by Boyce et al, there were tragic human costs also associated with this $1 billion high-tech barrier. The researchers compared the geography of human remains—bodies of migrants who died crossing the border—with the range of the SBInet apparatus. After the surveillance initiative went into effect, migrants appeared to have attempted to cross the border via more rugged and circuitous pathways. In The Hill, the authors recently summarized their findings, arguing that the virtual wall may have contributed to migrant deaths:

We found a meaningful and measurable shift in the location of human remains toward routes of travel outside the visual range of the SBInet system, routes that simultaneously required much greater physical exertion, thus increasing peoples’ vulnerability to injury, isolation, dehydration, hyperthermia and exhaustion.

Our research findings show that in addition to its monetary cost and its questionable operational efficacy, the “smart border” technology presently being promoted by the Democratic congressional leadership contributes to deadly outcomes.

Still, the appetite for taking border security high-tech has not waned: Private companies have entered the arena (including one headed by Palmer Luckey, founder of the virtual-reality firm Oculus)—hoping to cash in on government contracts. And some defense professionals maintain that sensors and scanners are key to effective border control.

And now the heightened interest from Democrats in Congress has concerned privacy advocates. In a recent letter to Congress, several civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), raised their own concerns about measures mentioned in the recent Democratic proposal (which may or may not appear in the same form in the deal agreed upon in Congress). Computerized risk-assessment programs that scan motorists and cargo at or near the border, these advocates say, may lead to racial profiling. Expansions in drone and marine surveillance may capture the faces of anyone who lives or works in the vicinity, not just undocumented migrants, and license-plate readers would track their movements over time. Unregulated biometric surveillance technology such as iris sensors are already being piloted at the border. A foray into facial recognition, if that is included, could unfairly target communities of color, for whom this technology is less reliable.

Without proper safeguards in place that determine how the data gathered by these technologies is used, stored, and shared, these groups discourage funding a smart wall. “We know that the border is often a testing ground for surveillance technology that is later deployed throughout the United States,” they write. “Ubiquitous surveillance technology poses a serious threat to human rights and constitutional liberties.”

There’s a bigger question here, as journalist (and former CityLab contributor) Daniel Denvir points out in a recent New York Times op-ed. Illegal border entries overall are at historic lows, even though the apprehensions of families who cross the border and turn themselves in to seek asylum has increased. “Why, if there isn’t truly a crisis on the border, do the Democrats continue to invoke the need for more ‘border security’?”

The roots of this bipartisan reverence for the notion of border security, Denvir suggests, lie in trying to balance interests of two widely different political constituencies that have only split further apart in the last few years. Calling a package of surveillance features a “smart wall” just adds a layer of technological solutionism to an approach that may risk exacerbating a real problem at the border—a humanitarian one.

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