Drones, towers, license plate readers, and other surveillance tools comprise a “digital border wall” that threatens privacy and civil liberties, according to a new report from three immigration advocacy groups.
The Deadly Digital Border Wall report criticizes law enforcement’s surveillance of the U.S.-Mexico border, but the tools described in the report could be—and have been—used against all American residents as the government ramps up programs to counter domestic extremism.
The report—published by Mijente, Just Futures Law, and the Rio Grande Valley No Border Wall Coalition—details two main tools law enforcement uses to track migrations: drones and towers. Additionally, the government uses a wide array of surveillance systems and databases to track all people who cross U.S. borders—illegally or otherwise.
According to the report, there are at least 55 surveillance towers along with Southwest border. These structures are 80 to 140 feet tall and are equipped with day and night cameras and a radar that can identify people six miles away, the report said.
There are also more than 360 remote video surveillance systems—smaller, relocatable surveillance towers—and dozens of mobile surveillance systems. Each mobile system consists of a truck with telescoping poles in the bed that extend up to 35 feet in the air, outfitted with thermal and video cameras and a laser illuminator, the report explained.
Meanwhile, the government is rolling out its newest surveillance tool: an autonomous tower powered by artificial intelligence, which can be used without the direct control of a human operator, the report said.
“The relocatable towers are 33 feet tall and suited to work in remote environments with little maintenance, since they operate off the grid and around the clock, using solar panels for energy,” the report said, adding that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plans on installing 200 of them by fiscal year 2022.
The growing number of towers is complemented by a fleet of drones along the border in the Southwest. The report said CBP has more than 135 drones, with plans to procure another 460.
“Nearly 600 operators were trained to fly them, and the agency aimed to double that number in 2021 with a training program in West Virginia,” the report said, adding, “Since 2016, CBP has expressed interest in developing drones with facial recognition capabilities.”
While the abovementioned tools are ostensibly designed to track illegal border crossings, the report also details numerous surveillance tools used to track all travelers crossing U.S. borders.
For instance, the report raised concerns about the forthcoming Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART), which the Department of Homeland Security is implementing to replace a legacy system.
“Hosted by Amazon Web Services, the new system will aggregate, link, and compare facial recognition images, DNA profiles, iris scans, digital fingerprints, and voice prints on unique profiles of hundreds of millions of people,” the report said.
“The planned database will collect this invasive personal data from diverse federal agencies like ICE, CBP, FBI, and the Department of Defense, as well as from local and state law enforcement, and from foreign governments including Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, and the Five Eyes alliance.”
Another surveillance tool that has come under scrutiny is the automated license plate reader, which tracks plate numbers, precise dates and times, images, geolocation information, and other data.
“This data can be used to determine the travel patterns of individual drivers,” the report said. “Most importantly, the plate data can be matched with a car’s owner to track their movement, and stored and shared among different law enforcement agencies.”
Along with documenting the methods and tools used by the government, the report also tracks the private contractors that have been profiting off the growing surveillance state.
According to the report, Motorola Solutions has a $54.6 million contract with CBP for license plate reader technology, while ICE is paying Thomson Reuters $22.8 million for similar services through 2026. Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems, meanwhile, has a $239 million contract with CBP for surveillance tower development and maintenance, and General Dynamics has been awarded $153 million through 2023 to expand the system, according to the report.
The most expensive system in the report is the HART biometric database system at an estimated $4.3 billion. Military contractor Northrop Grumman has been awarded a $143 million contract to develop the first increment of this system, the report noted.
According to the report, government and big tech are becoming increasingly intertwined when it comes to border surveillance.
“The digital wall relies on cutting-edge, for-profit surveillance technologies developed by military contractors, big tech companies, and Silicon Valley start-ups,” the report said.
“As border enforcement agencies become increasingly reliant on technology to monitor, detain, and deport immigrants, multi-million-dollar contracts are being signed to develop tools for the region.”
Lest people think that these tools are solely being used to curtail illegal immigration, the report explained that entire populations are being swept up in the surveillance dragnet.
In 2017, for instance, CBP stationed a tower in San Diego to monitor a protest, according to the report. Last year, CBP drones were deployed on Black Lives Matter protestors in at least 12 cities, the report added.
“Border communities feel the impact of this surveillance acutely. The surveillance towers above their towns don’t just monitor the border, they monitor their backyards too. The drones flying overhead are an ever-present eye in the sky, watching people as they walk, bike, and drive in their neighborhoods,” the report said.
A recent lawsuit from the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation further backs the report’s claims, at least when it comes to license plate readers. The lawsuit revealed that one law enforcement department shared such information with more than 600 other agencies.
“Specifically, the sheriff’s office shares and transfers ALPR information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), 18 other federal agencies, and 424 out-of-state law enforcement agencies,” the lawsuit says. “This includes law enforcement agencies located as far afield as Enfield, Connecticut; St. Louis, Missouri; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Newton County, Georgia.”
The report warned that border surveillance is just a taste of what could come for the rest of the country.
“The proliferation of checkpoints is a constant reminder that the entire border region is, in the eyes of DHS, a warzone. Border communities have become a legitimate target for surveillance and enforcement—a taste of what may await the rest of the country as these technologies are rolled out nationwide.”