VALENTINE, Tex. — The gap in the mountains here known as Viejo Pass has been a smuggling corridor into the United States for more than a century. In 1918 the U.S. Army built an outpost at the entrance to the pass to ward off Pancho Villa’s raiders, but it was abandoned long ago.
Powered by artificial intelligence, ‘autonomous’ border towers test Democrats’ support for surveillance technology
Today the government is guarding the route with solar-powered “autonomous surveillance towers” whose humming, rotating heads look like Pixar’s WALL-E on a pole. The towers use thermal imaging, cameras and radar to feed an artificial intelligence system that can determine whether a moving object is an animal, vehicle or person, and beam its location coordinates to U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Al Miller, whose ranch spans about 50 square miles of desolate West Texas desert and mountains, including Viejo Pass, has three of the towers on his property. “I think they’ve made a difference,” he said, adding the system has “learned” which objects to disregard, including his truck. “When my pickup goes by, they no longer watch it,” Miller said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has deployed about 175 of the towers along the southern border so far, part of a five-year deal with Anduril, a California-based security and defense contractor specializing in artificial intelligence systems. CBP officials say the Anduril system is the most advanced surveillance technology they have ever placed along the border, calling it a “force multiplier” that allows the agency to detect and intercept more illegal entries without increased staffing.
But the expansion of artificial intelligence and powerful surveillance tools along the border is also a test for the Biden administration, and the Democratic Party more broadly, after years of rallying against President Donald Trump’s enforcement policies.
Democrats have long professed a preference for border security technology over physical barriers. But Trump’s border wall project, family separations and other crackdown measures generated intense opposition to any expansion of enforcement measures among key Democratic constituencies, led by immigrant activist organizations and civil liberties groups.
Dinesh McCoy, a staff attorney with Just Futures Law, which tracks CBP technology programs, said the towers are “part of a larger militarization of the border.”
“There’s been a lot of talk about how surveillance is a more humane alternative to a wall, but what we know is that when these technologies are placed on the border, they end up forcing people to take even more dangerous routes through the desert,” McCoy said. “There is an increased correlation between this technology and more deaths, as desperate people try to find ways into country.”
The Biden administration appears to be leaning toward an expansion of autonomous surveillance technology. The administration’s original 2022 budget proposal did not include new funding for the program, but the omnibus spending package advancing through Congress this week includes $21 million in additional operations funding for the towers and a larger pool of more than $200 million for border security technology that can be used to expand autonomous surveillance.
Biden officials have not promoted the Anduril towers or highlighted the partnership with the company, but their official communications describe the towers as useful tools for CBP. Department of Homeland Security officials say funds appropriated during previous years will allow them to increase the total number of towers deployed to 204 in the coming months.
Marsha Espinosa, the top spokesperson at DHS, said border security “requires deploying a variety of resources, infrastructure, technology, and personnel, consistent with the Department’s commitment to privacy and civil liberties.”
“Deployments in new technology over the last 10 years have dramatically increased our ability to interdict narcotics and weapons, disrupt transnational criminal and human smuggling operations, and rescue countless individuals victimized by unscrupulous smugglers,” Espinosa said in a statement. “DHS will continue to invest in technologies that increase its operational advantage at our borders.”
Skepticism toward costly new border technologies remains strong among more left-leaning members of the Democratic Party. When CBP’s science and technology division recently promoted its efforts to develop four-legged drones it playfully called “robot dogs,” critics on social media envisioned dystopian scenes of migrant families chased down in the desert by heartless machines.
“It’s shameful how both parties fight tooth + nail to defend their ability to pump endless public money into militarization,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter, replying to images of the robot dogs.
DHS officials say they have no plans to use the robot dogs in the near future, but said they have demonstrated potential benefits for “high-risk” situations where border agents are deployed in remote areas and extreme terrain.
While privacy advocates have raised concerns about supercharged border surveillance, DHS officials say the autonomous towers do not use facial recognition software, and the footage they gather is not shared with other agencies unless it is the subject of a law enforcement investigation.
Anduril and its chief executive, Palmer Luckey, are an awkward partner for the Biden administration. Luckey launched Anduril with backing from right-wing tech billionaire Peter Thiel, after selling his virtual reality company Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, when he was 21 years old. Luckey named his new company after a mythical sword from The Lord of the Rings.
He was a donor and supporter of Trump’s in 2016 and 2020, but says his company’s work for the government is technological, not political.
“Border security is not that partisan,” Luckey said in an interview. “Most Democrats will agree that we need to know what’s coming across our borders.”
When Trump campaigned on a pledge to build a border wall paid for by Mexico, Democrats argued the government should invest in advanced technology, not traditional barriers. Trump spent money on both. In 2020, his administration reached a deal with Anduril worth up to $250 million that designated the autonomous surveillance towers a “program of record,” meaning technology so essential that it should receive its own dedicated funding stream.
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The ASTs, as they’re known at CBP, are cheaper to install and move around than the “integrated fixed towers,” or IFTs, that the agency has installed near busy crossing points along the border. The ASTs don’t require electrical hookups and can be relocated within two hours. Unlike a border wall, they don’t permanently alter the Southwestern landscape nor impede wildlife, so they don’t require the same environmental impact studies or other permitting procedures involved with more permanent installations.
The Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector has the most towers, with 46, followed by San Diego, with 40, and the Big Bend sector, which includes the Valentine area, with 32, according to the latest CBP figures. The agency has placed three so far along the Canadian border.
The Anduril system’s main innovation, and most controversial one, is the use of artificial intelligence, designed to help CBP handle the flood of data reaching its command centers from its growing array of sensors, cameras and other surveillance tools.
Anduril’s software platform, Lattice, allows a single operator to monitor multiple camera streams, quickly identifying objects and providing their coordinates. CBP officials say that allows agents who may not be familiar with the terrain to make interdictions using GPS coordinates instead of navigating off landmarks or dispatchers’ spoken directions.
On a recent evening inside a control room at the busy Border Patrol station in Santa Teresa, N.M., a small team of operators watched the Lattice system on a bank of monitors linked to multiple camera towers. After sundown, as groups of migrants begin climbing the border wall to head north, CBP operators spotted and tracked multiple entries simultaneously, sending coordinates to agents on horseback and all-terrain vehicles.
CBP officials say the autonomous surveillance towers are less useful in areas with rugged topography where the cameras lack a direct line of sight. Their range is about a mile and a half, less than some of the older, taller fixed tower systems supplied by rival contractors. While Anduril has developed aerial drones that can launch from the tower stations, CBP has not included drone technology in its deal, only the towers.
Ranchers and landowners who don’t want a border wall or another permanent structure on their property say the towers can function as an effective deterrent.
Miller, a county commissioner in Jeff Davis County, and a Democrat, said he’s seen foot traffic across his ranch diverted further west, away from Viejo Pass and nearby Valentine.
“Before they installed the towers, there would often be 6 to 8 men walking through the streets of Valentine, gathering at the post office, asking to charge their cellphones, making the employees nervous,” he said. “We don’t have many of them show up in Valentine any more.”
Like other ranchers along the border, Miller, 71, has lived and worked alongside Mexican cowboys and migrant laborers all his life, and remains sympathetic to those who cross in search of a better life. “These people aren’t doing anything people haven’t done for years,” Miller said. “They’re willing to risk everything.”
But the volume of people crossing in recent years and the tactics of the smugglers who guide them have taken a toll. Trash and discarded water bottles are littered across the desert. A distressed migrant who was left behind by his smuggling guide set fire to a ranch house on Miller’s property to call for help.
Miller’s brother, Bill Miller, who also lives on the ranch, said the cameras have helped, but says they have the same limitation as a border wall. “If you don’t have agents to respond, neither one does a damn good,” he said.
Migrants will continue crossing as long as there is a demand for their labor, said Bill Miller, shoveling cotton seed into a trough for his cattle. “It’s like the war on drugs,” he said. “In this country, we are the ones creating the demand.”
Their neighbor, Shelly Means, is less philosophical about the increase in crossings through her land. Last year she started a group, Concerned Far West Texans, and said she wants the government to deploy more autonomous towers, as well as a military presence, to stop smugglers and groups of migrants transiting through her family’s 70,000-acre ranch.
Means and her husband Bodie hosted Anthony Bourdain at their home not long before the CNN star’s death, appearing in his episode “Far West Texas.” She and Bourdain debated the necessity of a border wall, which Bourdain opposed.
Means said her mother’s nearby house was broken into last year by smugglers who cleared out the freezer and stole guns. The quantity of people passing through has shattered her sense of peace, she said. “I have a gun on the bed next to me every night,” she said. “Who wants to sleep like that?”