These are more than just TV talking points. During the most recent round of negotiations to avert another government shutdown, Democratic lawmakers came in not just with a conciliatory offer of more than $1.3 billion for fencing, but also proposals to fund a swath of invasive surveillance technologies. Expanding these programs will simply shift migration routes to more remote terrain, leading to more unnecessary suffering, dehydration and death at the border. They also pose a grave threat to millions of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties across the nation.
As of Monday night, negotiators say they have reached an “agreement in principle” on border security funding. Details are scarce because the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors. But as their previous proposals have made clear, Democratic appropriators appear ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on “new cutting edge technology along the border to improve situational awareness.” If this sounds a bit dystopian, that is because it is. Lawmakers are not just proposing more cameras at ports of entry — they are pushing for the federal government to spend enormous amounts of money on technologies that can be used to trample human rights at an unprecedented scale.
Entering talks, Democrats supported more funding for the Border Patrol’s “air and marine operations” — which technology experts say is probably code for expanding U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s fleet of drones. The CBP already has the largest such fleet outside of the Defense Department and frequently “shares” its aircraft with law enforcement.
Under current policies, video feeds and other data from those flights can be stored indefinitely in massive databases and shared with hundreds of government agencies and local police. We should be cautious about expanding these drone capabilities because technology originally deployed at the border or in war zones does not tend to stay there. Too often, it later gets used against marginalized populations or political dissidents: An aerial surveillance system explicitly designed for military use in Iraq was later used to watch the residents of Baltimore, for example, and police in the San Francisco Bay area were caught using drones to spy on peaceful protesters in 2017.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are already capable of vacuuming up images of millions of license plates and scanning the faces of people who live and work near the U.S. border. Having more of them could enable the government to conduct constant and ubiquitous video and photographic surveillance across large areas.
Democrats have also called for “an expansion of risk-based targeting,” which means increasing the use of artificial intelligence software to determine which travelers should be detained and subjected to invasive screening, interrogation or incarceration. Numerous civil rights groups have spoken out about the dangers of using this type of technology in law enforcement: Artificial intelligence programs — created by humans, with human biases — frequently exhibit racial bias and can exacerbate existing forms of systemic discrimination.
More funding could eventually lead to a border security system akin to the criminal justice system’s “risk assessment tools,” which help determine bail and sentencing: An algorithm could decide, in some cases, whether someone goes free or dies in ICE custody, is granted asylum or deported.
The Democrats’ “opening offer” also provided for more intrusive searches and scans of travelers. They have suggested reinstating funding for VIPR, a controversial “counter terrorism” program with authority to conduct warrantless searches of travelers, with no proven benefit to security. Their proposal also includes $250 million for DHS’s Office of Biometric Identity Management, which is tasked with conducting facial recognition and biometrics collection of travelers entering and exiting the country. Beginning in 2004 by scanning foreign citizens, the program has gone on to collect — and retain — this sensitive information from U.S. citizens; now, Democrats are encouraging this creep.
Lacking meaningful oversight, there is essentially no limit to the ways the government could abuse this kind of data, which includes personal details like family history and health information. Spending more money on these existing surveillance programs will only increase their scope and their capacity for harm.
It seems only defense contractors and big tech companies stand to profit from government contracts by helping to build a “smart wall.” From start-ups to Silicon Valley giants, tech companies are looking to government contracts as a source of revenue and influence. These corporations aggressively market their surveillance tech to the government, regardless of whether it works.
It is appalling that lawmakers are willing to accept the human cost of supporting these policies. Our government’s mass surveillance apparatus already has a documented chilling effect on free expression and civil rights. A majority of Americans from across the political spectrum, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, have voiced concerns about existing government spying programs. Our elected officials in Congress should be scrutinizing and dismantling them, not promoting their growth and entrenchment.
Democratic concessions expose how broken this debate has become. Funding for border enforcement is already at an all-time high. We should not have to choose between an unnecessary physical wall and unaccountable government snooping. By pushing for expanded surveillance as an “alternative” to a literal barrier, Democrats have caved to the president’s worst impulses. The more money the government pumps into this sector, the more people will accept the incorrect idea that surveillance keeps us safe, and this technology will become more enmeshed with our daily lives.