To Stop the Wall, Democrats Agree to Fund Mass Surveillance Near U.S. Border

Central American immigrants stand at the U.S.-Mexico border fence while crossing the border from Mexico on February 01, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. The migrants turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents, seeking political asylum in the United States.
Photo: Getty / John Moore

A spending bill expected to pass the House and Senate on Thursday, and then be signed by President Trump before this weekend to avert another disastrous government shutdown, contains at least $100 million earmarked for the development of surveillance technologies such as unmanned aerial drones and facial recognition systems, according to a summary of the bill released Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month criticized President Trump’s proposed border wall as an “an immorality,” senior Democrats have touted the expansion of border surveillance, eagerly juxtaposing plans for new drones, license plate readers, and infrared sensors with Trump’s physical barrier of concrete or steel—a useful brush with which to paint the GOP’s security proposals as antiquated, obsolete, and even “medieval.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said that Trump would sign the spending bill, adding that he’d also throw his support behind the president’s plan to declare a national emergency in an attempt to circumvent Congress and pull funding from other sources, including the Defense Department. In January, it was widely reported that the White House was examining ways to divert disaster recovery and military construction funds, including unspent money earmarked for disaster recovery in multiple states and Puerto Rico, where nearly 3,000 people died during and in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

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In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump would sign the bill and take executive action, “including a national emergency.”

According to an explanatory statement submitted Wednesday by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, the $100 million will provide for a range of technologies, such as fixed towers, remote video surveillance systems, mobile surveillance capabilities, and a host of “ground detection” capabilities, including video surveillance and small unmanned aerial systems. The statement notes carryover funding totaling $200 million has been similarly allocated and will also address the “cross border tunnel threat.”

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Collectively, these measures have been labeled by Democrats a “technological wall” or “smart wall” or “virtual fence.”

Additional funding will go toward a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that the Trump administration sought to shutter two years ago in order to free up money for a physical barrier: The VIPR program—or Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response—a series of security check teams intended to deter terrorism by creating a highly visible law enforcement presence, first at airports, and later in the transit systems of several major U.S. cities.

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The VIPR program, which saw its funding slashed in half over the last half-decade, has long been criticized by privacy experts due to repeated incidents in which officers showed flagrant disregard for Fourth Amendment protections. In a famous example of this, a VIPR team once seized control of an Amtrak station in Savannah, Georgia, and conducted warrantless searches of every citizen in sight, passengers who were both arriving and departing the station. The 2011 incident led Amtrak’s police chief to temporarily bar Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) employees from the premises.

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The funding bill agreed upon by the Democrats and the GOP is said to include $55,637,000 to maintain 31 VIPR teams.

The bill further includes funding for the Silicon Valley Innovation Program, a research and development initiative headed by DHS. The program will receive $10 million to fund “new technologies that strengthen national security.” The funds go to companies with fewer than 200 employees involved in research largely geared toward increasing DHS and Customs and Border Protection surveillance capabilities. At least six companies are currently developing drones with the money, including some incorporating machine learning and voice recognition.

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Planck Aerosystems out of San Diego, California, for example, is reportedly developing a “a fully autonomous, truck-based, search, surveillance, and data delivery platform for DHS applications operated from a dash-mounted user interface which delivers real-time video and object detection to drivers and passengers, without the need for a dedicated pilot or extensive operator training.” Another, Kiana Analytics, is said to be developing a “smartphone based interview capability that includes the remote identity verification of travelers using a combination of biometric information and behavior/trend analysis from sensors available in remote ports of entry used by travelers.”

On Wednesday, a coalition of digital- and immigrant-rights groups delivered petitions signed by thousands of Americans to Washington opposing the Democrats’ plan to expand surveillance at the border as an alternative to wall construction—which the White House insists it intends to do anyway without Congress’ approval.

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“It’s sickening to see both Republicans and Democrats add significant funding for invasive surveillance technologies to trample on millions of people’s basic rights at a mass scale,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, one of the groups involved in the protest alongside Access Now, Free Press Action, Demand Progress, and RAICES, the nation’s largest immigration legal services non-profit, among others.

Twenty-eight technology and human rights organizations wrote to congressional leaders last week asking them not to fund privacy-invasive technology, some of which may be used at internal checkpoints found in an area extending 100 miles from the actual border. The letter expressed particular concern over technology such as license plate readers, drones, and technology designed to collect biometric and DNA data on immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. The groups called instead for “robust oversight of government surveillance technology already deployed at the border,” saying the development or funding of any new technology should be “contingent upon independent certification” that it will not adversely impact Americans’ privacy rights.

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“We know that the border is often a testing ground for surveillance technology that is later deployed throughout the United States,” the letter said. “Ubiquitous surveillance technology poses a serious threat to human rights and constitutional liberties.”

Correction: A typo in a previous version of this article incorrectly identified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the “White House Speaker,” a job title that doesn’t exist.

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Dell Cameron

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