Tech Could Supplement a Physical Border Wall, But Many Questions Remain

As the Department of Homeland Security eyes new equipment and tactics to monitor the southern border, state and local leaders are asking how the technology would impact personal privacy.

by Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman / February 22, 2018
Border between Mexico and the U.S. Shutterstock

(TNS) — In the future imagined by the Department of Homeland Security, an army of small drones will hover over the southwestern border, outfitted with facial recognition technology that can cull criminal histories of people on the ground. Advanced cameras will instantly identify drivers and passengers as they cross international bridges into Mexico. Artificial intelligence software will comb through the social media accounts of immigrants seeking to enter the country.

The idea of a virtual wall is regularly invoked by opponents of the physical wall, including a host of border-area politicians, who say emerging technology offers a cheaper, smarter, less intrusive way to protect the southern border. It’s especially popular in Texas, where the Rio Grande, a prevalence of private property and geographic impediments like Falcon Lake and Big Bend complicate construction of steel fences or concrete panels.

But the specific features of the virtual wall are often overlooked, beyond a general sense of cameras and sensors. In reality, the proposed border surveillance tools have the power to capture reams of personal data from immigrants and citizens alike, raising privacy questions neither lawmakers nor department officials have fully answered.

The futuristic technologies are closer than one might think. Amid the Trump administration’s push for a physical border wall, plans spelling out the details of a virtual wall have been percolating in Congress for months, largely driven by a pair of Texas lawmakers. Earlier this month, Customs and Border Protection announced a test program for facial recognition cameras at the Anzalduas International Bridge near McAllen.

Civil liberties advocates complain there has been little public discussion about the details or implications of the new surveillance tools. “We’re normalizing all this technology without input from the community,” said Astrid Dominguez, border rights director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “People don’t realize it’s already happening.”

Coming amid reports that Customs and Border Protection is seeking to join the intelligence community, which would give the agency greater access to confidential information, the legislation has heightened fears over the agency’s surveillance powers.

“The problem is that a lot of people haven’t understood the implication of these proposals,” said Jake Laperruque, staff attorney with the Project on Government Oversight. “They are very sweeping and can affect immigrants and citizens very broadly.”

For instance, he said, proposed legislation that details the surveillance effort doesn’t adequately define where drones that potentially will be equipped with powerful facial recognition technology can fly or whether they can capture data on U.S. citizens. “They don’t specify if they can only record the border itself or the entire 100-mile border zone,” he said, referring to the area U.S. law allows the Border Patrol to operate without a warrant. “There are no limits on that, no oversight.”

Customs and Border Protection officials say the technology will make Americans safer and traveling less painful. In airports, where facial recognition exit systems are already operating at nearly a dozen international airports, agency officials say the technology could one day do away with Transportation Security Administration lines and the need for boarding passes, or even passports.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the agency is testing facial recognition scans of truck drivers in an effort to quicken the pace of trade and improve scrutiny of tractor-trailers, which carry much of the illegal drugs entering the country.

“The potential for transformation here is just amazing,” Colleen Manaher, CBP’s executive director of planning, program analysis and evaluation, said during a recent conference on border security in San Antonio. “I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

New tools raise bigger questions

When McAllen Mayor Jim Darling first heard about the federal government’s plan to conduct facial recognition scans of drivers and passengers crossing the international bridge just outside his border city, he wasn’t sure what to think.

“I was a little surprised,” he said of the biometric scans of motorists leaving Texas. “I didn’t know exactly what the info would be used for. … My primary concerns generally (were that) the public has a right to know how that information is used.”

The pilot program at the Anzalduas International Bridge, scheduled to begin as early as this summer as part of an effort to better track foreign nationals, has drawn attention in part because of its technological novelty. Customs and Border Protection is working with Silicon Valley to build cameras that can see into moving vehicles and capture images of multiple passengers, even those in back seats, as they drive into Mexico.

The images would be matched to existing passport, visa or other identity photos, though they could someday be run through FBI databases of terror suspects and other wanted individuals.

Privacy concerns along an increasingly militarized border are not new. Some border residents have complained of the blimp-like aerostats equipped with powerful cameras that have long been a fixture of the Texas border skyline; last year, the Texas Observer revealed the Texas National Guard’s use of so-called dirt-boxes, equipment that mimics cellphone towers and can gobble up the cellphone information of those below. The Texas Department of Public Safety regularly flies a Pilatus spy plane over the border (and some inland Texas cities). And earlier this month, a Laredo-area rancher sued the Border Patrol over a surveillance camera it placed on his property without his consent in a case that could define the agency’s powers on private property near the border.

Facial recognition would provide powerful new capabilities. Unlike fingerprinting and iris scanning, the recognition technology can be used at a distance and on groups of people, and it doesn’t require the consent of individuals being scanned.

NEC Corp., one of the leading providers of facial recognition tools, touted the technology’s potential uses at this month’s Border Security Expo in San Antonio. In marketing materials for its NeoFace Express scanner, the company says it could be used at stadiums, amusement parks and other “high-demand, high-traffic areas.”

But while it has made dramatic leaps forward in recent years, the technology still suffers from accuracy questions. A recent MIT study of three commercial systems found that compared with a 99 percent accuracy rate for white men, some artificial intelligence algorithms have error rates of up to 35 percent for darker-skinned women.

Critics say that could lead to false positives for minorities, an especially problematic concern at the Texas-Mexico border.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a border security expert at George Mason University, said the technology could mean border residents in Texas will further lose their expectation of privacy as they go about their daily lives. “There are unintended consequences of this that are also affecting these communities,” she said.

Homeland Security tech

Pushing hashtags like #StartUpDHS and making appearances at tech gatherings like South by Southwest, the Department of Homeland Security’s Silicon Valley office issues grants of up to $800,000 to seek help with a slew of challenges, including the development of “energy harvesting fabrics,” 3-D mapping, and improvements to facial recognition technologies.

In one of the office’s first efforts after opening in 2015, border officials sought a partnership with tech companies to build small drones that could work in extreme weather conditions and remote areas without strong cellular or Wi-Fi signals to detect, identify and track multiple subjects.

The 2016 solicitation to industry sounds like the stuff of science fiction: In one hypothetical scenario, officials imagined Border Patrol agents being able to control drones through a panel “integrated into the forearm of his or her uniform. The panel has a visual display that allows the agent to see the raw data feed from the (drone) sensors” that can identify “humans via facial recognition or other biometric at range.”

Two years later, the department says five companies are working on the drone technology, though it’s not clear when they might take to the sky.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman said, “While biometrics was one of approximately 30 types of technologies that were in the original solicitations (for the drones), no awards were made related to biometric capability.”

Still, the drone program has set off alarm bells among civil liberties groups who worry it could eventually be used to surveil American citizens without their knowledge or consent.

“Millions of U.S. citizens and immigrants live close to the U.S. border, and deployment of drones at the U.S. border will invariably capture the personal information from vast numbers of innocent people,” wrote attorney Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation this month.

Rather than a threat to personal privacy, officials say technology like drones will become an indispensable aid to agents in the field.

“Our Border Patrol agents operate in harsh terrain under extreme physical conditions with backup oftentimes being miles away,” wrote acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan last year. “We are always looking to stay at the forefront of improvements to technology to give our front line personnel more tools and capabilities, enabling them to make decisions that protect both them and the individuals they interact with.”

Texas lawmakers take the lead

In Congress, lawmakers are fighting low-temperature battles over Customs and Border Protection’s surveillance powers, a debate that’s received little oxygen compared with clashes over President Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful wall.”

Over the last year, Texas Republicans U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. John Cornyn have sponsored legislation spelling out details of a virtual wall, including the small drone program, more license plate readers and facial recognition technology at land borders.

According to an aide with the House Homeland Security Committee, which McCaul chairs, the legislation merely codifies and sets deadlines on Customs and Border Protection’s existing efforts. The Project on Government Oversight, however, argues the legislation will give the agency broad, new powers.

A version of their legislation has been endorsed by Trump, but suffered a 60-39 defeat in the Senate this month during failed negotiations on an immigration and border security bill. Laperruque of the Project on Government Oversight said senators from both parties had issues with the bill’s surveillance powers.

One controversy the Texans’ bills seek to address is whether border agents have the right to take biometric readings of U.S. citizens.

Customs and Border Protection officials say they have broad authority to check the citizenship of all who enter and leave the United States, a stance has drawn sharp opposition from some members of Congress, including Sens. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.

“In fact, Congress has pointedly neglected to authorize biometric exit scanning for U.S. citizens,” the pair wrote in a December letter to the agency.

In a nod to the controversy, McCaul’s legislation specifically exempts U.S. citizens from biometric screenings at land border exits like the one at the Anzalduas bridge. But the bill is less clear on the mechanics of doing so. The facial recognition technology must first scan a person before determining their citizenship, so all drivers and passengers logically would have their faces scanned.

The staffer with the House Homeland Security committee said the information of American citizens would likely be purged quickly from the system.

“But that’s not in the statute,” points out Schwartz with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The tendency of government is to get and hold the data as long as possible.”

At airports, Customs and Border Protection officials purge the data of U.S. citizens after 14 days. Schwartz and others worry that even if the data is purged, it is subject to theft or possible misuse by another government agency during that time.

Also unclear is how the facial recognition data would be linked to other federal databases or if U.S. citizens would be part of future efforts. Right now, border officials match face scans to passports, visa photos and other identification documents to determine immigration status. But the proposed legislation calls for eventually linking the scans to databases of suspected terrorists and other wanted individuals.

Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown University Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said that raises the specter of “mission creep” and the possibility the technology could be used to spy on American citizens without their consent.

McCaul declined to discuss privacy concerns related to the technology. The committee staffer said federal agents are already able to conduct criminal searches on individuals entering or leaving the country, though there is currently no systematic way of identifying those leaving by land.

“These are extremely powerful tools that can be abused,” Laperruque said. “Leaving it up to them to decide how far to take it is not a great idea.”

©2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.