More than 40 different organizations are calling on the Biden Administration to bypass a bill calling for a “virtual wall” with mass surveillance along the U.S. border with Mexico.
On February 25, more than 40 privacy, immigrants rights, and civil liberties organizations called on the Biden administration to abandon a new bill which would extend the Trump administration’s border policy, particularly the ongoing creation of a “virtual” or biometric wall. These organizations – including Mijente, Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Fight for the Future, and Restore the Fourth – wrote a letter to the Biden admin scolding the recently minted president for continuing the militarization of the border.
The letter comes in response to a recently proposed bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would direct the Department of Homeland Security to implement new biometric and aerial surveillance technologies at ports of entry and along the U.S./Mexico border.
“This “smart border” surveillance technology is a continuation of the Trump administration’s racist border policies, not a break from it,” the letter states. “We applaud President Biden’s efforts to halt Trump’s border wall construction and provide relief to immigrant communities, but protection from deportation and access to due process should not come at the cost of militarization and surveillance.”
The letter notes that the increase in surveillance technology at ports of entry is “concerning particularly because of increased biometric collection, which most prominently includes expanded facial recognition and DNA collection.”
The push for biometric data collection at the border predates the Biden Administration. On January 3, 2020, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a Privacy Impact Assessment detailing plans to collect DNA from individuals temporarily detained at border crossings. Border Patrol launched the 90 day pilot program at the Canadian border near Detroit and at the official port of entry at Eagle Pass, Texas. After the pilot period the program will be expanded nationwide. The simple fact is that the Trump administration set the stage for the Biden admin to expand the growing surveillance state along the border.
The letter, titled A Virtual Wall Is Trump’s Wall by Another Name, warned that “the rapid expansion of license plate recognition technology used by Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies is a major privacy and policing concern.” The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties organizations have been warning about the rise in use of automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), high definition cameras capable of seeing not only a vehicle’s license plate, but the people in the vehicle.
The organizations are calling on the Biden administration to invest financially in border communities rather than in the use of “invasive tech and border militarization.” The letter reminds Biden that border communities have been subjected to “extreme militarization and mass surveillance including interior checkpoints, drones, blimps, mobile and fixed surveillance towers, and other cameras and sensors placed in communities.”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the signatories of the letter, recently warned that “use of surveillance technologies at the border inevitably extends into the interior, where they are deployed against protesters, communities of color, and indigenous peoples.” EPIC recently urged the DHS to rescind a proposed rule increasing the agency’s collection of biometric information.
Big Tech and Border Militarization
The organizations also point out that the DHS’s new Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology(HART) database will make biometric data “accessible to major federal law enforcement agencies and some foreign governments via information sharing agreements.” In 2018, while discussing the HART database, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the DHS was “quietly building what will likely become the largest database of biometric and biographic data on citizens and foreigners in the United States.” The EFF also said HART “poses a very real threat to First Amendment-protected activities.”
Interestingly, in May 2020 NextGov reported that the entire biometric database was being moved to Amazon GovCloud, a move which further illustrates the deep web of connections between government surveillance and Big Tech firms.
Another connection to Big Tech firms is found in the letter’s criticism of “key companies awarded federal contracts to develop virtual wall technology” who have financial ties to Donald Trump and are also involved in created police surveillance tools. Specifically, the letter states:
“Anduril Industries was founded by major Trump donor Palmer Luckey with funding from Palantir’s Peter Thiel and related funds. The company was awarded a contract by CBP in July 2020 for a potential $249,550,000 to set up over 200 mobile surveillance towers in border communities; $60.7 million has already been awarded but the remaining money is not obligated. This technology forms the backbone of the new virtual wall.”
Privacy advocates have long criticized Peter Thiel’s Palantir of being a prime example of a private surveillance firm intertwined with the national security state. Palantir has also played a large role in COVID-19 contact tracing surveillance.
While supporters of Joe Biden were hoping for a paradigm shift away from the policies of Donald Trump, the first two months of Biden’s presidency appear to indicate that Americans can expect more of the same: more surveillance, more corporatism, more police state, and less freedom.