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The Virtual Wall: Documents Show CBP Plans For Surveillance Towers At US-Mexico Border

The United States government plans to expand a program for monitoring the Mexico border through cutting edge artificial intelligence technology.

At the vanguard of the project is Anduril, a nerd-chic tech firm with ties to Palantir. Delivery orders, statements of work, and contracts obtained by Shadowproof help to illustrate the scope and potential outcomes of Anduril’s work with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

The project, which involves migrant-tracking artificial intelligence housed in surveillance towers and drones, clashes with President Joe Biden’s sunny rhetoric on immigration.

Overall, Biden’s immigration plan reads like it was crafted in response to half a decade of “build the wall” sloganeering. In addition to raising the ceiling on refugee admissions, creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and closing a loophole that allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to operate in sanctuary cities, Biden has pledged “there will not be another foot of wall constructed.” 

Biden might not be building a physical wall, but he is continuing to expand an infrastructure designed to deter migrants from crossing into the U.S. Though he has distanced himself from former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, the Biden administration’s plan would see the U.S. government lean into its reliance on technology at the southern border, where CBP  is currently expanding one of the most ambitious surveillance systems ever created.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, a series of surveillance towers will be installed in Texas and California.

CBP is in the process of more than doubling its use of the towers, which monitor their surroundings for miles and transmit intelligence to CBP and its Border Patrol subsidiary. 

The towers are linked to drones, and the data they collect feeds into a powerful AI system.

Anduril Industries, the flagship company behind the new border surveillance project, is a hybrid. The California tech startup was founded by veterans of SpaceX, Facebook, and Oculus. It is the sort of place where executives speak in pop culture references and where workers scoot around on hoverboards. 

But it is also a company that aims to use its clout with the federal government to level-up to a corporate defense titan like General Dynamics or Raytheon.

Petra Molnar, a researcher and associate director at the Refugee Law Lab, works primarily on technology and refugee issues in Europe and Canada. But she sees parallels between conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border and those in the Mediterranean region, where migrants sometimes drown trying to cross into Europe.  

“There’s a lot of discretion given to decisions made at or around the border,” Molnar said in an interview with Shadowproof. “When you are looking at this kind of opaque, discretionary decision-making regime, it’s ripe for new surveillance and technology that are making their way into that space with very little regulation and oversight.”

‘The Next Palantir’

Anduril typically competes with companies making weaponry like tanks and missiles, but its focus on surveillance technology still fits within a U.S. paradigm that treats the border like a war zone. The militarization of the southern border in the modern era has been accompanied by similarly increasing militant rhetoric and strategy. Under President Barack Obama, for example, CBP’s mission statement had the agency acting as “America’s frontline,” and “protect(ing) the American public against terrorists.” 

In a 2018 profile, an Anduril executive told Wired that the company’s border surveillance program “helps you conceptualize what it would be like in Afghanistan,” adding, “It’s the same problem.”

Soon after Anduril was officially incorporated in 2017 , Trump used the language of war to describe conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump called a caravan of migrants heading to the U.S. from Central America “an invasion” and deployed thousands of troops to the southern border throughout his presidency. 

Anduril’s higher-ups tend to talk more about their work for the U.S. military than they do their projects at the border. However, according to USAspending.org, Anduril’s most lucrative contracts are with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS, CBP’s parent agency). 

As early as 2018, Anduril had pilot border security programs running in the El Paso and San Diego metro areas.

Emails obtained from a FOIA request show that an Anduril representative scheduled a tech demonstration with the San Diego police department in April 2019, and a work order indicates DHS continues to request support for the San Diego sector “legacy” towers. 

Trae Stephens, one of the venture capitalists who helped get Anduril off the ground, said he hoped to see the company become the next Palantir.

Palantir is a tech company founded by Peter Thiel that specializes in netting contracts from the military, DHS, and other government agencies. ICE’s FALCON and Investigative Case Management (ICM) systems were developed by Palantir. FALCON is a database for tracking immigrants and trans-national crime. ICM gives ICE access to data on immigrant targets (including home address and biometrics) and allows them to see data from other agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

If Anduril really does aim to become the next Palantir, border security is a smart place to start.

The federal government is prepared to spend plenty of money on companies willing to work at the southern border. Over the past 40 years the border security budget has grown steadily, from $350 million in 1980 to over $23 billion by 2018. 

Competition for the funding is fierce. In 2020, 1,452 lobbyists worked on “homeland security” issues in Washington. One thousand three hundred ninety lobbyists worked on immigration. 

Anduril has shelled out over $1 million to a lobbying firm called Invariant since 2017. They successfully lobbied Congress to expand the deployment of Anduril’s surveillance tower program, and in July 2020, the surveillance towers were declared a “program of record.”

CBP already had 60 towers at this point. They aim to have 200 by 2022.

In the summer of 2020, Anduril started a contract with DHS worth more than $60 million. The product service code for the contract reads: “CONSTRUCTION OF ELECTRONIC AND COMMUNICATIONS FACILITIES.”

The agreement is an “Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity” (IDIQ) contract, meaning DHS placed a preliminary baseline order and will have the opportunity to re-up annually until summer 2025. The IDIQ contract could ultimately be worth up to nearly $250 million and yield 170 surveillance towers for CBP. 

The two smaller contracts that fall under the IDIQ are for “PREFABRICATED TOWER STRUCTURES.” The first surveillance tower contract has a start date in July 2020. It shows 37 land surveillance towers and three maritime surveillance towers due to be delivered within a year.  

The second surveillance tower contract is dated September 2020 and consists of 76 surveillance towers, along with replacement parts to be delivered within the year. 

A statement of work says Anduril relies on Amazon Web Service (AWS) “to centrally manage application and user access.” (Anduril is identified in these documents as a “small business.”) 

Palmer Luckey, CEO of Anduril (Photo: Web Summit)

‘Eyes In The Back Of My Head’

Palmer Luckey, one of Anduril’s co-founders, is an expert in sensor fusion from his days working in virtual reality. He previously founded the VR gaming company Oculus, where he used sensor  fusion to track players’ movements, combining data from magnetometers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes.

According to Luckey, Anduril’s surveillance towers use sensor fusion and AI to create a “3D model of large battlespaces.”

The surveillance towers combine data from radar, visual imaging, and thermal measurements. The towers can also communicate with each other, performing handoffs when something passes from the coverage area of one tower to that of another. Plus, they can “spot activity in Mexico when groups might be staging a border incursion,” according to CBP.

Anduril’s Ghost drones even gather data for the company’s AI system, which is called Lattice. At short distances, the Ghosts are almost completely silent. 

A CBP endorsement on Anduril’s website describes Lattice as “Eyes in the Back of my Head.” One border agent explained, “Once it integrates with a few pieces of technology, it will be completely different than what we’ve done in the past.” 

Several CBP documents say Anduril is obligated to provide a Software Development Kit (SDK) and an Application Programming Interface (API) at the government’s request. According to a procurement document, CBP wants technical data for the Lattice system so that the agency “will be able to install and incorporate new sensor feeds into the Lattice Tower utilizing existing services/infrastructure.”

A CBP statement of work specifies that any “human image labeling” has to be done in the U.S., and that faces must be blurred before labeling. The same document allows for a vendor to “store non-blurred images” for training purposes. Vendors are also authorized to use images to train AI.

According to Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist who now runs the Tech Inquiry watchdog group, CBP could potentially use the API to go around Anduril’s software and gather data and images themselves.

“The ‘blurring’ process could easily be circumvented if one of the API functions involved sampling from the raw surveillance feed,” Poulson said in an interview with Shadowproof.

CBP is authorized to provide data to DHS’s agency-wide biometric data management system, also known as HART. (Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology.)

Data stored in HART includes fingerprints and facial images, which can be used by the agency for facial recognition. 

Using Technology To Drive Migrants Into The Desert

Advanced surveillance systems have been attempted at the border before Anduril. Most notably, the Boeing-developed Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) project combined sensors and surveillance towers with the aim of reducing “illegal immigration.”

The U.S. government spent a billion dollars on the system, which was riddled with bugs, before it was quietly scrapped in 2011. 

Although SBInet failed, experts on migration say that it did have an impact, and it’s likely SBInet contributed to a spike in deaths among migrants trying to cross the border by pushing crossers into more deadly terrain. 

Driving migrants into rugged territory is a strategy the U.S. government has employed for decades. 

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), a forerunner to DHS, launched the “prevention through deterrence” strategy in 1994. One aspect of the strategy was to push migrants from crossing at safe, urban nodes of the border, (like El Paso and San Diego) toward rougher terrain. 

Doris Meissner, then the INS commissioner, believed that under prevention through deterrence, “geography would be an ally” and that migrants would soon quit trying to make the crossing once they saw how deadly it had become. 

It became common for the crossing to take days. Migrants often ran out of water and food partway through the trip and were sometimes relieved to be detained by the time Border Patrol caught up with them. 

A study published in the Journal of Borderlands Studies used methods from archaeology and military science to measure how energy is expended by people crossing the border. The study then compared those results to records showing the locations of migrant deaths. 

Researchers found relationships between enforcement (specifically in the form of SBInet) routes taken by border-crossers and fatalities. 

Avoiding areas where they would likely be intercepted or surveilled often sent migrants into regions where they were more likely to encounter dehydration, hyperthermia, injury and exhaustion. 

In a 2013 interview, one Border Patrol agent described migrants avoiding the SBInet system: “They’d stay down in the mountains where it blocked the camera,” the agent said. 

The study on migrant deaths used data from the Office of the Medical Examiner in Pima County, Arizona, who recently told Fox News that a 2020 spike in border fatalities (potentially the highest death rate in a decade) could be explained in part by the fact that Arizona had its hottest year on record. 

A county sheriff, citing construction on the border wall as another catalyst for the increase in the death rate, told Fox that the phenomenon reminded him of “driving livestock into a canyon where they ultimately die.”

Paige Corich-Kleim, a representative for No More Deaths, told Shadowproof the true number of migrants who have died trying to cross into the United States since the dawn of prevention through deterrence is “unknowable.” 

“We estimate that in Arizona there have been over 3,600 migrant deaths, but we think that’s actually a third or even a tenth of the actual number of people who have disappeared and died,” Corich-Kleim stated. “What we’ve seen historically is that more surveillance and more enforcement technology directly results in more deaths and disappearances.”

No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization that aims to end death and suffering along the southern border. The encampments where they provide migrants with shelter, food and medicine have been repeatedly raided by Border Patrol. 

Photo via CBP Website

Building A Virtual Wall

CBP took a more ad-hoc approach to border surveillance after SBInet shut down. Most notably, they worked with Elbit, a company that got its start creating surveillance systems to monitor the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

There was greater emphasis on the construction of a physical wall than there was on surveillance during the Trump administration, 

“Walls work,” Trump said at a 2019 El Paso rally, underscoring the blunt appeal of his analogue solution to border security. 

Even some border security groups have soured on surveillance tech. A representative for Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary, said that the group were “not fans of high tech for the border” because “most of it is a waste of money.” 

William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, also believes tech alone makes for insufficient enforcement. 

“Lawmakers who want more technology at our borders instead of barriers and boots on the ground simply want us to watch people stream in endlessly,” Gheen contended.

There have, however, been enormous advances in surveillance and AI since SBInet was scrapped in 2011. When fully implemented, Anduril’s towers and Lattice could have a greater impact than anything that has preceded them.

“A major defense contractor failing in 2011 doesn’t say anything about whether a software-focused company could succeed a decade later,” said Poulson of Tech Inquiry. 

Complicating the matter even further is the fact that some migrants may not even want to avoid being intercepted by CBP. In fact, according to Professor Jeremy Slack, who regularly interviews border crossers, avoiding detection is no longer the preferred bet for migrants looking to enter the country.

“(Around) the end of 2018, everyone just went…wholesale into asylum or asylum adjacent migration—crossing the border, trying to flag down agents and trying to get them to take your credible fear statement,” Slack maintained.

“I really haven’t even spoken to an individual that hasn’t been trying to flag down the Border Patrol in two or three years.”

Biden’s Election: Good News For Anduril

President Biden’s administration has so far yielded plenty of good news for Anduril. 

In a conference call around a month after Biden’s inauguration, a DHS official told journalists that “border security is a priority of this administration.” 

Meanwhile, Palantir’s contract to run ICE’s Investigative Case Management system was re-upped less than a week after inauguration, indicating that the administration will not shy away from using emerging tech for immigration enforcement. Since then, there has been an influx of migrants arriving at the southern border.

Anduril recently bought a massive space in Orange County, in what was once a Los Angeles Times printing facility.

Luckey said he hoped to turn Orange County into the “defense technology hub of America.”

Though Anduril’s branding is America-centric, they have shown an interest in expanding abroad, from their partnership with the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines to planned participation at this year’s World Border Conference in Athens. 

The World Border Conference is a trade show, where security companies hawk emerging technologies to European governments. This year, Anduril will offer a workshop on “AI and human machine teaming.” Echodyne, the company that makes the radar component of Anduril’s surveillance towers, will have a booth.

Anduril currently has around 440 employees but plans to more than double that number by 2022.

Recruiting hundreds of new Anduril employees from liberal California sounds like a daunting task. However, not everyone in the California tech sector feels the same as the Googlers who called on their company to cancel work on an AI drone targeting system for the military. In fact, only about five percent of Google employees signed the famous letter objecting to the company’s involvement.

Although Anduril is a Trump-friendly company, (Luckey donates generously to Republican political candidates and pro-Trump PACs), it’s unlikely that they will have trouble doing business with the Democrats in control of congress and the White House. 

Invariant, Anduril’s favorite lobbying firm, is run by Heather Podesta. Heather is sister-in-law to John Podesta, an influential ally of the Clintons. 

Jim Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, is a noted fan of border surveillance technology, especially drones. When asked on CNN if there was a crisis at the southern border, Clyburn chuckled. 

“We have a challenge,” Clyburn said. “All our humanitarian issues are challenges for us. But no crisis.”

The local government of Laredo, Texas, a municipality at the center of CBP’s border surveillance plans, met with Clyburn on a legislative trip to Washington D.C. in March 2020 according to an agenda received in a document request. They also met with an assistant secretary for DHS and a special assistant to then-President Trump. (A statement of work from CBP shows 21 surveillance towers to be delivered to the Laredo Border Patrol Sector.) 

“Democrats have always been supportive of border buildup and border militarization,” said Slack. “You never saw a rejection of a wall until it was kind of a centerpiece of (Trump’s) policy agenda.” 

At a tech conference, Luckey expressed confidence that he would find support for his company on both sides of the aisle. 

“A lot of people in the U.S. disagree on immigration policy, but very few people disagree with the concept of border security,” Luckey said. “Especially in government.”

Will Lennon

Will Lennon

Will Lennon is a Washington D.C. based independent journalist reporting on everything from federal politics to local homicides. He is a regular contributor to Washington City Paper and The D.C. Line.