Trump, Dem talk of 'smart wall' thrills tech companies

Tech companies are increasingly bullish on building a "smart wall," which would incorporate new technologies to beef up security on the southern border.

Many firms see a potential windfall with both Democrats and Republicans floating the idea of tech improvements as an alternative to President Trump's call for a steel barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats have said they would back as much as $5.7 billion for a smart wall. Trump himself discussed the idea when announcing the deal to end the recent government shutdown.

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"The walls we are building are not medieval walls. They are smart walls designed to meet the needs of frontline border agents," the president said last Friday. Trump's critics, though, noted he had first dismissed the idea when it was proposed by Democrats.

The tech and defense industries have long pushed for technology to be a centerpiece of efforts to secure the border. Now they see new momentum for the idea as a bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers seek to hash out a border deal to avoid a second shutdown.

"We cannot focus on archaic solutions in order to address this very modern problem," Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), one of the conferees, said during the group's first meeting on Wednesday. "Technology works for securing the border." 

Some of the technologies floated include drones to surveil areas border agents cannot easily see, biometrics to check people entering the U.S. with their IDs, and sensors that detect people moving across the border.  

The encouraging atmosphere has companies looking to highlight technologies that could be deployed.

Elbit Systems of America, a U.S.-based subsidiary of top Israeli defense company Elbit Systems, told The Hill it "stands ready" to expand its work at the border. Elbit has worked with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to build "integrated fixed towers" equipped with radars and cameras, along approximately 200 miles of the border in Arizona, and says it is prepared to deploy that equipment in other border states, including Texas and California. 

"We’re standing by with the ability to deploy more for border patrol to support their mission, pending the outcomes of some of the discussions that are happening right now by the lawmakers and others," Gordon Kesting, Elbit Systems of America's vice president, told The Hill. "We think we’re in a good position to leverage the good work that’s been done to date and do things quickly in response to what might be a sense of urgency around more border security." 

Alex Philp, the founder and chief technology officer of Montana-based company Adelos, Inc., told The Hill his company hopes to inform supportive lawmakers about its product: a fiber optic cable that could alert agents to movements along the border. 

Philp told The Hill that Adelos, which is competing for a contract with CBP, has been in communication with Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Border talks stall as another shutdown looms Mulvaney: Government shutdown on the table MORE (D-Mont.), who sits on the border talks committee.

Philp called the company's home state senator "a big supporter of what we’ve been doing." 

Executives who spoke to The Hill had high hopes for the talks.

Philp said he believes the panel's lawmakers are finally "energizing smart alternatives to physical barriers."

Despite the new momentum there are potential roadblocks ahead. Republicans and Democrats are still divided on the need for including new physical barriers on the border, a key demand of Trump. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who sits on the bicameral panel and represents a border district, has long sought funding for drones and aerostats, video surveillance systems, and underground detection equipment.  

"On average, barriers cost approximately $25 million per mile, whereas technology only costs a fraction of that – between $1 to 2 million per mile," Cuellar said at the panel's first meeting.

"Smart technology is a part of a comprehensive solution but it’s not the only solution in and of itself," Republican Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), a border panel conferee, added. "Cameras, sensors, drones and other smart technology highlight the gaps and vulnerabilities along our long border."

But Shelby added that "smart technology alone does not actually stop anyone from crossing into the U.S. illegally."

Previous efforts to fund a smart wall have faltered in Congress.

Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdImmigration groups press for pairing Dreamer benefits with border security Advocacy groups want border-for-Dreamers deal ahead of Feb. 15 deadline Bill Maher draws backlash for making Popeyes comment to black congressman MORE (R-Texas) in 2017 introduced the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act, or the SMART Act, which would have directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deploy border technology including radar, tunnel detection technology, drones, and sensors. But that measure stalled in committee.

Hurd's office did not respond to The Hill's on whether he will introduce the bill, which had nine co-sponsors, including two Democrats, again.

Outside of the political complications, the tech industry's push for a smart border is raising other concerns. Tech companies are already facing criticism from their workers and from privacy and civil rights groups over their sale of products to law enforcement, in particular surveillance or facial recognition products. 

Amazon in October faced enormous pushback after reports it met with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to pitch them on buying the tech giant's controversial facial recognition technology. Thousands of protesters last year also pushed Salesforce to end its contracts with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) over the administration's policy separating migrant families.

That criticism is likely to intensify if tech companies mobilize to help secure the border.

Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative council at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told The Hill that there are privacy and efficiency concerns about technologies that have been deployed at the border.  

Guliani predicted that residents of border cities would "have objections" to aerial surveillance.

She said that drones can "capture very sensitive details about peoples’ lives." 

"One [concern] is that we’re trading one civil liberties mess for another," Mana Azarmi, a policy counsel for Center for Democracy & Technology, told The Hill. "I don’t think people living near the border will want to bear the brunt of this surveillance." 

"In reality, this surveillance is going to fall disproportionately on people who live near the border," Azarmi added. 

Still, many tech executives say their products can provide a comprehensive solution border security. And with the activity on Capitol Hill, they believe the debate is turning in their favor.

"Environmental constraints, cost constraints, the law enforcement tools require something that’s hidden," said Philp.