'Smart wall' sparks privacy fears on border

Lawmakers in border districts are raising privacy concerns over building a "smart wall" on the southern border, warning that new surveillance technologies could violate the rights of both U.S. residents and migrants.

Democrats and some Republicans have touted using technology to secure the border as an alternative to President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE's proposed physical wall. But border lawmakers are raising red flags about the consequences of deploying new technologies such as drones, motion sensors, biometric or DNA checks, and facial recognition technology without adequate protections for civil liberties.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Technology for technology’s sake as an alternative to the wall ... [has] got other consequences that are equally as invasive on peoples’ rights," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who represents a district on the border, told The Hill.

Grijalva and others are calling for privacy controls in any deal to build a smart wall.

"I think that has to be walked very, very carefully," he said. "And I think there have to be safeguards on there." 

Those concerns were amplified Tuesday when a coalition of 28 civil liberties and immigration groups led by Fight for Freedom wrote to congressional leaders, urging them to reject any funding for what they called "invasive" technologies on the border.

"We're focused on calling on congressional negotiators to refuse to supply additional funding [for border technology]," Evan Greer, the deputy director of advocacy group Fight for the Future, told The Hill. "Border funding is already at an all-time high – there's no reason we should be handing a blank check to the [Department of Homeland Security] to spend on technologies that pose a serious threat to peoples’ basic rights." 

ADVERTISEMENT

Border lawmakers and the coalition feel a sense of urgency as a bipartisan panel of House and Senate lawmakers are reportedly closing in on a deal on border security. Lawmakers from both parties in the talks have floated funding for a smart wall. Trump has also voiced support for "smart walls designed to meet the needs of frontline border agents."

Democrats' initial proposal in the border deal talks, put forward last week, called for technologies that could assess the "risk" posed by individuals entering the U.S., as well as tech to monitor movements by people near the border. 

The privacy coalition released a list of concerns associated with different technologies. They warned that "risk-based targeting" can lead to racial discrimination, surveillance drones could infringe on the rights of those living in border cities as well as those crossing, facial recognition technology could be used to marginalize people of color, while biometric data could be stolen.

The push for a smart wall is frustrating for border lawmakers who say that civil liberties on the border already get little attention.

Rep. Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings Lawmakers, social media users praise photo of Pelosi confronting Trump Hispanic voters push campaigns to address gun violence MORE (D), who represents a Texas border district, told The Hill that invasive technologies only compound existing concerns on the border.

"I feel very, very strongly that already ... many fundamental rights are evaporated once you step foot over a certain line near the U.S.-Mexico border," Escobar said. "That’s always been very troubling to me."

Advocates say the public often doesn't understand the scope of the problem. Border Patrol's authority extends well beyond the actual border, 100 miles into the U.S., and the border area includes many sizable cities such as El Paso and Laredo in Texas. They paint a troubling picture of surveillance and security technology sweeping up information on border residents.

Advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have long raised such concerns.

The ACLU's policy analyst Neema Singh Guliani and senior legislative counsel Michelle Fraling over the weekend co-authored a post titled "Congress, Don’t Give DHS Unrestricted Authority to Build a 'Smart Wall.' "

"Warrantless use of these technologies comes at an unacceptably high cost," they wrote in the post. "They allow the government to track, surveil, and monitor individuals indiscriminately and with precise detail."

"Individuals in the border zone should not be subject to near-constant surveillance that intrudes on the most intimate aspects of their lives," they added.

But those concerns appear to be making little headway with many lawmakers, who are eager to reach a deal on border security and avoid another shutdown.

Asked about the letter asking lawmakers to block funding for a smart wall, a House Appropriations Committee spokesman told The Hill that Democrats believe the a smart wall is preferable to "the President’s proposed border wall." 

"As part of comprehensive funding legislation that will strengthen border security and address the humanitarian crisis, House Democrats support investing in technology and personnel," committee communications director Evan Hollander, said. "Compared to the President’s proposed border wall, this is the smartest, most effective way to secure the border." 

Other members of the panel did not respond to The Hill's requests for comment.

Advocacy groups pushed back on calls for more border security funding.

"Border security funding is already at an all-time high," Fight for the Future said in a statement. "Democrats are caving to Trump's temper tantrum and calling to fund technologies that pose an even greater threat to civil liberties and human rights than a symbolic wall. There's nothing 'smart' about expanding surveillance." 

"Calling a wall 'smart' doesn't make it so," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a tweet.

The fight over border security and the calls for a smart wall have put border lawmakers in a difficult situation. Many have called for more technology to modernize security and to help communities by easing border crossings at legitimate ports of entry. But they say those improvements don't need to be at the expense of civil liberties.

Escobar noted that she supports technology at ports of entry that could intercept "drugs and contraband," but has been meeting with experts to better learn which technologies could pose privacy risks. 

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the only border lawmaker who sits on the 17-member panel negotiating a border deal, told The Hill in a statement that the border is one of the areas in the U.S. where people can expect a "heightened level of surveillance." 

"As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Homeland Security and a border resident, I will continue to include language and funding through the appropriations process to ensure DHS oversight and compliance," Cuellar said. 

"There is always a balance that must be achieved, but any border security technology is outward facing and not designed to monitor U.S. residents."

Civil liberties activists, though, say that any technology deployed by the federal government at the border typically makes its way to local law enforcement. 

"Surveillance technology at the border won’t stay at the border," Mana Azarmi, a policy counsel for Center for Democracy & Technology, told The Hill. "[Customs and Border Protection] has a track record of sharing this technology with other entities or using its technology in support of missions unrelated to the border patrol." 

Azarmi expressed worries that lawmakers are racing toward a smart wall with little regard for privacy.

"It seems like the powers that be are dead set on putting something together, a smart wall or otherwise," Azarmi said. 

Conferees tasked with reaching a border deal have indicated they expect an agreement within a few days. 

Greer told The Hill that the coalition intends to turn up pressure on tech companies that make products for law enforcement, including Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon. But she expressed hope that lawmakers would recognize the issues at stake.

"My hope is that this wouldn’t just play out as a partisan debate," Greer said.

She hoped lawmakers "recognize the need to act with caution and not expand surveillance programs that undermine peoples’ civil liberties and constitutional rights."