Trump administration awards tech start-up contract to build ‘virtual’ border wall

The Trump administration has reportedly awarded a contract to a California-based tech startup to set up hundreds of “autonomous surveillance towers” along the U.S.-Mexico border to aid its immigration enforcement efforts. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced on Thursday that the towers, which use artificial intelligence and imagery to identify people and vehicles, were now a “program of record” for the agency and that 200 would be deployed along the southern border by 2022.

CBP did not mention the contract in its announcement, though the Washington Post reported that the effort includes a five-year agreement with Anduril Industries, a tech startup backed by investors such as Peter Thiel. Anduril executives told the Post that the deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The company, which specializes in AI and other technologies, is valued at $1.9 billion, according to Bloomberg News

“Anduril is proud to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection as it expands its use of innovative technology solutions to greatly improve situational awareness and agent safety along the U.S. border,” Anduril CEO Brian Schimpf said in a statement to The Hill.

The company did comment on the terms of its contract with CBP. 

The deal comes as the Trump administration continues its push to toughen immigration enforcement in the U.S., though efforts to use enhancements in technology to assist border enforcement has gained support across party lines. 

In 2019, as Trump aggressively pushed for the building of a wall along the border, many Democratic lawmakers called for the building of “virtual” or “smart” walls that utilized new technologies to strengthen security. 

Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott said in a statement Thursday that surveillance towers give agents in the field “a significant leg up against the criminal networks that facilitate illegal cross-border activity.”

“The more our agents know about what they encounter in the field, the more safely and effectively they can respond,” Scott said. 

CBP said that the towers use renewable energy and are well-suited for remote and rural locations. The technology is said to scan environments with radar to detect movement. Among other things, the system can alert Border Patrol agents of location information when it detects movement from vehicles or people. Anduril claims that it distinguishes between animals and humans 97 percent of the time, the Post noted. 

The system is reportedly best suited for remote areas with few people and does not use facial recognition technology. 

Matthew Steckman, Anduril’s chief revenue officer, told the Post that the company is prepared to continue working on this type of technology in concert with U.S. border officials regardless of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. 

“No matter where we go as a country, we’re going to need to have situational awareness on the border,” Steckman said. “No matter if talking to a Democrat or a Republican, they agree that this type of system is needed.”

While the use of a “virtual” wall has gained support from Republicans and Democrats, some have raised issues with the plans.

“The last thing we need is more money funneled to a ‘virtual wall’ by an agency that has a history of wasting taxpayer money on technology that doesn’t work and violates our rights,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Senior Legislative Counsel Neema Singh Guliani said in a statement to The Hill.

“Far too often, we have seen this agency use the pretext of the border to extend an unacceptable invasive surveillance infrastructure at the border deep into the country, including during the most recent protests,” she added.

The ACLU has said that technologies should receive prior authorization from Congress before being deployed at the border. 

Trump last year declared a national emergency as part of an effort to allocate funding to build a wall along the southern border, which had been a signature promise of his 2016 campaign. Democratic lawmakers have uniformly denounced the effort, calling it an unnecessary use of government funds. 
The wall is expected to be one of the country’s most costly infrastructure projects. About $15 billion has been secured for wall-related project so far.  
Updated 3:32 p.m.

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