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The EFF Is Tackling Border Towers, Facilitating Research into Impact of Mass Surveillance

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) released an interactive map to track the network of surveillance towers along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, as well as several and some less obvious locations, and which explains the contractors and technology in use at each tower.

Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”) has a “troubled history” with surveillance towers. The Secure Border Initiative tower program installed only a few dozen towers in Arizona in the mid-2000s before “bipartisan outcry over technical problems, cost, delays, and ineffectiveness resulted in it being shut down.”

In the 2010s, CBP deployed Integrated Fixed Towers (“IFT”) and Remote Video Surveillance System (“RVSS”) towers, but these were made by different contractors and could not interact with one another, despite the need to do so.

By 2017, the Government Accountability Office concluded that, “despite spending more than a billion dollars since 2005, CBP was not yet positioned to fully quantify the impact these technologies have on its mission.” In other words, even CBP doesn’t know if all that money did any good.

But this lack of knowledge hasn’t deterred CBP and its subdivision, the U.S. Border Patrol, from planning a massive expansion of its tower network. The plan, alternatively known as the Integrated Surveillance Tower or Consolidated Tower and Surveillance Equipment program, will upgrade “135 existing towers with new capabilities, technologies and sensors, while also installing 307 new towers along the southern border, while bringing RVSS and IFT systems under one program.”

The IFT towers are from vendor Elbit Systems of America, “part of an Israeli corporation that has come under criticism for its role in surveillance in Palestine.” These towers are exclusively in Arizona, with several on tribal lands owned by the Tohono O’odham nation.

The RVSS towers, including a “relocatable” version (“R-RVSS”), are made by vendor General Dynamics, and are installed throughout the Southwest, with R-RVSS models “installed throughout the Rio Grande valley in South Texas.”

The newest towers, Autonomous Surveillance Towers, are made by Anduril Industries, formed by former employees from Peter Thiel’s company Palantir, including Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus VR headset. CBP was looking to spend $250 million dollars on 200 of these towers by the end of 2022 and another $204 million for 175 towers to be installed by the end of 2025.

Upgraded towers are, according to marketing materials, able to spot a person up to 7.5 miles away and classify objects up to 3.5 miles away.

This becomes worrisome as the Supreme Court has essentially allowed the CBP to spy on Americans with impunity under the pretense of securing the border, and “a large number of the existing and planned towers are positioned within densely populated urban areas.”

Journalists and researchers like Sam Chambers, a researcher from the University of Arizona, are collecting information about these towers to independently assess whether they accomplish the CBP’s “stated goals, such as intercepting drug smuggling and human trafficking,” or are merely another convenient and expensive method of spying on Americans.

“The data provided by EFF are an invaluable resource for researchers like myself,” Chambers said. “It allows us to document the actual impacts of a ‘virtual wall’ on undocumented border crossers – by comparison of the locations and capabilities with records of known border crosser mortality. It also makes it possible to more precisely estimate the increased physiological toll resulting from specific surveillance technologies. I expect to use this resource to expand on my past work and bring light to the harm brought upon by what would otherwise be called a ‘smart’ and ‘humane’ alternative.”  

 

Sources: eff.org, techdirt.com

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