Palmer Luckey, the virtual reality pioneer, left Facebook in 2017, six months after it was discovered that he had secretly funded a pro-Trump campaign group dedicated to influencing the US election through “shitposting” and “meme magic”.
The 25-year-old Oculus founder now has a new venture, Anduril Industries, this time supporting Trump’s immigration policies directly through the creation of a surveillance system designed to detect unauthorised crossings of the Mexican border.
Anduril Industries is one of a growing number of companies playing on the fear of “bad hombres” to cash in on government contracts for hi-tech virtual alternatives to physical wall. From drones and sensors to AI-powered facial recognition and human presence detection, these surveillance systems promise cheaper border control but at what cost to civil liberties?
“These systems are reflective of advances in sensor and analytics technologies that are going to have serious repercussions for Americans’ privacy,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU. “The combination could turn us into a surveillance society where our every move is tracked.”
According to an in-depth report by Wired, Anduril’s eventual plan is to offer the military some kind of “Call of Duty goggles” that tell you “where the good guys are, where the bad guys are”.
However, with no background as a defence contractor, the startup needed a “quick win”; providing AI-powered surveillance technology to the border patrol was a way to get a foot in the door of government procurement.
The company, which is backed by Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm Founders Fund, has developed towers that feature a laser-enhanced camera, radar and a communications system. These scan a two-mile radius around them to detect motion. The images are analysed using artificial intelligence to pick out humans from wildlife and other moving objects. During a 10-week test in Texas, the technology – called Lattice – helped agents from US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) catch 55 unauthorised border crossers and seize 445kg of marijuana.
Anduril isn’t the only company touting a virtual border wall. The Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems designed and built dozens of towers in Arizona to spot people as far as 7.5 miles away. The company won the contract off the back of its previous work building a “smart fence” – using sensors, cameras and drones – separating Jerusalem from the West Bank.
At the US-Mexico border, Anduril and Elbit Systems have learned from the mistakes made by the failed billion-dollar SBInet, a 53-mile-long virtual wall built by Boeing from 2006 but abandoned in 2011 for being too expensive and ineffective.
“While it has generated some advances in technology that have improved border patrol agents’ ability to detect, identify, deter and respond to threats along the border, SBInet does not and cannot provide a single technological solution to border security,” said the Department of Homeland security’s assessment of SBInet.
For Stanley, the episode highlights the problems with thinking technology can eliminate illegal immigration.
“There is a tendency to look at everything as data and think that if we can just track the blips we can close our borders,” he said. “That was proven to be highly naive with SBInet.
“Our borders are thousands of miles long and the world is very messy and complicated. People will be trying to actively subvert these systems so there are no simple solutions,” he added.
The relative cost effectiveness of the surveillance technology made by Anduril and Elbit – thanks to advancements in sensor tech and AI – combined with the fact that CPB considers the border to be a 100-mile-wide zone, will probably mean even more privacy intrusions for border communities.
“It’s one thing having sensors on the actual border, but when it starts creeping into American communities there is no justification,” Stanley said. “These systems should never be storing information on the comings and goings of residents of American communities when there is no reason to be suspicious.”
In addition to “virtual walls”, the US government is deploying a facial recognition system to record images of people inside vehicles entering and leaving the country. Secretive tests of the system carried out in Arizona and Texas saw authorities collect a “massive amount of data” including images captured “as people were leaving work, picking up children from school, and carrying out other daily routines”, according to government records.
The images captured by the Vehicle Face System will be compared with those stored in government databases, including passports, visas and other border patrol documents in order to identify unauthorised individuals.
“This is an example of the growing trend of authoritarian use of technology to track and stalk immigrant communities,” Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told the Guardian last week.
One factor that might limit the mission creep of surveillance technology is the scarcity of artificial intelligence and analytics experts.
“Companies are finding they have to pay attention to the ethical concerns of their employees or risk having trouble recruiting,” Stanley said, noting the recent exodus of staff at Google over its work with the US military on drone surveillance.
“Although you can’t rely on ethics to restrain capitalism,” he said.