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Warning More Surveillance Would Violate Civil Liberties at Border and Beyond, Rights Groups Say So-Called "Smart Wall" Is Dumb

"We should not have to choose between a physical wall—a monument to xenophobia—and a surveillance-based 'smart wall'—which poses a serious threat to civil liberties."

A surveillance tower at the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Mexico. (Photo: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr/cc)

Warning of serious rights violations at the southern U.S. border that could make way for similar infringements all over the country, more than two dozen civil liberties and immigrant rights advocates on Tuesday urged members of Congress to withhold all additional funding for expanded technological surveillance at the Mexico border.

Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation gathered signatures from groups including the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), and RAICES for an open letter to the U.S. House, urging no new funding for the so-called "smart wall" or "technological wall" the Democratic Party has proposed.

"We call on Congress to conduct robust oversight of government surveillance technologies already deployed at the border," wrote the groups. "While that oversight is ongoing, we should not expand these technologies with new funding."

Days after the U.S. government reopened late last month following the longest government shutdown in U.S. history over House Democrats' refusal to give President Donald Trump $5.7 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, the party proposed funding a technological wall as a so-called compromise—provoking outrage from rights groups.

The funding package would include money for more Border Patrol agents, surveillance drones, and other "new cutting edge technology" at the border. Critics have expressed deep concerns that such advances could include algorithmic risk-assessment, facial recognition, and biometric technology including license plate readers and the collection of DNA.

"Congress should be reviewing and limiting existing border surveillance programs, not providing additional funding for dangerous technologies that infringe on our basic rights." —Evan Greer, Fight for the FutureIn their letter to House Democrats, the groups shared their concern that the use of such technologies at the border would place "disproportionate burdens on communities of color and could stifle Americans' willingness to exercise their first amendment rights in public."

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"Risk-based targeting" of passengers and cargo which enter the U.S. is also part of the proposal—a term the groups warned is simply code for expanded racial profiling at the border.

"All too often, these systems replicate the biases of their programmers, burden vulnerable communities, lack democratic transparency, and encourage the collection and analysis of ever-increasing amounts of data in order to generate risk assessments," the letter read.

In a statement, Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer cautioned that enhanced surveillance at the border would have a domino effect on privacy violations all over the U.S., with authorities particularly targeting vulnerable communities.

"Technologies that are deployed at the border to target travelers, journalists, and immigrant families inevitably end up in our major cities targeting low income communities, religious minorities, and political activists," said Greer. "Congress should be reviewing and limiting existing border surveillance programs, not providing additional funding for dangerous technologies that infringe on our basic rights."

Erika Andiola, advocacy chief for RAICES noted that the U.S. government, especially the Trump administration, has proven that it can't be trusted to deploy funding for a so-called "smart wall" in a way that won't violate human rights—as such violations have characterized Trump's immigration policies and many of the actions of his predecessors as well.

"The government separated thousands of children for purely political reasons, we cannot trust them to deploy ubiquitous surveillance technology that pose a serious threat to immigrant and civil rights," Andiola said.

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