Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

If you’ve been waiting for the right time to support our work—that time is now.

Our mission is simple: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good.

But without the support of our readers, this model does not work and we simply won’t survive. It’s that simple.
We must meet our Mid-Year Campaign goal but we need you now.

Please, support independent journalism today.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

President Trump touches a drone during a tour of U.S. Customs and Border Protection equipment at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona in 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump touches a drone during a tour of U.S. Customs and Border Protection equipment at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona in 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

More Border Surveillance Tech Could Be Worse for Human Rights Than a Wall

By pushing for expanded surveillance as an “alternative” to a literal barrier, Democrats have caved to the president’s worst impulses

Evan Greer

 by The Washington Post

President Trump wants a border wall — a symbolic monument to xenophobia and hate. But Democrats’ counterproposal could be even more dangerous for human rights.

Rather than challenge Trump’s baseless insistence that there is a crisis or push back on the notion that immigrants are criminals who should be targeted, opponents have focused on how Trump’s plan is “medieval” or outdated. Top Democrats have repeatedly advocated for a “smart wall” or “technological wall” as an alternative to a physical barrier at the southern border. The House majority whip, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), made a case for a “technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under.”

These are more than just TV talking points. During the most recent round of negotiations to avert another government shutdown, Democratic lawmakers came in not just with a conciliatory offer of more than $1.3 billion for fencing, but also proposals to fund a swath of invasive surveillance technologies. Expanding these programs will simply shift migration routes to more remote terrain, leading to more unnecessary suffering, dehydration and death at the border. They also pose a grave threat to millions of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties across the nation.

Lawmakers are not just proposing more cameras at ports of entry—they are pushing for the federal government to spend enormous amounts of money on technologies that can be used to trample human rights at an unprecedented scale.

As of Monday night, negotiators say they have reached an “agreement in principle” on border security funding. Details are scarce because the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors. But as their previous proposals have made clear, Democratic appropriators appear ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on “new cutting edge technology along the border to improve situational awareness.” If this sounds a bit dystopian, that is because it is. Lawmakers are not just proposing more cameras at ports of entry — they are pushing for the federal government to spend enormous amounts of money on technologies that can be used to trample human rights at an unprecedented scale.

Entering talks, Democrats supported more funding for the Border Patrol’s “air and marine operations” — which technology experts say is probably code for expanding U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s fleet of drones. The CBP already has the largest such fleet outside of the Defense Department and frequently “shares” its aircraft with law enforcement.

Under current policies, video feeds and other data from those flights can be stored indefinitely in massive databases and shared with hundreds of government agencies and local police. We should be cautious about expanding these drone capabilities because technology originally deployed at the border or in war zones does not tend to stay there. Too often, it later gets used against marginalized populations or political dissidents: An aerial surveillance system explicitly designed for military use in Iraq was later used to watch the residents of Baltimore, for example, and police in the San Francisco Bay area were caught using drones to spy on peaceful protesters in 2017.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are already capable of vacuuming up images of millions of license plates and scanning the faces of people who live and work near the U.S. border. Having more of them could enable the government to conduct constant and ubiquitous video and photographic surveillance across large areas.

Democrats have also called for “an expansion of risk-based targeting,” which means increasing the use of artificial intelligence software to determine which travelers should be detained and subjected to invasive screening, interrogation or incarceration. Numerous civil rights groups have spoken out about the dangers of using this type of technology in law enforcement: Artificial intelligence programs — created by humans, with human biases — frequently exhibit racial bias and can exacerbate existing forms of systemic discrimination.

More funding could eventually lead to a border security system akin to the criminal justice system’s “risk assessment tools,” which help determine bail and sentencing: An algorithm could decide, in some cases, whether someone goes free or dies in ICE custody, is granted asylum or deported.

The Democrats’ “opening offer” also provided for more intrusive searches and scans of travelers. They have suggested reinstating funding for VIPR, a controversial “counter terrorism” program with authority to conduct warrantless searches of travelers, with no proven benefit to security. Their proposal also includes $250 million for DHS’s Office of Biometric Identity Management, which is tasked with conducting facial recognition and biometrics collection of travelers entering and exiting the country. Beginning in 2004 by scanning foreign citizens, the program has gone on to collect — and retain — this sensitive information from U.S. citizens; now, Democrats are encouraging this creep.

Lacking meaningful oversight, there is essentially no limit to the ways the government could abuse this kind of data, which includes personal details like family history and health information. Spending more money on these existing surveillance programs will only increase their scope and their capacity for harm.

It seems only defense contractors and big tech companies stand to profit from government contracts by helping to build a “smart wall.” From start-ups to Silicon Valley giants, tech companies are looking to government contracts as a source of revenue and influence. These corporations aggressively market their surveillance tech to the government, regardless of whether it works.

It is appalling that lawmakers are willing to accept the human cost of supporting these policies. Our government’s mass surveillance apparatus already has a documented chilling effect on free expression and civil rights. A majority of Americans from across the political spectrum, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, have voiced concerns about existing government spying programs. Our elected officials in Congress should be scrutinizing and dismantling them, not promoting their growth and entrenchment.

Democratic concessions expose how broken this debate has become. Funding for border enforcement is already at an all-time high. We should not have to choose between an unnecessary physical wall and unaccountable government snooping. By pushing for expanded surveillance as an “alternative” to a literal barrier, Democrats have caved to the president’s worst impulses. The more money the government pumps into this sector, the more people will accept the incorrect idea that surveillance keeps us safe, and this technology will become more enmeshed with our daily lives.

© 2021 Washington Post
Evan Greer

Evan Greer

Evan Greer is the campaign director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit known for organizing massive online protests to defend free expression on the Internet. She's a transgender parent, organizes a monthly queer dance party and travels internationally as a political musician, speaker, and workshop facilitator. Follow her on Twitter: @evan_greer


"I'm sure this will be all over the corporate media, right?"
That’s what one longtime Common Dreams reader said yesterday after the newsroom reported on new research showing how corporate price gouging surged to a nearly 70-year high in 2021. While major broadcasters, newspapers, and other outlets continue to carry water for their corporate advertisers when they report on issues like inflation, economic inequality, and the climate emergency, our independence empowers us to provide you stories and perspectives that powerful interests don’t want you to have. But this independence is only possible because of support from readers like you. You make the difference. If our support dries up, so will we. Our crucial Mid-Year Campaign is now underway and we are in emergency mode to make sure we raise the necessary funds so that every day we can bring you the stories that corporate, for-profit outlets ignore and neglect. Please, if you can, support Common Dreams today.


Motorist 'Tried to Murder' Abortion Rights Advocates at Iowa Protest, Witnesses Say

Although one witness said the driver went "out of his way" to hit pro-choice protestors in the street, Cedar Rapids police declined to make an arrest.

Kenny Stancil ·

'A Hate Crime': Oslo Pride Parade Canceled After Deadly Shooting at Gay Bar

A 42-year-old gunman has been charged with terrorism following what Norway's prime minister called a "terrible and deeply shocking attack on innocent people."

Kenny Stancil ·

'We WILL Fight Back': Outrage, Resolve as Protests Erupt Against SCOTUS Abortion Ruling

Demonstrators took to the streets Friday to defiantly denounce the Supreme Court's right-wing supermajority after it rescinded a constitutional right for the first time in U.S. history.

Brett Wilkins ·

80+ US Prosecutors Vow Not to Be Part of Criminalizing Abortion Care

"Criminalizing and prosecuting individuals who seek or provide abortion care makes a mockery of justice," says a joint statement signed by 84 elected attorneys. "Prosecutors should not be part of that."

Kenny Stancil ·

Progressives Rebuke Dem Leadership as Clyburn Dismisses Death of Roe as 'Anticlimactic'

"The gap between the Democratic leadership, and younger progressives on the question of 'How Bad Is It?' is just enormous."

Julia Conley ·

Common Dreams Logo