The Weird, Weird World of Building the “Virtual Wall”

Photo: JR Peers/NPR

Restricting children and their families from crossing the border is not new for the United States. America has had a continuous destructive history with immigration that has existed since its founding, a constant pursuit of realistic border control. As we see photos of Haitian Immigrants being terrorized by border patrol agents or families living in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tents in squalor it is not surprising that a country ingrained with such ideologies is seeking new developments to bring border patrol to the next level. A level whose foundation is Artificial Intelligence and technology.

“Virtual Border Wall” or “Smart Wall”, these phrases have bounced around different presidential administrations since the beginning the 90’s, but, what exactly do they mean?

“Every president since Bill Clinton has chased this technological dream”

J. Weston Phippen, Politico

The past couple of years have significantly increased the attention to building a “bigger”, “better”, more reliable, not necessarily physical wall, one that is lined with security cameras, technology, artificial intelligence, and drones in order to monitor refuge-seekers from entering. Older systems are not sufficient, cameras were equipped with night vision and thermal imaging but people would still sneak through. Even Donald Trump’s administration, whose cries for a “Yuge, beautiful wall” could be heard from space, signed an agreement with Anduril, a military technology company, to build a smart wall. In the beginning of Joe Biden’s Administration, Biden quietly released a section in the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 bill named the “Deploying Smart Technology at the Southern Border” to focus on adding smart technologies to the border between Mexico and the U.S. Following this, more than 130 Anduril Sentry Towers were deployed at the southwestern border of the U.S.

What is Anduril? Named for the sword of a fictional “Lord of the Rings” character, it is now used in reality as a monitoring system on human lives. I found an extensive amount on Anduril’s founder, Palmer Luckey. Luckey founded a company called Oculus (yes, THE Oculus) and sold it to facebook for $2 billion at 21 years old. He was later kicked out of Facebook in 2017. Many speculate it was because of the political controversy that surrounded him: he was found to have donated $10,000 dollars to a far-right smear campaign against Hillary Clinton. During that time, he was accused of stealing code for his Virtual Reality System. Although he was exonerated for theft, he was charged for violating his non-disclosure agreement and was ordered to pay $50 million to the company. In 2018, Luckey founded Anduril.

Palmer Luckey, a founder of Anduril, among the equipment at his company’s testing range, New York Times
Photo: Philip Cheung/The New York Times

The “Sentry Towers” that Anduril created are up to 33 feet tall and are capable of seeing 1.5 miles. The 360 cameras equipped with facial recognition technologies in the towers detect the sighting of a human, and would alert nearby CBP agents if they found them, letting them know the exact GPS location. The towers flaunt persistent autonomous awareness. Following the proposal of the “SMART Act” , a bill proposed by two Texans congressmen to curb the price of building a wall and implement these smart technologies into the Border, Luckey was brought in as a consultant. Although the “SMART Act” was never passed, Luckey took Anduril to CBP’s INVNT (The innovation team of Customs and Border Patrol) and they were immediately impressed. Anduril got major aid in 2018 as well; Trump shut down the government to raise $5 billion dollars for his “big beautiful wall” but in the end the money was dedicated to building a smarter, technological wall: a great boost for Anduril. Later, Anduril was given seed money by Peter Thiel, a German billionaire who was a part of Trump’s transition team, and recently hosted a fund-raiser for a Trump backed, Liz Cheney challenger. Thiel’s disdain towards immigrants is extremely apparent; staffing his company with people who “savored the wit” of websites like VDARE (an anti-immigrant, white nationalist, alt-right group); Anduril nourishes this push for an anti-immigrant stance. Now, in the Biden administration, Anduril is thriving. According to Anduril’s website they are currently delivering “High-Tech Capacity” for Biden’s Border Security. Google Cloud was also reported to be working in tandem with Anduril on this Virtual Wall last October.

However, many migrants are adapting to Anduril’s technologies and camera system, and finding more dangerous routes to avoid them. As Matt Steckman, Anduril’s chief revenue officer stated in an interview, “you’ll see traffic sort of squirting to the east and west of the systems,” migrants are finding detours in order to get to the refuge they seek, modifying, even if it means almost certain death in such rough conditions. Many debate whether this is still a reasonable way to solve border control, even if it does not mean Anduril’s technologies are being utilized; this method is known as the: “prevention by deterrence”method. First introduced by the Clinton administration, there are several parallels to the current state of border control to the 1994 plan, the plan citing both to “increase the number of agents on the line” and “make effective use of technology” to raise “the risk of apprehension high enough to be an effective deterrent.” However, since this plan was put in place in 1994, immigrants have not been deterred, in fact, the southwest border encounters in 2021 were at their highest record.

Both sides of the aisle truly believe that a “Smart Wall” is an ethical, reliable way to control the border. Biden stated that he thinks a Virtual Wall is the “humane alternative to a physical wall” and could be used as a way to safely identify migrants who are dangerously crossing the border. However, migrants are re-navigating and journeying into paths that are more treacherous and deadly, there have been record deaths from refuge-seekers; disallowing the safe identification and relocation of migrants that Biden hopes for. Creating a balance between safety and humanity is difficult, but it is extensively more difficult when those in charge of creating these technologies are anti-immigrant and anti-refugee. Does that create a fair foundation for a “humane” border? It is evident that border control and technologies still needs to be discussed and re-evaluated, a conversation that needs to include diverse voices and diverse perspectives, which right now, it does not currently have enough of.

Attached are links to learn more about the Virtual Wall and programs like Encode Justice are constantly working with legislators to keep conversations about AI and Ethics at the forefront.