What is a “smart border wall” and would it help?

The government already deploys drones, facial recognition, and sensors. How much smarter can we get?

By Benjamin O. Powers

As the debate over a border wall surges back and forth, with the most recent development being Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to allocate the billions of dollars in funding he wants, other lawmakers have proposed the alternative of a “smart border wall”.

Proponents want to bring further surveillance technologies to bear on the border, rather than thousands of miles of a physical border wall. But what technologies would it entail, who would it benefit, and what are the risks?

Democrats have proposed, essentially, an extension of the already existing technologies on the border such as remote sensors, integrated fixed-towers, drones and a variety of other tech.

According to James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the house, the idea of a smart border wall has its merits.

“I applaud the president’s reopening of the federal government and appreciate his recognition of the need for a “smart wall,” which I have defined as one that uses drones, scanners, and sensors to create a technological barrier too high to climb over, too wide to go around, and too deep to burrow under,” he recently wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.

But there are complications that go with this, according to experts focusing on surveillance and privacy.

Dan Gettinger, co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, believes that a smart wall would likely entail an expansion of existing drone deployment programs. The Custom and Border Patrol has a variety of light aircraft and light drones, as well as military drones. Drone flights along the border have been ramping up over the last few years, according to Gettinger, and are likely to ramp up further if funds are allocated toward a smart border wall.

“There’s a push now to equip more Border Patrol agents with smaller drones,” said Gettinger.  “There were a couple tenders through a procurement program last year to buy a whole bunch of smaller drones.”

As Gettinger notes, there are already a wide variety of drones being used by Customer and Border Patrol, including military-grade Reaper drones. But that’s far from the only tech being trialed there as well. In 2018 the government deployed an extensive facial recognition system that was targeted at people inside vehicles who were entering and leaving the country through ports of entry. License plate readers are already up and running.  The Automated Targeting System (ATS) was originally for tracking cargo but was then applied to people, according to the ACLU.

The program “is a security and tracking program for cargo that DHS has extended to travelers by assigning all who cross the nation’s borders with a computer-generated “risk assessment” score that will be retained for 40 years – and which is secret and unreviewable,” wrote the organization.

There’s no guarantee that more tech would have an outsized impact. The SBInet system installed in 2006 was a billion dollar project of what was supposed to be a high-tech network of ground sensors connected to towers that were mounted with both infrared and high-resolution cameras as well as a motion-detecting ground radar system. A test deployment was conducted outside of Tucson, Arizona, with the goal of providing Customs and Border Patrol “complete situational awareness” by integrating these surveillance techniques. Alas, a 2010 Government Accountability Office report concluded that the Department of Homeland Security has not achieved any of the benefits it expected from the program, which was subsequently shut down in 2011.

Even so, there are similar iterations of this idea that have been built and are once again being trialed.

Elbit Systems, an Israeli defense contractor, has already built dozens of towers in Arizona that include technology such as sensors and cameras, to identify people up to 7.5 miles away. The company was awarded the contract based on its previous work building a “smart fence” between Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Another company, Andural Industries, is interested in fulfilling a DoD request for “for what some people describe as Call of Duty goggles,” according to Wired. “Like, you put on the glasses, and the headset display tells you where the good guys are, where the bad guys are, where your air support is, where you’re going, where you were,” the founder of the company, Palmer Luckey, told Wired in an interview.

An expansion of the existing capacities, as well as development of technologies like those “Call of Duty goggles” and more are likely what’s in store should lawmakers run with the idea of the “smart border wall.”

All of these technologies also have implications far beyond the border though, according to, Sharon Bradford Franklin, the Director of Surveillance & Cybersecurity Policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute. New America and 27 other organizations signed a letter in early February taking issue with the smart wall proposal and addressed to Democratic Congressional leadership.

The letter specifically raised concerns around risk-based targeting, mass surveillance, biometrics, license plate readers, and DNA data, all of which are to some extent active at the border, and which Democrats want to update the technology for and as well as expand, according to their most recent proposal.

“The Border Patrol has deployed these systems, not just with the border, but at checkpoints, they define the border zone as coming up a hundred miles in, which is a lot of space, including a lot of people, and what kind of surveillance are we going to be putting all those folks under,” asked Franklin.  “How are we handling those databases, if they are, you know, expanding them and what will be in place there.”

There seems to be little appetite for grappling with the civil liberties implications for those that live near the border and enthusiasm to include tech for tech’s sake, it’s worth considering whether the smart border wall would be any more effective or humane than a regular one.


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