With threats of terrorism on the rise in our increasingly globalized world, border agencies must consistently address new challenges. Greater ease of international trade also creates gaps in security, through which unsanctioned activity can take place. Human trafficking and illicit transcontinental industries are serious issues today and governments around the world are striving to meet the new demands as they evolve.
As global threats become more sophisticated, so too do the means to combat these problems. Border agencies are increasingly embracing new technologies that rely on the latest cutting-edge developments from the tech world. Everything from advanced biometrics at airports to unexpected applications of the Internet of Things can be utilized to protect borders- and also to present new types of risks.
In this article, we will take a look at the growing reliance on smart technology in securing global borders and points of entry. We will examine some of the specific technological innovations and how they can aid border agencies’ pursuits. And finally, we will explore obstacles and potential humanitarian issues presented by these new technologies in the realm of border security.
Smart tech innovations for border security
The “wall” of today no longer simply resembles a brick and mortar structure that presents a difficulty. Today’s immigration controls are determined by a number of complicated, interconnected factors, including health status, mode of transport, and a tangle of bureaucratic processes, which can change depending on which political party is in power at any given time.
The smart border security systems of today rely on an interwoven mixture of various systems, including drones, mobile apps, AI, and IoT sensors, among others. Touted as cost-effective strategies for increasing the efficiency of border control checkpoints and expanding border patrol security capabilities.
While some of these issues (such as health status) have long affected immigration policies (think of the rudimentary health checks and quarantine hospitals for incoming immigrants at Ellis Island in the 19th century), today’s digital world necessitates digital tools to meet the influx of goods of people.
Increasingly common in transnational border areas, drones allow border agents to monitor areas that are difficult to access. Drones can provide increased visibility, capture geospatial locations and information, analyze data, and even scramble data or interfere with remote signaling. Drones can be programmed to automatically clear vehicles that comply with certain parameters, thus streamlining the process for transportation checkpoints at borders.
Smart video monitoring
Smart security cameras can provide advanced-level monitoring for border security agents. Equipped with sophisticated analytical capabilities, smart video cameras can detect suspicious behaviors or people based on a set of predetermined criteria. X-ray and thermal imaging can determine the presence of potentially suspicious cargo or passengers at the border crossing and automatically alert border security agents to these signs of danger and illegal activity.
Equipped with Artificial Intelligence, smart movement sensors can automatically detect the presence of people moving across physical borders, even underground. These sensors can collect precise geospatial data to provide border security agents with specific location information. These movement sensors can be used to help detect and prevent human trafficking, drug smuggling, and other illegal activities. Internet of Things sensors can share detailed cartographic maps to point agents to the specific site of crossing, allowing them to take swift action.
Automated kiosks fitted with facial recognition technology, automatic passport scanners, and iris identification can make checkpoint crossing over land, sea, and air much more efficient. Through a combination of biometric scanners, smart cameras, X-rays, thermal imaging, automated license plate readers, and gamma rays, smart kiosks can reduce the need for personnel while increasing the capacity for daily legal border crossings. Health status, national IDs, and current immigration status can all be automatically detected, along with any potential red flags that would alert the border patrol authorities.
Digital health passports
Utilizing AI-powered data analysis, digital health passports rely on blockchain technology to store sensitive personal health information, such as key medical records, including coronavirus vaccine records. With COVID-19 vaccination status increasingly determining people’s ability to legally enter a country, this technology can be used to increase efficiency at border control.
Some countries have already implemented policies in which mobile apps are automatically downloaded onto citizens’ personal devices. Tablets and smartphones can come equipped with apps that can record movements, health data (such as contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19), and travel details. These apps sync with Bluetooth to automatically detect potential problems and to allow passengers to smoothly move through security checkpoints upon arrival at a new port of entry.
Smart tech as government policy
With its promises of flexibility and increased surveillance capabilities at a fraction of the cost of erecting physical barriers, many politicians and citizens alike have embraced the concept of the smart border. A recent poll revealed that 62% of US citizens would be willing to share their biometric data in order to contribute to border security efforts, while 73% believe biometrics will increase border security.
For politicians the appeal is clear. “In this 21st century, we have challenges, and I think we can use 21st-century solutions,” stated US congressman Henry Cuellar in an interview, “Even if you put in a fence, ‘bad guys’ can use drones to carry drugs over that fence. So we have to be more flexible, more agile.”
Border agency leaders across the globe share Cuellar’s approach. Another survey has revealed that border agency leaders in Finland, Australia, Germany, France, Japan, Norway, Singapore, the US, and the UK have all declared support for the implementation of new technologies in patrolling and controlling borders.
Budgets for immigration and border policing have jumped over the last several decades. In 1990, the United States budget for border policing and immigration control was $1.2 billion. Now, in 2022, the budget has soared to a whopping $52.2 billion for the Department of Homeland Security. This budget includes provisions for shoring up national cybersecurity and protecting privacy rights, as well as implementing new smart tech innovations at the borders.
This budget rivals the entire military spending of some of the global economy’s leading players. And the leading United States border patrol agencies- CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) have nearly 100 offices actively operating within and outside of the continental United States territory.
Obstacles and new directions
While these new smart tech innovations can aid in efficiency and expand the capabilities of various border security apparatuses, they also reveal some of the deeper issues intrinsic to the field of border policing. Who will be most negatively affected by these new developments, and how, are both questions that have raised an outcry from groups promoting humanitarian causes? And on the flip side, who will benefit, and at what cost, are also issues that need to be addressed.
In general, the huge expansion of spending and efforts towards border security can be viewed as an attempt to focus on defending territory, instead of addressing the underlying causes that are driving more people to get involved in illegal activities or risky illegal border crossings.
The development of increasingly sophisticated security technology benefits a number of elite private corporations, including IBM, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and others. These companies are contracted for billions of dollars to develop ever more secure technologies and make significant profits in the meantime.
Tech companies, surveillance startups, and defense tech developers all profit from the opportunity to continue crafting new and more advanced tools for defense- which can come at the cost of actually solving the problems causing the issues in the first place. Since they profit, tech companies may have a vested interest in continuing down the same path without questioning the ethical implications.
Since Artificial Intelligence machine learning programs run based on data that humans program, there is a high likelihood that human biases will work their way into these systems. While AI analysis can provide an added layer of objectivity, there will still likely be implicit biases that can actively harm real people when applied to border security.
Racist assumptions, programmed into data sets even unknowingly, can be deeply damaging, potentially leading to violent mistakes and furthering a culture of uncertainty and anxiety.
Human rights concerns
Virtual additions to border security raise questions and issues surrounding human rights. Already, the border patrols are often responsible for inflicting violence and harm on detainees. The US Border Patrol is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year, often during vehicle pursuits. These violent encounters are not thoroughly investigated, as the security agency is able to protect its own interests, sometimes at the behest of justice.
When the means to cross the border are made more difficult, by more sophisticated technology, it does not mean that people will stop crossing those borders. On the contrary, studies have shown that it simply makes illegal border crossings more dangerous, and often deadly, for immigrants desperate to make the journey. Rates of death among illegal immigrants have risen tremendously over the past two decades, as technologically sophisticated border crossings have led migrants to seek out increasingly treacherous routes.
Families are separated at the border, leaving children stranded and parents unable to find their children.
Advocates of digital privacy and civil liberties in the United States have raised major concerns over the amount and type of sensitive data that smart border security gadgets collect. Facial recognition, iris recognition, other biometrics, and drones all potentially impinge upon the right to privacy of citizens and immigrants alike. Civil liberties groups declare that this state of perpetual surveillance at the borders denies the right to privacy due to all people.
Major tech companies, whose innovations power these smart border controls, are already coming under criticism for contracting with ICE and CBP. These deals involve major players, including Amazon and Salesforce. After reports revealed that Amazon had met with representatives of ICE to tout its highly contested facial recognition software, there was major blowback from human rights groups.
Tech companies are already accused of peddling sensitive personal data to law enforcement branches, which strip citizens of their rights. Social movements and protest marches are surveilled from above by drones, which many believe threatens the US citizen’s right to free speech and peaceful protest. This issue will only be amplified by broader smart surveillance at the borders.
Smart tech for a new approach
Ongoing issues such as climate change, political violence, and economic inequality contribute directly to the movement of people across borders. Rather than spending only on defense, governments will need to find ways to use smart technology to enhance protections and aid for people in need, as these situations are only going to increase as time goes on.
Instead of using smart tech solutions only to shore up pre-existing border controls, tech companies and government agencies can work together to help create more sustainable, equitable, systems that allow people to flourish wherever they are based, instead of needing to travel to find the safety and resources that they so desperately need, and which are unavailable in their home countries.
In the meantime, smart technology innovations continue to aid in the effective and efficient control of incoming and outgoing people and goods.