- Dozens of companies are partnering with US Customs and Border Protection to implement a new generation of surveillance technology along the US-Mexico border, according to federal procurement records.
- Those companies include longstanding defence contractors as well as newer Silicon Valley startups funded by the likes of Bill Gates and Andreessen Horowitz.
- While many of the companies already have contracts with US border patrol, they have also filed hundreds of applications to test out new, experimental surveillance technology along the border.
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The US government and private contractors aren’t just building a brick-and-mortar wall along the US-Mexico border – Silicon Valley-backed tech startups are also rolling out surveillance technology to build a “virtual fence” along the border.
The technologies, the companies have said, are designed to help border patrol agents spot and apprehend people entering the country illegally, as well as identify drug smuggling. Echodyne, a startup backed by Bill Gates, is a Border Patrol contractor and is testing a new generation of radar. Anduril, a startup founded by consumer virtual-reality pioneer and former Facebook executive Palmer Luckey, is testing a suite of surveillance services for CBP. Andreessen Horowitz-backed SkySafe markets surveillance drones and anti-drone technology – it doesn’t contract with CBP, but has other contracts with the Pentagon to monitor the border.
In addition to tech startups that have existing contracts with federal agencies, companies are privately testing out experimental radar and communication technology around the border. While existing federal contracts are made public, the experimental technology being tested is shrouded in secrecy. Their existence is only a matter of public record because powerful radio transmitters require an Federal Communications Commission licence to operate.
In the last year alone, dozens of companies including SkySafe and Echodyne filed more than 1,000 applications to experiment with radar and communication technology along the border, according to a public database of FCC licenses. While the licenses reflect the number of radar and communication devices being implemented near the border, the FCC licenses don’t provide details on the specific technology being implemented.
The flood of interest in border surveillance reflects companies’ efforts to capitalise on an increase in federal funds being spent on the border under the Trump administration. The Pentagon has already demonstrated a willingness to fund unprecedented border projects in recent years, including a high-altitude surveillance blimp.
A spokesperson for Echodyne told Business Insider that in addition to its CBP contracts, its radar technology is being tested by other companies at the border, some of whom have separate CBP contracts. The spokesperson declined to name its clients or clarify how the technology is being used. A CBP spokesperson did not immediately comment on the record.
A SkySafe spokesperson told Business Insider that its technology is broadly meant to help combat drug trade near the border, but said the company doesn’t comment on “specific deployments of our systems.”
The proliferation of surveillance technology at the border represents a renewed interest in building a “virtual fence.” The DHS spent over $US1 billion on a contract with Boeing for border surveillance technology, but scrapped the project in 2011 after determining it was ineffective.
The government renewed its interest in a “virtual fence” in 2014, however, when it embarked on a new program dubbed the Integrated Fixed Tower system designed to help border patrol agents keep tabs on people and devices crossing the border. CBP has touted the system in the years since its rollout.
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