Expanded Border Technology Raises Human Rights Concerns 

Technology Policy Brief #90 | By:Steve Piazza | May 31, 2023
Photo taken from: immigrationimpact.com




The 4th Amendment, amongst other things, protects civilians against warrantless actions by the government. This means that authorities are not allowed to perform searches of private property nor seize belongings without probable cause and appropriate documentation.

However, the “border exception” provides federal personnel with the power to disregard the protections as long the search and seizure action is within a reasonable distance from all U.S. borders. Probable cause doesn’t even need to be factored in.

The size of the unprotected area is up for some debate, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 20 miles is considered “reasonable.” U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers have long interpreted this distance to be approximate, meaning they believe they’re authorized to enter and search vehicles in an even wider area up to 100 miles away from any port of entry, land or sea. 

Regardless where the line is legally drawn, CBP claims of severe understaffing, recently substantiated by a Memorandum from U.S. Inspector General, Joseph V. Cuffari, means the agency is forced to cover more ground with limited personnel. To help in their attempt to secure the borders, the CBP has turned to new and improved technologies, many of which are now under scrutiny because of privacy and security concerns.


As Title 42, the strict border policy enacted by the Trump Administration during the pandemic, was nearing its end on May 11 of this year, CBP Acting Commissioner Troy A. Miller assured the nation the illegal immigration situation at hand was under control. Miller stated that the agency has “surged resources, technology, and personnel to safely and orderly manage challenges along the southern border.” 

However  the “surge of technology” was accelerated by the passage of The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which calls for, in part, developing and implementing the use of technology systems and resources, including, “the physical and techno­logical assets that support such systems.”

From communications devices between government agents to the development of digital tracking platforms, the amount of intelligence being collected using the latest technology continues to grow considerably.  In fact, the CBP is even actively soliciting new partnerships with technology firms, according to its own CBP Business Connections page.

Since the 2002 law’s enactment, technology used in this effort seems to have grown from merely entering personal information by hand into databases to include biometric screening, such as the use of electronic finger identification and facial recognition. These are used not only at all borders, according to CBP claims, but at all airports, and 36 seaports as well.  

A chief concern of privacy advocates is new technology that is being used to access people’s phones, laptops, and even car systems. The government has been using technology from companies like Israel-based Cellebrite to break into handheld devices. This has been happening even before  2021, when an appellate court in Boston ruled that officers can search laptops and smartphones at airports and at the borders. 

But because of the expansive monitoring territory, the technology has moved on from face-to-face contact upon entry. Technology advancements have allowed the CBP to integrate a number of new innovations that include distance monitoring devices, license plate detectors, and drones.

Virtual Assistant Devices devices, like those developed by Amazon and Apple, have long been accused of listening in on homes. But within  these expanded border zones, many are concerned that there will be nothing to stop the government from doing the same thing if they had “reasonable suspicion.”

Something even more concerning to many comes in the form of video surveillance. One example is the movable surveillance towers manufactured by General Dynamics. The company secured a $177 million contract in 2013 for the construction of mobile platforms that can use video equipment capable of surveying up to 7 miles.

Concerns are growing for the rights of people living within the hundred-mile zone.  Recent Supreme Court decisions to reinforce “border exclusion” policy enables the use of technology to continue the practice of racial profiling and questioning people with only a reasonable suspicion anywhere in the 100-mile zone. 

It’s important to continue to evaluate the implications of devices being used at border stations, not to mention the technology pointed in the opposite direction for 100 miles.

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