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Rights activists aren’t taking President Biden’s word on ‘humane’ border biometrics


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

The path forward for security along the U.S.-Mexico border looks no more certain now, under President Joe Biden, than it did during the previous administration.

Then, the government promised it would reduce uncontrolled border crossings with a medieval strategy — a physical wall — that over millennia has always failed. But can Biden’s proposed 21st century biometrics and surveillance wall fare any better?

A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups says no. No matter how pervasive it is, a technology barrier will just push desperate people onto more remote and dangerous routes to avoid detection.

Further, ubiquitous AI and surveillance technology covering southern border facilities will create privacy concerns. Some in the pro-privacy camp maintain that indiscriminate use of face biometrics, for example, amounts to a presumption of guilt.

Then there are concerns that surveillance systems used at the border are showing up in missions that threaten the civil rights of U.S. citizens far from the frontier. Customs and Border Protection drones, after all, were flown over 15 cities at Black Lives Matter protests.

The coalition has called on Biden to instead invest in border communities and return to a posture that welcomes immigrants and works to integrate them in the nation’s economy and culture.

Its statement challenging the White House’s priorities is a reaction to a massive proposed immigration-reform bill that Biden has sent to Congress.

The bill indeed does call for a great deal of investment into biometric systems. A portion of its proposal supports anodyne tech projects that speed multi-modal border crossing for businesses and travelers; and prevent the entry of contraband.

Details on how that support is carried out are few, as are specifics on what systems will be used to track and dissuade illicit activity at the border. “Smart technology,” a nearly meaningless description, is used without clear intentions.

Collection of biometric data is authorized in background checks of people trying to enter the country. Other than that, much is left to the imagination when it comes to facial recognition systems and other identification technology.

Analysis by academic and media commentators has suggested transparency is also lacking from private companies providing biometrics and AI systems that operate along the same border.

It looks unlikely that anyone in the immigration advocacy community is willing to take even this new president’s word on things.

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