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From robot dogs to drones, this book shows how borders are the testing labs for oppressive tech

Petra Molnar, author of “The Walls Have Eyes: Surviving Migration in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”
Kenya-Jade Pinto, The New Press
Petra Molnar, author of “The Walls Have Eyes: Surviving Migration in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

The border is not just a place of commerce and immigration. Petra Molnar says it’s also a place of technology.

Molnar is a lawyer, anthropologist and the author of the new book “The Walls Have Eyes: Surviving Migration in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.” In it, she uncovers the experimental technology being used at our Southern border and around the world.

From robot dogs to surveillance drones to biometric screening, Molnar reveals the human stakes of hardening borders around the world. The Show spoke with her more about it.

Full conversation

PETRA MOLNAR: So the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the central case studies in the book. I’ve been really lucky to have visited a few years ago — and actually just recently, at the end of May — to kind of see how technologies are changing the way that people cross borders.

And at the U.S.-Mexico border in particular. It’s a fascinating place to do this work because you can actually see some of this technology firsthand. First of all, you can drive to the border wall and see the surveillance towers. Sometimes you can even hear drones. There’s different kinds of other surveillance that is kind of dotted throughout the Sonoran Desert.

But I have to say, in one of the most surreal moments of my career — and I’ve had many over the years — when I was in the Sonora with search and rescue groups that do water drops and support people who are on the move, in February of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security announced that they are going to be rolling out robot dogs — these kind of quadruped machines that you might come across in a sci-fi movie — as the next tool to augment this kind of global arsenal of migration management technologies.

And in the years since, and even what I saw just a few weeks ago, at the Arizona-Mexico border, it has really become this kind of panopticon of technology that changes the way that people cross borders.

LAUREN GILGER: Talk about the way it changes things right here. As an example, if someone is coming across the border now, there might be a surveillance tower watching them. There might be drones and circling. There might be a robot dog, for example. Where do all these technologies come into play?

MOLNAR: Migration management technologies — we can call them, this kind of new class of high tech interventions — really impact people at every single point of their migration journey. Even before you move sometimes, you might be coming across things that are happening online. Social media scraping of your internet profile and use for countries to make risk profiles about you before you even set foot on your journey.

At the border, there are more and more high risk and unregulated surveillance technologies that are at play, like sound cannons, thermal cameras, biometrics, other kinds of experiments that I’ve come across across the world.

And then there’s a class of technologies that you might be impacted by after you’ve already crossed into a country. It will be the triaging algorithms, voice printing software for identification purposes and a host of other algorithmically powered tools that are augmenting immigration decision making.

But one of the scary things is that so much of this is happening, one without public knowledge and two without really having conversations about what this is doing to real people and the kind of human rights impact of this.

An Autonomous Surveillance Tower along the U.S-Mexico border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
An Autonomous Surveillance Tower along the U.S-Mexico border.

GILGER: Yeah. And I want to talk about that in a moment. But let’s talk first about the global picture here. Because as you’re referencing there, this book is not just about our southern border. It’s about borders kind of all over the world. You went to a lot of places, it sounds like, in reporting this talk a little bit about what you saw: the similarities, the differences.

MOLNAR: Yeah. I’ve always been working from a comparative perspective. I’m a Canadian refugee lawyer by training and an anthropologist, and I find going to different places and looking at similarities and differences is really a great way to try and get at a complex issue. And so the examples that we’ve been talking about at the U.S.-Mexico border are similarly experienced in other places, different borders around Europe, for example, I ended up living in Greece for almost three years studying this and working with people there.

Different kinds of data gathering projects are happening even further afield in the Middle East, in Africa. And so it’s, I think, very helpful to try and paint a global picture of how many technological experiments there really are at the border and in refugee camps.

GILGER: Talk about refugee camps a little bit more, because I thought this was really interesting. You talked about the use of biometric data in refugee camps. How does that work?

MOLNAR: Yeah, this is a really important piece to the story, too, the kind of incursions of technology into humanitarian spaces. So places like refugee camps. I had a chance to visit a number of refugee camps in Greece, for example, that have kind of become these high-tech, almost open-air prisons. They are full of biometric surveillance, different types of drones again, other cameras.

I can talk about one specific example. In Jordan, in the north part of the country, there have been camps for a while — given what’s been happening in Syria for many years — where people have been living for nearly a decade. And this is one of the sites where biometric data collection has been piloted. So essentially bringing in iris scanning for refugees in exchange for food. So instead of having to go up and use your identity card, you would have your eyes scanned, and then you would get your weekly food rations.

It might sound OK from an efficiency standpoint or from a kind of conversation around, “Well, how do we get humanitarian aid to the most amount of people?” But then when you actually spend time with people asking them about how they feel, so many refugees were talking about how uncomfortable they were about having to interact with this kind of oppressive technology.

Imagine if this got rolled out at your local grocery store, or a Walmart or a Target. People would be up in arms. But somehow when it’s at a refugee camp, it’s OK. And I think this is really the crux of it all. The technology and the way it’s rolled out shows us how vast the power differences are between the actors that develop the technology and the communities on whom it’s tested.

GILGER: Talk about regulation, oversight of these kinds of technologies. Obviously you’re talking about different governments in different countries all over the globe, but is the lack of oversight part of the reason we don’t really know about these things in the public eye, like you mentioned earlier?

MOLNAR: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ll put my lawyer hat on for a second. I’m a reluctant lawyer, but still a lawyer. And I think the legal aspect here is really crucial, because it’s not an accident that we don’t have a lot of law that regulates the way the technology is developed and deployed, specifically high risk tech like we’re seeing at the border and in refugee camps.

The border acts essentially as a testing ground where different projects like robodogs, AI lie detectors, surveillance drones can be rolled out without a lot of public scrutiny and then repurposed in other public spaces too.

And from a legal perspective here, there’s so much evidence now that these technologies infringe on people’s human rights, whether that is the right to seek asylum, freedom of movement, but also rights to be free from discrimination or even privacy rights.

But because we don’t have a lot of laws that regulate technology generally and border technology specifically, it creates this free-for-all, where so much innovation is happening without appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms.

GILGER: I imagine there’s a lot of money at stake in all of this as well.

MOLNAR: Oof, so much money. I mean this is what some of my colleagues — like journalist Todd Miller, who’s from Tucson — he calls it the “border-industrial complex.” And we’re talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that has grown up around this.

And I have to say, some of the most disturbing things I saw were not actually at the border or in refugee camps, but it was at some of these private sector conferences where companies meet states and kind of sell their wares.

We need to query this and ask, who really sets the agenda here? And if it’s the private sector, we have to ask why they are the ones who are the most powerful actor in this conversation.

GILGER: Let me ask you, lastly, Petra, about maybe the main point of what you’re trying to get at in this book, which is that there are people kind of in the middle of this, human beings. Talk a little bit about how they’re affected.

MOLNAR: Absolutely. This is really the central point of my book and my entire work in this. I think being able to spend time with people on the move, refugees, people who are displaced, It really highlights that they really are the community that’s at the sharpest edges of so much of this technological development, and it’s their experiences that need to be brought to the foreground for us to be able to have some of these conversations that need to be had about regulation and maybe even banning some of this really violent technology.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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