The future is here, and it’s a nightmare for migrants. Robo-dogs are joining the global arsenal of border enforcement technologies. The consequences will be deadly.
A painting of an eye shedding a single tear adorns the concrete rampart of the rusty wall bisecting the city of Nogales at the U.S.-Mexico border. Elsewhere, other kinds of eyes scan the Sonoran Desert—drones, artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance towers, and now military-grade “robo-dogs,” which, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in a February 1 article, might soon be deployed in this vast area of the Arizona-Mexico borderlands, a frequent crossing point for refugees and people on the move from Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond.
The robo-dogs, built by Ghost Robotics, are the latest border tech experiment. Originally designed for combat and tactical training operations, these quadruped autonomous machines are strong, fast, and sometimes armed. They can break down doors and right themselves when kicked over. Police departments are already using them, such as in Honolulu and New York (although the latter city cut short its use of them after a public outcry). On the border, DHS first tested what they call “programmable pooches” in El Paso, but officials didn’t give a clear indication of when nor where the machines would eventually be deployed.
While these mechanical dogs may be a surprising addition to U.S. border enforcement, they join a technological infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border that has been developing for decades, often constructed by private companies and now championed by the Biden administration. The idea of mechanized Border Patrol agents is not exactly new either; in 2015, for example, the GuardBot company proposed that rolling, rubber spheres full of surveillance cameras (first designed for exploring Mars) “swarm” the borderlands in packs of 20 or 30. While that contract was never issued, it was a preamble to the robo-dogs. Here, now, is a glimpse into the future: an aggressive techno border fueled by a global industrial complex.
The robo-dogs form part of a long process of border robotization on the U.S. Mexico border—from autonomous and integrated fixed towers (built by Anduril and Elbit Systems, respectively) to Predator B and medium-size drones (General Atomics), to university experiments to create miniature drones the size of locusts (as was done at the University of Arizona via a grant it received from the Department of Homeland Security for R&D).
Petra, who was at the Arizona-Mexico border when DHS announced the robo-dogs, has been studying surveillance technologies and their effects on people crossing borders for years in Europe and globally, focusing on the real harms of automation, surveillance, and border tech experiments in spaces that have become testing grounds for innovation. The very real impacts these technologies will have is all the more stark, given the sheer number of people dying in the desert. In 2021, deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border were the highest ever recorded. Thus, although it is difficult to write about surveillance technologies—since they are hidden by design—the real-world impacts of “technosolutionism” are clear enough.
On the rumbling roads of the West Arizona desert, Petra and colleagues traced the routes that people take after crossing the border, and this led them to various gravesites, like the modest orange cross that marks the arroyo where Elías Alvarado, a young husband and father, perished in 2020. His son was never able to see him again, only leaving a scratchy voice recording saying “I love you, papa,” which was played at Alvarado’s ceremony by a group called Battalion Search and Rescue, whose volunteers comb the desert for survivors and remains. It’s terrifying to imagine a not-so-distant future in which people like Alvarado will be pursued by high-speed, military-grade technology designed to kill. The future is not just more technology, it is more death.
Virtual Fortress Europe
The U.S.-Mexico frontier is by no means the only place where experimental border technology is being tested. For example, the European Union has been focusing on various surveillance and high-tech experiments in migration and border enforcement, including maritime and land drone surveillance; long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), or sound cannons; and AI-type technologies in newly built camps in Greece. The violence in many of these technologies is obvious: the sound cannons that were rolled out at the land border between Greece and Turkey emit a high-pitched sound that can hurt people’s eardrums in an attempt to deter them from getting close to the EU’s border, while AI “threat detection” surveillance monitors refugees in Greece’s new prisonlike refugee camps on the Aegean Islands. AI-driven surveillance using unpiloted drones and other types of technologies is also increasingly used along Europe’s maritime borders by actors such as Frontex, the EU’s border enforcement agency. As in the U.S.-Mexico desert, border surveillance makes the crossing more dangerous, since it forces them to take riskier routes to avoid detection.
The increasing reliance on automation in border enforcement also brings with it a host of concerns, from privacy infringements when data is shared with repressive governments to discrimination and bias, particularly against groups that have historically borne the brunt of violent state action. For example, facial recognition has proved time and again to be biased against Brown and Black faces, as well as female faces, and yet it is increasingly used for migration control in the U.S., Canada, and soon various EU countries. These issues around discrimination and bias are not merely theoretical; they have had palpable impacts on people on the move such as Addisu, a young man from East Africa in his early 30s. He was living in an occupied building in Brussels when he told Petra, “We are Black, and border guards hate us. Their computers hate us too.”
Tech pilot projects have also introduced AI-type lie detection into border enforcement, relying on emotion recognition and micro-expressions to apparently determine whether someone is telling the truth at the border. Yet what about differences in cross-cultural communication? Or the impact of trauma on memory, or the overreliance on Western norms of plausibility and lie detection grounded in biased and discriminatory determinations? Immigration and refugee decision-making by border enforcement officers is already replete with discretionary, opaque, and often biased reasoning that is difficult to challenge.
Through the phenomenon of “border externalization,” the EU is also pushing its geographic borders further and further afield through biometric data collection and migration surveillance into North and sub-Saharan Africa. The United States is extending its border as well into southern Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, among other places. As these sorts of technological systems extend all over the world, so does the global border industrial complex, which is worth billions of dollars. Each new place becomes a testing ground for the next one.
A Regulatory Free-for-All: Border Tech Unchecked
Border technologies are political; they are developed and deployed in an ecosystem of private and public partnerships that are largely unregulated and unchecked. Big Tech interests are given free rein to develop and deploy technologies at the border and set the agenda of what counts as innovation and whose perspectives really matter when conversations around borders happen in national, regional, and international policy circles.
There is big money to be made in the sharpening of borders with draconian technologies. According to the market forecast company Market and Markets, the global homeland security market will grow more than 6 percent by 2026, reaching $904.6 billion. As border and immigration budgets only continue to rise in Europe, the United States, and places beyond, there will only be more armed “robo-dogs,” drones with tasers, and border AI-lie detectors filling border zones. This coincides with forecasts for more and more people on the move in the coming decades—for various reasons, including catastrophic climate change. The collision of aggressive tech borders with human mobility has the makings of a monumental human rights disaster.
Participation in discussions around technologies at the border is still limited to a select few, often in the suffocating constraints of the public-private nexus. The viewpoints of those most affected are routinely excluded from the discussion, particularly regarding no-go zones and ethically fraught uses of technology. Much of the discussion, such as it is, lacks contextual analysis or consideration of the ethical, social, political, and personal harm that these new technologies will have. While border and immigrant rights groups such as Mijente, Just Futures Law, the Immigrant Defense Project and others have been fighting the use of high-risk surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border, the lucrative political climate of exclusion and border enforcement at all costs is what animates the move toward a surveillance dragnet. This dragnet will only increase the suffering and death along the frontier. “It’s a slow-motion genocide,” James Holeman, founder of Battalion Search Rescue, recently told Petra Molnar in the Arizona desert.
Borders are the perfect testing ground for technologies: unregulated, increasingly politicized, and impacting groups already struggling with adequate resources. Ultimately, Big Tech and quick fixes do not address the systemic causes of marginalization and migration—historical and present-day decisions that perpetuate vast inequalities in the world and that benefit the fortressed West while disenfranchising and displacing the rest. Whether it be armed agents, imposed walls, or robo-dogs, border militarization ensures that rich countries can keep looting, exploiting, and polluting the rest of the world.