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They Are Watching You
Posted on Apr 24, 2014
By Todd Miller, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
With the agility of a seasoned Border Patrol veteran, the woman rushed after the students. She caught up with them just before they entered the exhibition hall of the eighth annual Border Security Expo, reaching out and grabbing the nearest of them by the shoulder. Slightly out of breath, she said, “You can’t go in there, give me back your badges.”
The astonished students had barely caught a glimpse of the dazzling pavilion of science-fiction-style products in that exhibition hall at the Phoenix Convention Center. There, just beyond their view, more than 100 companies, including Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Verizon, were trying to sell the latest in futuristic border policing technology to anyone with the money to buy it.
The students from Northeastern Illinois University didn’t happen to fall into that category. An earnest manager at a nearby registration table insisted that, as they were not studying “border security,” they weren’t to be admitted. I asked him how he knew just what they were studying. His only answer was to assure me that next year no students would be allowed in at all.
Among the wonders those students would miss was a fake barrel cactus with a hollow interior (for the southern border) and similarly hollow tree stumps (for the northern border), all capable of being outfitted with surveillance cameras. “Anything that grows or exists in nature,” Kurt Lugwisen of TimberSpy told a local Phoenix television station, “we build it.”
Nor would those students get to see the miniature drone—“eyes in the sky” for Border Patrol agents—that fits conveniently into a backpack and can be deployed at will; nor would they be able to check out the “technology that might,” as one local Phoenix reporter warned, “freak you out.” She was talking about facial recognition systems, which in a border scenario would work this way: a person enters a border-crossing gate, where an image of his or her face is instantly checked against a massive facial image database (or the biometric data contained on a passport).“If we need to target on any specific gender or race because we’re trying to find a subject, we can set the parameters and the threshold to find that person,” Kevin Haskins of Cognitec (“the face recognition company”) proudly claimed.
Nor would they be able to observe the strange, two day-long convention hall dance between homeland security, its pockets bursting with their parents’ tax dollars, and private industry intent on creating the most massive apparatus of exclusion and surveillance that has ever existed along U.S. borders.
Border Security Expo 2014 catches in one confined space the expansiveness of a “booming” border market. If you include “cross-border terrorism, cyber crime, piracy, [the] drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, and separatist movements,” all “driving factor[s] for the homeland security market,” by 2018 it could reach $544 billion globally. It is here that U.S. Homeland Security officials, local law enforcement, and border forces from all over the world talk contracts with private industry representatives, exhibit their techno-optimism, and begin to hammer out a future of ever more hardened, up-armored national and international boundaries.
The global video surveillance market alone is expected to be a $40 billion industry by 2020, almost three times its $13.5 billion value in 2013. According to projections, 2020 border surveillance cameras will be capturing 3.4 trillion video hours globally. In case you were wondering, that’s more than 340 million years of video footage if you were watching 24 hours a day.
But those students, like most of the rest of us, haven’t been invited to this high energy, dystopian conversation about our future.
And the rebuff is far from a surprise. It has, after all, been less than a year since Edward Snowden emerged on the scene with a portfolio of NSA documents revealing just how vast our national security state has become and how deeply it has reached into our private lives. It has by now created what the Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin have termed “an alternative geography.” And nowhere is this truer than on our borders.
It is in the U.S. borderlands that, as anthropologist Josiah Heyman once wrote, the U.S. government’s modern expertise in creating and tracking “a marked population” was first developed and practiced. It involved, he wrote prophetically, “the birth and development of a… means of domination, born of the mating between moral panics about foreigners and drugs, and a well-funded and expert bureaucracy.”
You may not be able to watch them at the Border Security Expo, but in those borderlands—make no bones about it—the Department of Homeland Security, with its tripartite missions of drug interdiction, immigration enforcement, and the war on terror, is watching you, whoever you are. And make no bones about this either: our borders are widening and the zones in which the watchers are increasingly free to do whatever they want are growing.
Tracking a Marked Population
It was mid-day in the Arizona heat during the summer of 2012 and Border Patrol agent Benny Longoria (a pseudonym) and his partner are patrolling the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It’s the second largest Native American reservation in the country and, uniquely, shares 76 miles of border with Mexico. The boundary, in fact, slices right through O’odham aboriginal lands. For the approximately 28,000 members of the Nation, several thousand of whom live in Mexico, this international boundary has been a point of contention since 1853, when U.S. surveyors first drew the line. None of the region’s original inhabitants were, of course, consulted.
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