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The Future of Border Securing Technology Is Here and It’s Terrifying

Drones, 3D holograms, cameras with body heat detection, and a 360-degree radar surveillance.

Meredith Hoffman

Meredith Hoffman

All photos by Meredith Hoffman

At the Tenth Annual Border Security Expo in San Antonio, Texas, officials from the Department of Homeland Security browsed booths with 3D holographic images, portable biometric testing kits, underground seismic signal detectors, and ergonomic pistols, eyeing the latest inventions to survey and protect the United States' border.

"I'd tell Mr. Trump we can build him a wall—a radar wall, of 360-degree radar surveillance," joked Bryan Block, a sales rep, before turning to his booth to pitch his company FLIR Systems. "We are the world's sixth sense. If you can't see it with the naked eye, we'll find it for you."

Indeed, the Border Security Expo—the largest exhibit of its kind, which puts hundreds of vendors in the same room with DHS and local law enforcement—made Trump's idea seem like ancient history. The companies, some already contracted to work with the Department of Homeland Security and some first-timers, looked to cash in on the agency's quest to fortify the southern border with cutting-edge surveillance tools and weaponry. DHS's investment in such products is growing each year—the agency had a budget of $373.5 million for border technology in the 2016 fiscal year, up from $351 million in 2014—and the global border control and biometrics market is predicted to double from $16.5 billion in 2012 to a projected $32.5 billion by 2021, based on estimates from the market research company Frost and Sullivan.

For years, DHS has employed increasingly sophisticated technologies on the border, and despite an 80 percent drop in undocumented border crossers since 2000, the government is convinced it's not doing enough. So this year DHS will continue to invest in even more radar, video cameras, and military tools to seal off the nation.

Michael Camera shows off a pistol offered by his company, Heckler and Koch. The company already provides 40-caliber pistols to Border Patrol but is looking to expand to a wider variety of arms.

Block's proposal for a "radar wall" is actually just what DHS has in mind: Last month, the agency was given the green light to build out a virtual fence along the southern border, a series of sensor-and-camera-equipped towers to catch unlawful movement just north of the Mexican-American border. The towers, called Integrated Fixed Towers, are designed to "provide automated, wide-area surveillance for the tracking, identification, and classification of illegal border incursions between ports of entry," DHS announced in 2012, when the program was first conceived. The government has contracted the Israeli surveillance company Elbit Systems to build a total of 50 towers for $145 million, according to a recent report by Nextgov, a website that covers federal technology.

The virtual fence is just one slice of radar-stocked equipment on the border. Thermal imaging cameras, which detect body heat, operate on Border Patrol cars and on "fixed units" near the border, according to Block, whose company made many of the cameras (DHS awarded FLIR Systems a $101.9 million contract in 2011 to provide thermal imaging cameras for five years).

Read 'Border Lines,' Motherboard's investigative series on how technology enables human trafficking in the US-Mexico borderlands.

"Radar gives you the ability to have less agents survey less area at one time. The radar is looking 24-7 and if anything moves, a guy can go run out to get it," Block said.

Teresa Wu, marketing director for Morpho, showed off the company's new biometrics jump kits, suitcases equipped with fingerprinting devices and computers for Border Patrol Agents.

DHS is also expanding its use of video camera surveillance to include "mobile, fixed, maritime, and body cameras," as the agency first announced in November. And this month, the government issued a request for information from companies that can offer both body cameras and vehicle-mounted cameras to take footage from multiple angles.

But as cameras record constantly, agents still have to sort through footage from the fixed cameras to look for security breaches. So the biometrics company Morpho, which hosted a booth at the Border Security Expo, has created a tool that analyzes the footage for faces, body motion, and even license plates. The tool, called the Morpho Video Investigator, also flags when faces repeat over the footage and matches them to similar faces that appear online.

"Our product is a response to the challenge of video data. How are you going to sift through all this video?" said Teresa Wu, Director of Strategic Marketing for Morpho. "We can process 500 hours of data in ten hours, so it speeds up investigations."

The government has not yet adopted the new product, but Wu said DHS "has shown definite interest" in the video investigator.

The company Hitachi displayed a new device that is part-camera, part-radar.

With DHS's propensity to experiment with new technology, Wu's prediction seems likely—just several feet away from Wu, a company selling $1 million holographic printers bragged that three of its machines were already at Border Patrol stations. A company spokesman explained that the printers are an optimal training tool for agents because they print immersive holographic images that function better than models or maps. An individual or drone takes an aerial photograph on the border, prints that image with the holographic printer, and can use it to better understand the landscape and to deploy missions.

Related: America's Border-Industrial Complex Can't Get Its Virtual Fences in a Row

"Holograms do not save lives and they do not stop bullets, but what they do is give people a cognitive idea of what's going on around them physically," said Rick Black, Director of Government Relations for the company, Zebra Imaging. "We provide you that visual sense of presence—a hologram looks so natural, you think it's a solid model. Your brain thinks it's a full model even though you know intellectually it's a light pad."

Black held out a 3-D image of the borderlands in Arizona, where the mountains seemed so vivid that people reached out to touch them.

"This provides a 360-degree full view. It's to give the agents a presence of where they are so if they're doing a mission plan, for instance, when I point here you all know exactly where I'm pointing," Black said.

A representative for Zebra Imaging shows off a 3-D holographic photo printed by one of the company's $1 million printers, which are now at three Border Patrol stations.

Zebra Imaging first sold its printers to the US military for use in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Black said the printers produced 14,000 images during missions in the Middle East. Now, DHS has "transferred three of them lock, stock, and barrel" to Border Patrol Stations in San Diego, Tucson, and El Paso—and Black said the potential for their use is boundless, especially in emergency situations.

"The government brings in multiple agencies in emergencies that may not all operate in an area—like with the large Central American migrant issue," Black said, referring to the influx of migrants fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador since 2014. "Now they can all understand where they are. There's nothing else out there like this printer in the world."

Out of all the exhibitors at the expo—including armored vehicles, drones, tactical gear, and night vision—there was just one traditional fencing company, whose owners seemed demoralized by little interest in their product.

"We won't be coming back next year," one of them told me.

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