There’s a loud and growing chorus of opposition to a physical border wall. That view is shared by leaders of border cities like McAllen, Texas, by every congressman representing a district along our 2000-mile-long southern border, and by the majority of Americans (to say nothing of a long list of bygone societies stretching from the Ming Dynasty to East Germany). Tying a partial government shutdown to funding for the wall has also been deeply unpopular, and the president’s historically low approval ratings were slumping further during the shutdown.
Also: Pentagon documents the military’s growing domestic drone use
Out of the political jockeying during the longest partial government shutdown in American history, there’s one idea everyone seems eager to agree on: Technology can help redress serious problems at the border. It’s an attractive, almost magic-sounding solution, lending a Silicon Valley ring to a stale debate. In the rhetorical shoving match over a physical wall, it’s become the rallying cry for those seeking sensible alternatives.
Unfortunately, border technology is not the panacea many people think. And in many of its applications it runs counter to our core values.
Increasing border security with a force field of sensing and response technology, what many are calling a digital or virtual wall, isn’t a new idea — in fact, it’s about 50 years old and grew out of strategies and technologies first developed during the Vietnam War. And it hasn’t worked.
Technology already in place
There are currently about 12,000 motion and seismic sensors along the U.S. border with Mexico, along with a vast electronic perimeter of radar and high definition cameras. Predator B drones have extended the radar net in places and can pick out a snake slithering through brush a mile away. Miniature facial recognition drones, 3D mapping technology, tethered blimps first developed to guard forward operating bases in Afghanistan, tunnel-navigating ground robots used in Iraq, invisible dyes dropped from the air to mark migrants, and acoustic deterrents of various types have all been tested or deployed along the border. (Here’s an excellent article on the history of this technology buildup by Lauren Etter and Karen Weise.)
Meanwhile, electronic fingerprinting has been in use by immigration enforcement officials since the 1990s to track the massive flow of people, legal and illegal, across U.S. borders. Border security agents currently have access to military-grade technology like nightscopes, suppressors, infrared and holographic sights, and a thick catalog of tactical weapons and gear.
We’re not talking about small-scale pilot programs or testbeds, either — far from it. In the mid-2000s, the America’s Shield Initiative and Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System cost taxpayers billions. The objective was “to use the right technology at the right places for the right terrain to … have the rapid response capability to get to the points of intrusions to increase our overall apprehension rate,” CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner told the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security in 2006.
Soon after, George W. Bush kicked off the Secure Border Initiative, what he called “the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American History.” And just this past March, the latest government spending bill allocated $400 million for border technology. During what’s become a perennial state of frenzy over illegal immigration, it’s safe to say there’s been a decades-old gold rush to bring tech to the border. Rather than promoting new technology development, battle tested technology has migrated over from the defense sector. Contractors are reaping the benefits.
And what are the results of all this technology on immigration? Well, here’s how President Trump feels: “We can’t have people pouring into our country like they have over the last 10 years.”
Scrutinizing that assertion through the lens of reality is an exercise in confronting just how bellicose and misinformed the immigration debate has become, but the important takeaway is that a lot of people believe there’s still a big problem at the border despite the massive investment in technology. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our faith in a digital fix. Maybe it’s also time to reevaluate the problem.
The reality is that technology, while part of the equation for sensible immigration management and border security, can only do so much. Squaring off against the indomitable human drive for survival, a better life, or economic gain (oftentimes all three), even the most cutting edge deterrent and detection technology is bound to falter. It’s beyond troubling that the one group of migrants on the rise as this debate continues is families, with record crossings for that group in recent months. For many, migration is about desperation.
Given that context, it’s not primarily a security crisis we’re talking about, but a humanitarian crisis. And combatting a humanitarian crisis with technology designed for the battlefield is not sensible. It’s certainly not the panacea many people across the political spectrum — and recently Democrats have been just as keen to champion border technology as Republicans — would hope.
None of which is to say technology doesn’t have an important role to play alleviating massive problems with U.S. immigration, just as immigration has a critical role to play in the competitiveness of the American tech sector. (In fact, the tech community has been one of the major losers in this trumped up war against immigrants.) I’m all for putting our brightest minds to work on these pressing issues.
Fortunately, some progress is already being made. Right now, technologists in the federal government are tackling one of the biggest challenges to the national immigration infrastructure: a backlog of nearly 750,000 asylum applications. And as Katharine Schwab points out in Fast Company, a new generation of technology startups is taking dead aim at the byzantine maze of immigration bureaucracy. One of those startups, Boundless, is helmed by an immigrant.
But inevitably technology will only be part of the answer to an economic and geopolitical problem as dynamic as international migration. Healthy immigration and true security at the border require deft political, economic, and diplomatic leadership, not quick fix solutions. The worst thing we can do is act rashly and out of accordance with our deepest values as a society.
Building walls — real or virtual — certainly qualifies.
The Five Pillars of (Azure) Cloud-based Application Security
This 1-hour webinar from GigaOm brings together experts in Azure cloud application migration and security, featuring GigaOm analyst Jon Collins and special guests from Fortinet, Director of Product Marketing for Public Cloud, Daniel Schrader, and Global Director of Public Cloud Architecture and Engineering, Aidan Walden.
These interesting times have accelerated the drive towards digital transformation, application rationalization, and migration to cloud-based architectures. Enterprise organizations are looking to increase efficiency, but without impacting performance or increasing risk, either from infrastructure resilience or end-user behaviors.
Success requires a combination of best practice and appropriate use of technology, depending on where the organization is on its cloud journey. Elements such as zero-trust access and security-driven networking need to be deployed in parallel with security-first operations, breach prevention and response.
If you are looking to migrate applications to the cloud and want to be sure your approach maximizes delivery whilst minimizing risk, this webinar is for you.
Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise
This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.
Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.
In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.
CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions
Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.
Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.
“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”
As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.
Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.
“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.
So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:
“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”
Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.
“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”
Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast
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