AFTER YEARS of backlash over controversial government work, Google technology will be used to aid the Trump administration’s efforts to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border, according to documents related to a federal contract.
In August, Customs and Border Protection accepted a proposal to use Google Cloud technology to facilitate the use of artificial intelligence deployed by the CBP Innovation Team, known as INVNT. Among other projects, INVNT is working on technologies for a new “virtual” wall along the southern border that combines surveillance towers and drones, blanketing an area with sensors to detect unauthorized entry into the country.
In 2018, Google faced internal turmoil over a contract with the Pentagon to deploy AI-enhanced drone image recognition solutions; the capability sparked employee concern that Google was becoming embroiled in work that could be used for lethal purposes and other human rights concerns. In response to the controversy, Google ended its involvement with the initiative, known as Project Maven, and established a new set of AI principles to govern future government contracts.
The employees also protested the company’s deceptive claims about the project and attempts to shroud the military work in secrecy. Google’s involvement with Project Maven had been concealed through a third-party contractor known as ECS Federal.
Contracting documents indicate that CBP’s new work with Google is being done through a third-party federal contracting firm, Virginia-based Thundercat Technology. Thundercat is a reseller that bills itself as a premier information technology provider for federal contracts.
The contract was obtained through a FOIA request filed by Tech Inquiry, a new research group that explores technology and corporate power founded by Jack Poulson, a former research scientist at Google who left the company over ethical concerns.
Not only is Google becoming involved in implementing the Trump administration’s border policy, the contract brings the company into the orbit of one of President Donald Trump’s biggest boosters among tech executives.
Documents show that Google’s technology for CBP will be used in conjunction with work done by Anduril Industries, a controversial defense technology startup founded by Palmer Luckey. The brash 28-year-old executive — also the founder of Oculus VR, acquired by Facebook for over $2 billion in 2014 — is an open supporter of and fundraiser for hard-line conservative politics; he has been one of the most vocal critics of Google’s decision to drop its military contract. Anduril operates sentry towers along the U.S.-Mexico border that are used by CBP for surveillance and apprehension of people entering the country, streamlining the process of putting migrants in DHS custody.
CBP’s Autonomous Surveillance Towers program calls for automated surveillance operations “24 hours per day, 365 days per year” to help the agency “identify items of interest, such as people or vehicles.” The program has been touted as a “true force multiplier for CBP, enabling Border Patrol agents to remain focused on their interdiction mission rather than operating surveillance systems.”
It’s unclear how exactly CBP plans to use Google Cloud in conjunction with Anduril or for any of the “mission needs” alluded to in the contract document. Google spokesperson Jane Khodos declined to comment on or discuss the contract. CBP, Anduril, and Thundercat Technology did not return requests for comment.
However, Google does advertise powerful cloud-based image recognition technology through its Vision AI product, which can rapidly detect and categorize people and objects in an image or video file — an obvious boon for a government agency planning to string human-spotting surveillance towers across a vast border region.
ACCORDING TO a “statement of work” document outlining INVNT’s use of Google, “Google Cloud Platform (GCP) will be utilized for doing innovation projects for C1’s INVNT team like next-generation IoT, NLP (Natural Language Processing), Language Translation and Andril [sic] image camera and any other future-looking project for CBP. The GCP has unique product features that will help to execute on the mission needs.” (CBP confirmed that “Andril” is a misspelling of Anduril.)
The document lists several such “unique product features” offered through Google Cloud, namely the company’s powerful machine-learning and artificial intelligence capabilities. Using Google’s “AI Platform” would allow CBP to leverage the company’s immense computer processing power to train an algorithm on a given set of data so that it can make educated inferences and predictions about similar data in the future.
Google’s Natural Language product uses the company’s machine learning resources “to reveal the structure and meaning of text … [and] extract information about people, places, and events,” according to company marketing