Customs and Border Protection wants to use AI to scan for fentanyl at the border

In his State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration bill “with the toughest set of border security reforms we have ever seen.” The bill would, among other things, have funded “100 additional high-tech drug detection machines to significantly increase the ability to screen vehicles and prevent them from smuggling fentanyl into America.”

The high-tech drug detection machines are really just x-rays – really high-resolution pictures, but x-rays nonetheless. The idea is not just to get better machines, but to scan more vehicles at ports of entry, with an end goal of 100 percent. And to achieve that, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will eventually use artificial intelligence so that agents can scan and process cars and trucks as quickly as possible.

Two days before Biden’s speech, NBC News reported that CBP already has the most up-to-date fentanyl detection machines — but the agency has been unable to install them because Congress has not appropriated the resources to do so. .

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have come to view the opioid epidemic as a border security issue — and it is, though not the way nativists might imagine it. The vast majority of fentanyl seized by Customs and Border Protection — more than 90 percent — is smuggled through official border crossings by U.S. citizens, not by migrants making unauthorized border crossings.

The Securing America’s Ports Act requires every passenger vehicle, truck, and freight train entering the U.S. to be x-rayed before entry

According to a press release from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP seized more than 43,000 pounds of fentanyl during fiscal year 2023. According to NBC News, half of all fentanyl CBP is interdicted at the border through a single point: the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona. Unlike other official border crossings, Mariposa’s POE has already installed the new machines, which will x-ray cars and trucks as they are processed for entry into the US. An unknown number of other machines are currently being stored in warehouses because CBP does not have the money to install them, the agency’s acting commissioner Troy Miller told NBC News.

In January 2021, just weeks before he was set to leave office, former President Donald Trump signed the Securing America’s Ports Act, which requires every passenger car, truck and freight train entering the U.S. from Mexico and Canada to be X-rayed. before entry.

The law allocated $59 million to CBP to purchase and install new scanners at ports along the border. CBP is working to install the newer machines so they can be used prior to primary screenings – before the vehicle stops for inspection by a CBP officer, and not after. These systems are already under construction or operational in Brownsville and Laredo, Texas; Nogales, Ariz.; and Santa Teresa, New Mexico, according to DHS.

Even with the machines, CBP doesn’t scan all the thousands of cars and trucks that pass through the ports every day. A former senior leader at CBP told it The San Diego Union-Tribune that the agency would most likely consider 100 percent an “ambitious” goal. To get closer to 100 percent, CBP wants to eventually integrate these new machines with AI systems.

Currently, CBP scans about 20 percent of commercial vehicles and less than 5 percent of personal vehicles, Miller, CBP’s current acting commissioner, told NBC News. The agency hopes to scan 40 percent of passenger cars and 70 percent of commercial trucks by the end of 2025.

CBP hopes to scan 40 percent of passenger cars and 70 percent of commercial trucks by the end of 2025

Most people are waved through after answering questions about what they’re bringing across the border and showing CBP officers documentation proving they can legally enter the U.S., usually in the form of a passport, green card or visa. Truck drivers must also provide a manifest stating what they are carrying in their trucks before arriving at the port of entry. CBP officers use the information in the manifest to decide which x-rays to take.

The X-rays are sent to a command center, where CBP agents review them to see if they check out. For example, if a truck’s bill of lading states that it contains a load of bananas, the x-ray should confirm that. In passenger cars, x-rays are used to detect if there is any hidden cargo hidden anywhere in the vehicle.

“They have a single official reviewing a single image,” said Kevin McAleenan, who served as CBP commissioner from 2018 to 2019 under Trump. “There is a limitation. If you’re going to try to dramatically increase the number of inspections, not only are you going to need many more scanners and many more officers to read them, but you’re also going to need the help of technology.”

McAleenan, the alleged acting DHS secretary for seven months in 2019, co-founded the trade and travel AI company Pangiam in 2020. Last year, Pangiam was awarded a $16.86 million contract to develop “Anomaly Detection Algorithms” that will use artificial intelligence to analyze the X-ray images scanned at the border, acting as a “force multiplier,” according to McAleenan ” which will speed up the processing of vehicles at the border.

Pangiam was awarded a $16.86 million contract to develop “Anomaly Detection Algorithms”

At most ports of entry, the x-rays are taken as part of secondary inspections. Sometimes a driver is stopped for a more intensive check after being flagged by the officer who conducted the initial inspection. Other times, drivers are randomly selected for secondary inspections. The CBP is installing X-ray scanners before the first inspection point all The cars and trucks entering the US can be x-rayed before they even reach the first officer.

“Based on how the cross-border supply chain works, many trucks are actually returning to the U.S. empty,” McAleenan said. The software, he explained, could “confirm that this truck said it was empty, that the manifest said it was empty and that the scan said it was empty – the officer didn’t have to waste his or her valuable time trying to viewing that image.”

For “homogeneous loads,” such as a truck full of melons, McAleenan said, “we can build software products that say to the officer, ‘That load should be melons, it looks just like the other thousand loads of melons that have crossed this border. over the past two years, we don’t think you need to inspect it further.”

The tool, which is not yet in use at the border, has been trained on previous X-ray scans from the CBP. CBP has a wealth of data on the millions of vehicles that pass through ports of entry each year – and the people who drive them.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said the use of AI at border crossings could raise privacy concerns. “When you cross the border, the CBP agent can search your bag, but they don’t take a picture of it and store it,” he said. “If they start creating a whole different system of data about you and what’s in your car, how many people are in your car, there could be a lot of personal data stored in that data set.”

Correction March 19, 3:10 PM ET: An earlier version of this story stated that Pangiam was awarded a $21.5 million contract, as reported by NBC News. According to Andrew Meehan, a spokesperson for Pangiam, the amount is actually $16.86 million. We regret the error.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *