Where do the borders of Silicon Valley lie? For some, it is the stretch of land off Highway 101 from San Mateo to Santa Clara, but for others, borders have been transformed globally by Silicon Valley’s technology. Silicon Valley, much like borders, is no longer geographically bound. The political economies and practices of the tech industry have transformed borders far and wide. Silicon Valley’s techno-solutionist ethos – that is, the desire to use technology to solve social problems – has worked to reinforce and reconstruct practices of border policing.

Pausing to reflect and assemble the range of technologies arising from Silicon Valley interrupts the fluidity of the “Move Fast and Break Things” stance of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder. It allows us to consider the more significant implications of experimenting with new technologies in an immigration setting. It also enables us to explore the material consequences of the tools created in Silicon Valley, and to stress important questions regarding accountability when it comes to technologies the inner workings and programming of which are known for their opacity. Yet, with the present piece, I also want to highlight how Silicon Valley’s technologies can be appropriated in migrant resistance to bordering control. As I will show, migrants are not simply the passive subjects of bordering practices but also active agents in their contestation, often reappropriating technology to facilitate their struggles.

Experimenting with Border Policing

The rhetoric of reinforcing the boundaries between Mexico and the United States gained traction in early 2015, under former president Donald Trump. At the same time, media attention in Europe was focused on the refugees claiming asylum, as part of the so-called “migration crisis”. In response to this constructed “crisis” of bordering, there has been a turn to techno-solutionism to deter migration. Silicon Valley has provided the tools that made deterrence, prediction and capturing possible. It has played an instrumental role in supporting both the United States and Europe in their attempts to enhance border policing and deter migration.

Technology and border policing in the United States are entwined. The United States now deploys what are called “smart borders”. In other words, its territorial borders are digitally reinforced via the use of cameras and data sharing. The US border authorities have also purchased high-tech tools like robot dogs, sensors and, more recently, new autonomous surveillance devices supplied by the American defence firm Anduril. Anduril’s founder, Palmer Freeman Luckey, sold Oculus, a virtual reality technology firm, to Facebook for 2 billion dollars in 2014. Anduril obtained Congressional funds to build a radar-detecting equipment that uses virtual reality (VR) technology to detect humans and differentiate them from surrounding objects and animals. Currently implemented in San Diego, Anduril tested its original prototype in the Texas desert. The start-up is not alone in tapping into the seemingly unlimited funds for defence projects. On the contrary, Silicon Valley’s technology companies have maintained a symbiotic relationship with the institutional actors of US defence. Tellingly, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) offers to directly invest in technology “start-ups”. More often than not, the commercial interests of Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies intersect with the development of US defence capabilities. Programmes like SVIP also represent an opportunity for these companies to test their equipment in the field.

Another company that has long worked in immigration management is Microsoft. The firm has been involved in the ‘less flashy aspect’ of technology, building not the robots of our scientific dreams but the software, databases and analytical tools that allow border technologies to function. Microsoft presents these services, like its 19.4-million-dollar contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), as back-end products that simply involve managing database and coding languages. Beyond the United States, Microsoft has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Refugees (UNHCR) since the 1999 Kosovo War, transforming UNHCR’s digital operations. Here again, Microsoft’s services to the UNHCR include managing cloud databases and mobile phone data services, as well as hosting Hackathons to support refugees. Microsoft directly benefits from its involvement with refugee support services since the partnership enables the company to use its participation in humanitarian relief in its marketing strategy while being given the opportunity to test its technologies in a “live environment” – which is not without raising ethical concerns in itself.

The case of IrisGuard, a UK-based electronic payment solutions company that specialises in iris recognition biometric technology, offers a good illustration. IrisGuard uses Microsoft’s cloud database Azure for the payment scheme (coordinated by the World Food Programme (WFP)) it has put into place in Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp to provide – as it is advertised – refugees with shelter, food and resources using retina scanning technology. Azraq offers a space for both IrisGuard and Microsoft to trial their technological tools and is generally representative of the way migration is often used as a laboratory for testing new technologies in countries that may have less robust legal and rights regimes, thus allowing for more intrusive technology experimentations. Iris scanning is not (yet) used in EU refugee camps, although other facial recognition technologies are being tested, such as the iBorderCtrl project. These technological experimentations pose a risk for the access to rights of vulnerable populations.

In addition, the involvement of Microsoft’s products in migration management, and in Azraq refugee camp specifically, also highlights potential accountability issues when these high-tech systems fail. Consider a situation where an iris scanner misidentifies a migrant due to a failure of Azure’s technology and denies them access to the basic resources they were expecting to receive. What then is Microsoft’s responsibility? This question haunts border policing globally. The proliferation of private actors supplying technologies to border enforcement authorities raises the question of who is at fault when these technologies misfunction.

Technological surveillance’s failures at the border can be deadly and can increase risks on migrants’ lives, even when it involves less visible technology like databases. Activists have specifically warned against the lack of opportunity for refugees to give their informed consent when participating in the testing of border technologies. They have also denounced the potential harms that could occur if their biometric data “landed in the wrong hands”. The introduction of iris scanning technology in refugee camps has been controversial, but Microsoft’s involvement with the programme is rarely mentioned. Microsoft’s invisible role in supporting more “visible” technologies signals how Silicon Valley’s impact on border policing can be hidden.

The “back-end” of the Border

Border policing can have the outward face of surveillance equipment, but one also needs to think about the ways bordering practices discreetly penetrates everyday spaces with the help of digital technologies. One cannot escape the pervasiveness of surveillance which comes with the multiplication of sites in which bordering technologies operate.

For instance, ICE is known to have used ‘honey traps’ on social media to lure migrants subject to potential deportation into situations where they can be detained.  Anyone wishing to apply for a visa to the US now has to provide access to their social media information. Similarly, Amazon Cloud Services have become the “invisible backbone of ICE” as the provider of their software infrastructure and are now being used by the UK Home Office.

Palantir is another interesting example. The firm was co-founded by Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel, who also invested in Anduril, the defence firm I mentioned above. Thiel has made public his anti-immigration sentiments and was a prominent donor to Trump’s presidential campaign. Palantir  has made the headlines for its billion-dollar contract with the UK National Health Service (NHS) for Foundry, a software also used by ICE to maintain their case working system. According to Mijente, a LatinX rights group, ICE used Palantir’s software to connect databases from across governmental agencies, “build profiles” and ultimately use these data points “to surveil and deport” immigrant communities.

The firm’s involvement with the British health services started during the COVID-19 pandemic when Palantir won an emergency contract to digitally track vaccine data and build a new cloud database for the NHS. Privacy advocates have repeatedly questioned this partnership. The back-end services, data inquiries, analytics and database management provided by Palantir may not seem as nefarious as large drones with VR headsets. Yet, one should not forget how Palantir’s technology has controversially been used by the US military. Palantir’s motives for working with the NHS for an initial cost of just £1 has specifically sparked concerns: will the firm cash on the sensitive data it ingested? The contract has now been revised to a longer-term £23.5m deal, but its involvement still raises questions about how Silicon Valley companies are given access to UK health data. An additional cause for concern is the NHS’ new connection to borders authorities under the memorandum of understanding of data sharing practices, which requires NHS staff to share their data with the Home Office and to check the immigration status of patients, as part of the hostile environment policy the Home Office has put in place. The opaqueness of Palantir’s algorithms further participates in the invisibilisation of this type of border policing.

Resisting Border Policing

While transforming border policing, Silicon Valley’s technology is also used by migrants as a tool to resist and organise. The border is not produced, formed, or controlled solely by the state and by private actors: Silicon Valley can also be a throughline to think about border policing resistance. For instance, Google Maps is used by migrants on the move to guide them in their journey across borders, while social media movements help gather individuals to avoid detection. Social media and smart phones are used by migrants to connect with their families and communities, as well as to inform other people on the move about dangers lying ahead. Migrants use their networks to share resistance practices and their knowledge of alternative routes. These digital resources have been vital to organise collective claims to rights by providing migrants with social links and community networks.

The smartphones designed in Silicon Valley are also used to break the institutional silence or the invisibility forced upon right-claimants as the videos they share on social media bring to light the human rights abuses they face during their crossing of seas and borders, as well as the violent practices of border authorities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has urged migrants to use digital technologies to record interactions with border enforcements to capture potential cases of mistreatments. Technology’s power to spread information quickly has become a tried-and-tested method used by both migrants and NGOs working to resist the discriminatory effects of technology and twist it towards practices of justice.

To conclude, border policing operates on two related levels. It first operates in a territorial field, where the boundaries of states are secured via their openings and limitations through surveillance mechanisms. The technology created in Southern California has been instrumental in providing the tools that make this type of securitisation possible. Secondly, border policing operates in a more ambivalent and less-visible way in the field of everyday life through its tactics of social media surveillance and its use of data to inform border policing practices. The idea to “Move Fast and Break Things” seems not to have just been Mark Zuckerberg’s motto for a social media company but a new outlook for border policing. Experimenting on communities and life chances, Silicon Valley’s ethos and technology have transformed bordering practices. Yet, technologies can also be reappropriated by migrants to facilitate their struggles.


Kaelynn Narita is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths studying the UK Digital Hostile Environment. She is interested in how technologies placed within migration governance can reinforce discriminatory structures. Her interest in migration was formed early while growing up in San Francisco, a city transformed by immigrant communities and technology.

This is the tenth contribution of PERC’s series on the Silicon Valley ideology. If you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]gold.ac.uk).