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Britain’s shadowy border

The approach is part of a global trend in using AI technology to digitize border security. The Trump administration hired Anduril in 2020 to build a “virtual” border wall, pairing the president’s plans for a physical steel barrier with AI surveillance technology. Meanwhile, the European Union has plans to start deploying fingerprint and facial recognition software at its borders, developing “emotion detection technologies” that they say will act as an automated lie detector.

Anduril’s AI-trained cameras provide surveillance for the US border with Mexico, as well as for the UK’s maritime border with France.
Anduril Industries

While the technology is embraced by governments, those working with refugees don’t believe it will deter those desperate to seek asylum and argue its use threatens their lawful right to do so.

“The rhetoric is ‘migrants are criminals, they must be controlled,’” Petra Molnar, a human rights lawyer and migration expert who is currently writing a book on AI surveillance and border security, told CNN.

“Technology could very easily be used for search and rescue, for finding boats faster and for preventing these horrific disasters. But unfortunately the reality on the ground is the opposite. It’s assisting powerful actors to be able to sharpen their borders and make it more difficult for people to come.”

Winter tragedy

Despite all the surveillance equipment, people have still lost their lives attempting to cross the Channel. CNN took an in-depth look at how the incident on December 14 unfolded, drawing on flight and ship-tracking data, official records from the French and UK authorities, a distress call from the vessel and interviews with a fisherman at the scene.

According to Tekever’s website, the drones provide “real-time intelligence to make oceans safer and save more lives” and the AR5 drone has an “automatic identification system” able to detect vessels. Speaking on the company’s contract with the Home Office, Paul Webb, chief operating officer of Tekever, said it showed “our continued commitment to protecting and preserving human life through AI-driven drone surveillance.”

However, in some cases, drone footage has also been used by the UK authorities to identify those driving the small boats and prosecute them for human trafficking. In 2020, Rebwar Ahmed, an Iraqi man, pleaded guilty to a charge of assisting unlawful immigration after allegedly driving a boat with migrants on board and being shown footage from the journey. The Home Office said the surveillance footage “has been absolutely critical in securing convictions.”

Tekever advertises in its promotional material that the AR5 drone, licensed by the UK government, can drop a life raft.

Anduril Industries, which signed one contract with the UK Ministry of Defence for £3.8 million in 2021, and currently has a contract with the Home Office, uses AI-trained cameras that “autonomously detect” vessels at sea and then alert the authorities. Neither Anduril nor the UK government would confirm any information regarding the scope and value of their current contract.

Meanwhile Sirius Insight AI, which touts the details of its work with the Home Office on its website, told CNN its technology “can provide instant autonomous alerts” on targets it is tracking, while its cameras can spot “a very small vessel at 10 miles with just a couple of people in it.” The Home Office does not appear to have published any record of its contract with Sirius Insight AI. Tekever confirmed to CNN its contract with the Home Office was renewed in February 2023 for three years.

The Home Office did not answer CNN’s questions as to why its response took so long to save lives given the extensive AI technology in its arsenal, but said its thoughts were with those affected by the incident. In response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by CNN to the UK Border Force, they said disclosing how this technology operates in the Channel might “aid the criminals seeking to facilitate these dangerous small boat crossings by informing organized criminal gangs about the UK Government’s ISR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) capability” and “increase the risk to life at sea.”

The UK Coastguard declined to comment citing ongoing legal proceedings concerning the December 14 incident but confirmed that it and the Home Office do have multiple contracts with AI companies. Sirius Insight AI said it couldn’t comment on how the Home Office was using its equipment or on incidents where people had died in the Channel “because of the commercial nature of our relationship with the Home Office.” Tekever and Anduril said they were unable to comment on the matter and referred CNN to the Home Office.

CNN also sought comment from the French authorities regarding their role in the search and rescue operation on December 14 but has not received a response.

The effect on UK migration

Sunak has already hailed the “stop the boats” policy — one of five key pledges he announced in January — a success. But the numbers have in fact continued to increase dramatically, with nearly 4,000 people making the journey in June 2023, according to the Home Office, a record high compared to previous years.

Number of people detected arriving in the UK via small boats, June 2018 to June 2023

June 201841637272,1773,8243,140June 2019June 2020June 2021June 2023June 2022

Source: UK Home Office, Irregular migration to the UK

On July 17, 2023, the British government passed new legislation that criminalizes all those who seek asylum in the UK without prior authorization, like many who board these boats. The Illegal Migration Bill faced serious pushback in the British Parliament with the upper chamber, the House of Lords, seeking multiple amendments to the bill including adding safeguarding provisions for unaccompanied child migrants and modern slavery victims, but these were ultimately rejected and it was pushed through. The United Nations has slammed the decision as being at odds with the UK’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law, saying the bill will have “profound consequences for people in need of international protection.”

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal, one of the highest courts in the UK, recently ruled that the government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, as Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country to receive refugees. The UK government has said it intends to appeal.

Molnar, the migration expert, says that evidence from the US and Europe indicates that governments’ focus on deterrence and surveillance is ineffective in preventing people from coming, many of them fleeing ongoing conflicts or environmental degradation.

“We’ve kind of lost the plot on what is really going on,” says Molnar.

“There is an internationally protected refugee law regime that allows people to claim asylum when they arrive on territory, and they should have access to a fair judicial system in order to be able to do so. But when we’re weaponizing borders through technology, and preventing people from coming, what we’re going to be seeing is increasing loss of life on the high seas.”


For this investigation CNN collected data on the AR5 drone, owned by Tekever and licensed by the UK Home Office. Its full flight history was taken from OpenSky, a public flight-tracking site. The flight data ranged from Oct 16, 2019 to July 13, 2023 and revealed the drone had flown in British and French territorial waters. CNN also examined the drone’s flight data using flight tracking sites ADSB Exchange and Flightradar24 which revealed it had flown between 10:00 GMT – 13:45 GMT on December 13, 2022, and 09:01 GMT – 13:49 GMT December 14, 2022 but not during the early hours of December 14, 2022, when the small boat carrying dozens of migrants was in distress. The Home Office also has access to an AR3 Tekever drone and two Anduril ghost drones; however, CNN was unable to collect data on these.

CNN submitted Freedom of Information Requests to the UK Home Office and UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency regarding which AI technology was used for the December 14, 2022 incident but the information was not disclosed citing ongoing legal proceedings and the use of equipment being a matter of UK national security.

To study the rescue operation on December 14, 2022, CNN used flight tracking data from OpenSky, ADSB Exchange and Flightradar24 to establish when the UK Coastguard helicopters arrived. MarineTraffic, a public marine traffic site, provided CNN with data for all vessels in the English Channel between 13:00 GMT on December 13, 2022 and 09:00 GMT on December 14, 2022, which revealed when Ray Strachan’s fishing boat arrived and when the UK lifeboats and other official vessels arrived. The location of the sinking vessel was established based on the location of Strachan’s fishing vessel at 3:00 GMT when, Strachan told CNN, it attached itself to the migrant vessel to haul people out.

Locations of Anduril surveillance sentry towers were established after speaking to two individuals living near an Anduril sentry tower. They provided imagery of this tower to CNN which was then used to identify further sentry towers along the coastline using Google Earth imagery. Their range of about 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) is based on information from the Anduril website. This list of sentry towers is not exhaustive. CNN reached out to the UK Home Office for a full list of the sentry towers and their locations, but this information was not provided, nor does it appear to be listed publicly.

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