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Border Lines

The Mexican Border-Crossing App That Suddenly Disappeared

“What would stop Border Patrol agents from signing up for this also?”

Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson

Image: Bienvenidos

Update, 3/26/18: In a written statement sent to Motherboard, a Bienvenidos representative confirmed the “social navigation app for immigrants” is not, in fact, real, supporting one of the theories raised in our original story below: that the project is “a satirical artwork that disrupts the borders of reality to provoke thought about immigration and where we may be headed as a society, which some might categorize within the tradition of border art,” the statement reads.

Update, 1/29/18: Both bienvenidosapp.com and the teaser video have reappeared online, with no noticeable changes to the original versions. We've reached out to Bienvenidos for additional comment and will update this story if we hear back.

On Monday, while a stopgap spending measure was being approved in the Senate as part of a new February deadline for immigration reform, a curious teaser video appeared online.

“What if there was a smarter way that gave people the power to freely enter and reenter the United States with just a few taps of their smartphone?” a narrator asked.

What if?

The slick 72-second spot had largely slipped under the radar, with a mere 59 views at the time it was abruptly taken offline Wednesday evening. That’s something of an irony, considering it’s for a mobile app we’re told is for migrants hoping to avoid immigration authorities while crossing the Mexico-US boundary on foot, including potential obstacles like the “big, beautiful wall” President Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to build along the southern border.

It’s called Bienvenidos (“Welcome”) and it’s billed as “the world’s first community-based navigation app for migration.” Motherboard first learned of the app in a cold email pitch we received on Monday from “The Bienvenidos Team” (it’s unclear how many others might have gotten the same formulaic release). The project’s website, Bienvenidosapp.com, claimed the app offers undocumented migrants and individuals a streamlined means of navigating the perils of border crossing, which so often involves days-long treks over harsh terrain in extreme weather. Imagine Waze, Google’s free GPS-based traffic and navigation app, only for transiting the borderlands undetected and in one piece.

But in a hot-button climate around the politics of borders and people moving between them, can one be so sure? Is Bienvenidos, in fact, real?

“Yes, Bienvenidos is real and currently in development,” an individual speaking on behalf of the project told Motherboard over email. “Whether it’s Dreamers or DACA recipients being deported by force, or people attempting to enter the United States for the first time, Bienvenidos attempts to make border crossing simpler, safer, and faster, improving the quality of everyone’s journey,” said the rep, who asked to remain anonymous “given the highly sensitive subject matter that our app engages in.”

Image: Bienvenidos

The pitch is almost deceptively simple: just punch in your location and “get going” with real-time information on optimal routes for jumping the international boundary. Additionally, users will receive live notifications on the whereabouts of US Border Patrol agents stationed over the high-tech dragnet that now defines one of the most expensive borders in the world, where a constellation of ground sensors, hidden cameras, and spy drones feeds into an expanding borderland-industrial complex.

Bienvenidos will also enable users to “outsmart any border wall” with tips about “vulnerabilities and weak spots” in existing fencing and barricades, and to “share tunneling locations and conditions” and drop pins for other crossers along the way. The company site also said it plans to eventually expand the service to France, Germany, the UK, Greece, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Exactly how any of that would work is not entirely clear. There is little by way of information about what the functionality and technological safeguards behind such a tool might look like. The Bienvenidos rep we spoke to declined a request for any kind of working demo or additional information to otherwise show proof of concept. “This app obviously entails a much higher level of security and safety concerns than the typical app,” the rep said, “so we can’t simply disseminate beta versions in the typical way.”

In other words, there’s really no way for us to verify whether Bienvenidos is indeed an app designed with genuinely humanitarian intent. Or if it's even an app at all. Of course, it might be. But who’s to say Bienvenidos isn’t rather a trolling operation, or a stunt of some kind? Maybe it’s an art project? The nearly 2,000-mile Mexico-US border, after all, has a rich history as a canvas for politically-charged installations and performance pieces meant to feel provocative—disrupting the border, as it were.

Think of the company behind popular card game Cards Against Humanity making a border land-grab to counter US efforts to build up physical barriers there; the Mexican congressman who filmed and tweeted himself scaling and sitting atop the wall last year to mock Trump’s calls to extend it along the entire border; a 65-foot-tall image of a baby’s face peeking over the wall; or that time in 1997, when artist Marcos Ramírez Erre threaded a 33-foot, two-headed Trojan Horse statue through snarling vehicle traffic at the port-of-entry near Tijuana and San Diego. Ramírez Erre carted the wooden equine until it straddled the line between the neighboring countries, a statement on the nature of existing in two nations at the same time.

If Bienvenidos falls into this tradition of border art—and we can’t confidently say it doesn’t—perhaps it could be seen as part commentary on "the wall,” part indictment of a startup culture that exploits minorities while simultaneously cooperating with government requests for user data.

But if not? If Bienvenidos is, as we’re told it is, a bonafide app? Then it’s a bad idea.

Image: Bienvenidos

“I don't see the appeal,” Robert Bunker, an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University whose work regularly focuses on Mexico-US borderland issues, told me over email. “So, people crossing the border are going to crowd share their info like car drivers with Google Maps?”

Say Bienvenidos is, truly, an app created with only the best intentions. By offering something other than material aid like food and water, as a volunteer with a migrant rights group in Arizona was recently arrested for, the app is instead facilitating the potential breaking of multiple current US laws, namely illegal border crossings, Bunker said. One also has to wonder whether such a location-based service, in the cat-and-mouse chase between human smuggling and efforts to combat undocumented border crossing, is even something migrants and other crossers, people who are already inclined to draw as little or any unwanted attention to themselves, would willingly sign up for. That’s assuming the forces out against them could just as easily get on Bienvenidos too.

“What would stop Border Patrol agents from signing up for this also?” Bunker said.

The immediate countermeasure to Bienvenidos, if it indeed it is a legitimate product, would be militias and so-called civilian “patriot groups” with a presence along the border, Bunker added. These groups could conceivably figure out how to “spoof” the system, flooding it with false intel about Border Patrol outposts, overhead drones, and sensors.

To this point, we asked Bienvenidos how people who use the app will be protected, if users should be concerned about their cover potentially being blown, and where and how personal information and location data will be collected and stored. The company stressed that security is “clearly paramount” if it is to succeed in making a reliable app, but was vague on specifics.

Image: Bienvenidos

“Everything has been secured from the ground up using robust algorithms and API encryption, in addition to database encryption and encrypted connections with a TLS,” the rep said. “Meaning that we keep all data private while in transit.”

“Additionally, we use a federated database system, which spreads resources across diverse servers that are geographically decentralized, so they’re not all in one place, keeping key resources from users, with additional encryption,” the rep added. “Lastly, user data is secured on a file-by-file basis, providing at-rest data with encryption so that it cannot be interpreted if intercepted.”

On the front end, we’re told, “anyone will be able to download Bienvenidos,” although in order to register over email and then actually utilize the app prospective users will need to clear a “preliminary review process.” The rep claimed anyone trying to sign up for Bienvenidos using a US government-issued email address, including CBP or ICE agents, wouldn’t have access. The company did not respond to follow up questions about what the “preliminary review process” entails and where users get the app once they are approved.

Beyond that, there will be additional safeguards built into the app to “prevent or actively disable” American officials from using it, according to the rep, who told us the app’s functionality hinges on specific movement signatures and “limited engagements.” In this way, it mirrors the mechanics of crossing the border, a “migratory” nature keyed to the app’s proprietary algorithm.

“Aberrant use of the app, including overly extended usage or abnormal movement patterns, are red flags and clear indicators of bad actors, which will prevent usage,” the rep said. “In other words, even if an ICE or CBP agent were to sign up, their starting location and movement style while using the app would be so distinctly different than someone attempting to cross the border that it would trigger an immediate security measure to shutdown their account and prevent usage.”

All of which might demonstrate a grasp of computer security theory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it squares with the reality on the ground.

“The humanitarian intent of the app and its application in the real world—the use for which they are intending it—is likely not going to play out very well,” Bunker said. “The thought that individuals and families that want to cross the border will go through a preliminary review process with the app developers, as part of the ‘front-end user experience’ is, in my mind, a Silicon Valley fantasy that seems based on upper middle class millennials.”

He said that’s because small groups of individuals or families simply don’t cross from Mexico to the US, over vast tracts of Southwestern desert, on their own or under the watch of independent foot guides, or coyotes. Or at least not like they did back in the day, according to Bunker. It all comes down to the cartels: Mexican organized crime gangs have pulled this illicit market out from under the mom-and-pop operations that formerly controlled border crossings, meaning people who have paid to be smuggled into the US are now often forced to double as drug mules, carrying backpacks full of narcotics. It’s hard to see fertile ground for a robust, independent user pool for an app like Bienvenidos in an environment like the one that currently exists on the border.

“If used by those actually doing the [drug] transport, it would only benefit cartel and gang members involved in human smuggling,” Bunker said. “I have real trouble seeing them actually signing up for this app, as that would make no sense.”

That’s especially true in a liminal place where you just don’t see many smartphones. As we’ve previously reported, most migrants and smugglers attempting to cross the border carry disposable “burner” phones, a ubiquitous pay-as-you-go mobile tech that is an essential tool of border crossings today. Still others don’t use cell phones, period, for fear of inadvertently beaming their location to authorities patrolling the US side. When high-tech tops low-tech, go no tech, basically.

This is something I’ve heard firsthand while reporting in and around the sister cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, a major port-of-entry into the US, a little south of Tucson. Extended interviews with a Sinaloa cartel plaza boss and one of his coyotes gave off a keen sense of a fixation smugglers share with migrants over leaving behind electronic footprints. The coyote, a twentysomething local who I’ll call Juan, claimed at the time that he was crossing 15 to 20 migrants into the US each week, and told me neither he nor the individuals he guides keep phones on them during runs. Juan added that he and his bosses will sometimes confiscate and turn off the phones of migrants ahead of time.

“People are very suspicious here,” Juan said. “They don’t use cell phones.”

As this story was about to go to press Wednesday evening Bienvenidos sent out an update.

“All content has been taken down and currently unavailable,” it said. “Apologies for the confusion, but we're holding off on our announcement after all for the time being.”

With additional reporting by Jason Koebler.

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