UK Home Office works with US defence start-up to identify small-boat crossings

The UK Home Office is working with US defence start-up Anduril Industries to identify migrants crossing the English Channel, using the company’s artificial intelligence-powered surveillance technology to track small boats.

Anduril, which is backed by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor and prominent supporter of Donald Trump, is best known for its work with the US military. The start-up has previously used its sentry towers to autonomously identify, detect and track people crossing the US-Mexico border.

According to people familiar with the move, Anduril is assisting with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats”, with one of the company’s sentry towers installed in Dover overlooking the English Channel.

The Conservative government’s embrace of Anduril may prove controversial, however, with some US politicians and privacy activists having described the use of AI-assisted technology on borders as “invasive” and “inhumane”.

Named after a sword in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Anduril was established in 2017 by Palmer Luckey, the founder of the Oculus virtual reality headsets.

The start-up has been valued at $7bn in a recent funding round, with backing from leading Silicon Valley investors including Thiel and venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz.

Paul Hollingshead, Anduril’s head of Europe and Africa, said on LinkedIn that he had briefed Sunak “on our support to the national security operation led by the Home Office” during a visit to Dover’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre earlier this month.

Anduril has installed a maritime sentry tower outside the centre, which according to the company can detect vessels more than 15km out to sea and identify them as “suspicious”.

Hollingshead said Anduril’s work was “a great example of a government operating model that integrates sensors and systems across sea, land and air”, in his LinkedIn post earlier this month.

According to its website, Anduril stores “a complete history of all traffic detected by Sentry Towers” in its software platform Lattice, which can pull data from different surveillance systems and detect, track and classify objects. The company has previously said its surveillance tech does not use facial recognition software.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson had put the military in charge of tackling the issue of migrant boat crossings. In January, Sunak charged the Home Office to take over through a newly created Small Boats Operational Command unit.

Duncan Capps, a Major General in the British Army recently appointed to lead the unit, was also pictured with Sunak during the visit to Dover, in photos released by Downing Street that appear to show the Anduril sentry tower in view.

Anduril signed three contracts almost £8mn with the Ministry of Defence in 2021, according to data from Tussell, a company that tracks government outsourcing. Its contract with the Home Office has not yet been published, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The Home Office said “drones, boats, land-based radar and cameras” would be introduced when it created the specialised small boats unit at the end of January. It is also recruiting 730 extra staff to support its work in tackling the small-boat crossings.

The Home Office has also taken other controversial steps to address the issue. Suella Braverman, home secretary, introduced an illegal migration bill to the House of Commons earlier this month that would impose a “legal duty” to remove all asylum seekers considered to have entered the UK “illegally” to a “safe” third country or their country of origin.

Anduril declined to comment. The Home Office said: “we do not comment on commercial arrangements with suppliers.”


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