Brinc, a rising star among the many companies jockeying to sell drones to police, has a compelling founding mythology: In the wake of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, its young founder decided to aid law enforcement agencies through the use of nonviolent robots. A company promotional video obtained by The Intercept, however, reveals a different vision: selling stun gun-armed drones to attack migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The company’s ascendant founder and CEO, Blake Resnick, recently appeared on Fox Business News to celebrate a venture capital coup: $25 million from Silicon Valley A-listers like Sam Altman, ex-LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s Next Play Ventures, and former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. The 21-year-old Resnick, a Thiel fellow and a new inductee to the prestigious Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the category of social impact, told Fox Business’s Stuart Varney that Brinc’s quadcopter drones are helping police defuse dangerous hostage situations on a near-daily basis. Resnick repeated his longtime claim that the company had been founded “in large part” as a lifesaving response to the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, an inspirational story that’s made its way into press coverage of the startup. With increased scrutiny paid to the moral and bodily harms posed by autonomous militarized robots, Brinc’s “Values & Ethics” webpage offers a salve, asserting a “duty to bring these technologies into the world responsibly” and a commitment to “never build technologies designed to hurt or kill.”
But a 2018 promotional video for an unreleased border security product shows that the startup’s original technological goals did involve hurting people. In the video, Resnick, standing at an unnamed stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border, demonstrates how his company’s flying bots could be used to detect, track, interrogate, and ultimately physically attack would-be migrants. “This is one of the most desolate parts of our southern border,” a blazer-clad Resnick says in the video, standing beside a large metallic box adorned with solar panels. “Every year, over $100 billion of narcotics and half a million people flow through areas just like this one.” When the video was made, the Trump administration had begun investing in so-called virtual wall surveillance technologies to obviate the need for the physical wall that Donald Trump had promised during his presidential campaign, inking contracts with Brinc competitors like Anduril Industries (also linked to Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder behind the Thiel Fellowship). “There’s no wall here,” notes Resnick, “and it probably wouldn’t work anyway because of the rough terrain and eminent domain issues.” Luckily, “there is a solution,” says Resnick, gesturing to the metal chest.
Resnick would have been about 18 at the time the video was made.
In the video, Resnick calls that solution the “Wall of Drones,” in which the glinting boxes would be deployed across the border, each harboring a small robotic quadcopter with high-definition and thermal sensors, self-piloting abilities, human-detection software, and, crucially, a stun gun. Once Brinc’s border drone detected a “suspicious” person, it was to connect its sensors and built-in speaker with a Border Patrol agent, who would then remotely “interrogate” the “perpetrator.” In the video demonstration, a Latino actor referred to as “José” is walking in the middle of the desert when he is approached by the Brinc drone. José then refuses to show identification to the drone, points a gun at it, and walks away, whereupon the drone is depicted firing a Taser into his back and shooting an electrical current through him. José crumples into the dirt.
Fully realized, the Wall of Drones would have entailed hundreds or thousands of these armed robots constantly searching for targets along the border, adding more weapons to an already highly militarized stretch of the Earth.
The artificial intelligence-powered hunting and tasing of a wandering migrant isn’t a scene that’s immediately easy to reconcile with Brinc’s corporate vow: “Be mindful of the implications of our work — we won’t build a dystopia.” Today the company is still engineering sophisticated security-oriented drones with an eye toward police, the Department of Homeland Security, and defense customers but without the weaponized variant shown off in the desert. Brinc’s current main offering to police and other first responders is the LEMUR S drone, which closely resembles the Wall of Drones unit but does not have a weapon installed. It’s described by the company as a “tactical tool that can help to de-escalate, reduce risk, and save lives.” The company also sells the BRINC BALL, a spherical cellphone-like device that can be tossed into dangerous situations by police to listen and communicate remotely.
The Blake Resnick of today, three years removed from his borderland demonstration, is contrite over having worked on the border system. He told The Intercept over email that the “video is immature, deeply regrettable and not at all representative of the direction I have taken the company in since.” He described the Wall of Drones system as a “prototype” that was “never fully developed, sold, or used operationally” and was discontinued in 2018 because it is “prone to disastrous misuse. … I agree that the technology as depicted is unethical and that is one of the reasons we created a set of Values and Ethics to guide our work,” he added, referring to the website section.
Resnick also said that “the video was faked” — the company “never built a drone with a functional taser.” The video, he said, used compressed gas to fire a Taser dart at the actor but “without actually putting high voltage through the wires.”
Still, the company did try to sell the system: Resnick noted that “BRINC had initial discussions with a very limited number of parties” about purchasing the Wall of Drones system, explaining that the idea was to build something cheaper than a border wall that would reduce “the risk of gunfights between law enforcement and armed traffickers attempting to cross into the United States.” But “nothing ever progressed” with the project, and Resnick repeated his claim that he was inspired by the Las Vegas shooting “to pivot away from these uses” to serving emergency responders, though work continued on the Wall of Drones into the year following the massacre. That pivot and the company values statement predated the startup’s first employee, revenue, product delivery, and fundraising, he said. Brinc, he said, is committed to not selling weaponized drones.
Despite Resnick’s change of heart and the company’s current unarmed tack, some who spoke to The Intercept say the fact that the technology was ever on the table raises serious concerns about the values, ambitions, and judgment of Brinc and its young CEO. And though Brinc’s founder says that he’s pivoted away from drones built to intercept and incapacitate migrants, the company’s original mission — selling flying robots to aid in state security — remains in place, situating the company in an ethically fraught new frontier of business. The company recently hired a “federal capture and strategy director,” previously employed by a defense contractor selling drones to U.S. Special Operations Command, suggesting an interest in military applications.
“He’s got this whole narrative about the shooting in Vegas, but the original idea was 100 percent to use drones to tase migrants,” a source with direct knowledge of Brinc told The Intercept. The source, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their livelihood, said that Resnick at the time showed little interest in drone “applications in the non-tasing immigrants business” even though there are “a million things you can use drones for that don’t involve electrocuting people.”
Referring to Brinc’s current emphasis on nonviolence and de-escalation, this person said, “They only made that up when they raised funds from real investors like Sam Altman. The company puts out a good front about rescuing people and doing no harm, but imagine what is said to cops behind closed doors?”
“Startups pivot all the time to where the money is,” this source added. “Google once said ‘don’t be evil.’ When the rubber hits the road, you’ve got paying customers, and those customers want things.”
A patent in Resnick’s name protecting an expanded version of the system from the video raises further questions about both his stated motivation for pivoting away from weaponized drones and about the potential for the company to use such technology in the future. Brinc provisionally applied for the patent in 2017 but formally applied in June 2018 — seven months after the Vegas shooting that Resnick said convinced him to switch to helping emergency responders. The patent was awarded to Brinc last year. The patent application, for “Drone Implemented Border Patrol,” states: “If a person is detected, an onboard facial recognition algorithm will attempt to identify the person. … In one embodiment, the facial recognition algorithm works by comparing captured facial features with the U.S. Department of State’s facial recognition database.”
“When the rubber hits the road, you’ve got paying customers, and those customers want things.”
The patent specifies that the onboard stun gun is a Taser X26, a powerful, discontinued electroshock weapon associated with “higher cardiac risk than other models,” according to a 2017 Reuters investigation. But a stun gun was only one of many possible options. Other potential anti-migrant armaments described in the patent include pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, rubber buckshot, plastic bullets, beanbag rounds, sponge grenades, an “electromagnetic weapon, laser weapon, microwave weapon, particle beam weapon, sonic weapon and/or plasma weapon,” along with “a sonic approach to incapacitate a target.”
Migrant and civil liberties advocates decried the technology demonstrated in the video.
“The Biden administration and Congress must not contract with companies like Brinc,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, after reviewing the video. “Doing so promotes profits over people and does nothing to further human safety or security.” Ebadolah added that the Wall of Drones system is “particularly horrifying when one considers potential targets: unaccompanied children, pregnant people, and asylum-seekers searching for safety.”
She echoed the source’s concerns about a pivot back to weaponized drones, stating: “In an unregulated market, tech executives follow the money, and they engineer their products for buyers that promise large profits and little scrutiny. The most attractive government contracts are with our most over-funded and under-scrutinized agencies: law enforcement.”
“You can tell very clearly that these companies are getting their inspiration from the killer drones that are used in other parts of the world.”
Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente, a Latino advocacy and migrant rights group, described the Wall of Drones video as “absolutely horrifying” in an interview with The Intercept. “It’s terrifying to think that this is not just an awful idea that someone brings up in a brainstorming session, but [Brinc has] gone so far as to make the video,” which she says is illustrative of “how blurry the line has become between war zones and a militarized border. You can tell very clearly that these companies are getting their inspiration from the killer drones that are used in other parts of the world.”
Gonzalez said that she was disturbed by the scenario depicted in the video, which she described as a “racist fantasy” and not representative of the true humanitarian problems along the border. “If there was a drone flying over, they would most likely be finding families and people who are going through a very difficult health crisis. … They would be confronting folks that might not be speaking English.” Forcing the average southern border migrant into an interrogation with a robot designed to electrocute them “just makes a dangerous journey all the more violent, all the more likely to result in death or harm.”
Gonzalez shared skepticism over how Brinc’s current pledge to not help build a robotic police dystopia might fare in the longer term: “You cannot trust a company that is even putting ideas like this out into the world.” Avoiding a future in which the southern border is patrolled by armed flying robots “not only requires commitments from this company to say that they won’t produce this type of drone, but it also requires local police departments, and ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and Border Patrol to all proactively say, ‘This is not the type of technology that we want to invest in, we would absolutely never implement something like this.’”