Security shouldn’t be a synonym for giving up civil liberties. But bills like HR 399 show that lawmakers think it is. The Secure Our Borders First Act is an ugly piece of legislation that’s clearly intended to strongarm the Department of Homeland Security into dealing with the border in a very particular way—with drones and other surveillance technology.
The bill appears to have stalled in the House—it was on the calendar for last week but wasn’t voted on, and it's not on the schedule for this week. But it’s not dead yet. And even if it does die, this isn’t the first time Congress has tried to increase the use of drones at the border. In 2013, the Senate passed S.744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The bill called for the use of drones “24 hours per day and for 7 days per week.” The House of Representatives did not pass the legislation, but the drone mandate in HR 399 is eerily similar—and it demonstrates that the idea that drones should be used at the border is persistent.
The 72-page piece of legislation, authored by Rep. Michael McCaul from Texas, gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) an incredibly specific mandate. It requires DHS to gain “operational control” of high traffic areas within 2 years, and the entire southern border within 5 years. Operational control means “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.” It prescribes exactly how that should be done, and even includes penalties for failure to do so, including pay freezes for government officials.
The bill also prescribes how operational control should be obtained. It does this by prescribing what equipment 11 specific border points should use. At several of the points, that equipment includes drones. Additionally, the bill includes the following mandate:
The Office of Air and Marine of U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] shall operate unmanned aerial systems not less than 16 hours per day, seven days per week.
As the ACLU notes, it’s a little shocking that the bill includes such mandates only “weeks after a damning DHS Inspector General (DHS IG) report titled ‘CBP Drones are Dubious Achievers.’” And that’s just the most recent report. In June of 2012, EFF called attention to another DHS IG report that faulted the DHS for wasting time, money, and resources using drones that were ineffective and lacked oversight. To put it in perspective, Predator drones cost $3,000 per hour to fly. That’s certainly part of the reason that HR 399 authorizes $1 billion in appropriations.
Of course, the waste of money in this bill pales in comparison to its potential negative impact on civil liberties. Drones pose a multitude of privacy concerns. Drones can be equipped with, among other capabilities, facial recognition technology, live-feed video cameras, thermal imaging, fake cell phone towers to intercept phone calls, texts and GPS locations, as well as backend software tools like license plate recognition, GPS tracking, and facial recognition. They are capable of highly advanced and near-constant surveillance, and can amass large amounts of data on private citizens, which can then be linked to data collected by the government and private companies in other contexts.
Lest it seem that this will only affect communities directly adjacent to the border, or individuals being investigated or pursued by CBP, it’s important to note that the government considers the border to extend 100 miles in, and CBP has certain powers to conduct activities like searches that would be unconstitutional elsewhere. Furthermore, according to documents obtained by the EFF as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency, CBP appears to be flying drones well within the Southern and Northern US borders for a wide variety of non-border patrol reasons. In fact, the documents showed that between 2010-2012, the number of missions CBP flew for state, local and non-CBP federal agencies increased eight-fold.
The silver lining? The legislation hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time to contact your elected representatives and tell them to vote no.