Data Privacy and Security

Never mind walls, US border patrol wants more drones

With Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for the US presidential election in November, he has stoked the flames on several controversial topics for any politician, namely illegal immigration. His most infamous plan is to build a wall spanning the US-Mexico border in an attempt to curb illegal immigration.

It’s a plan that has been deemed absurd by his political opponents and commentators, as well as civil engineers that have questioned the plausible costs for the wall, which according to Trump himself have jumped wildly from $4 billion to $12 billion (engineers have said it’s more like $25 million). Nevertheless, Trump has garnered huge support for the wall from voters concerned with immigration from Mexico.

The US Customs & Border Protection [CBP] has expressed similar concerns. While it hasn’t asked for anything quite as ambitious as a wall, it has still requested extra fencing, according to Reuters, which could run into the hundreds of millions to build and maintain.

Several years ago new fencing was erected on the southern border, spanning 653 miles, to tackle people moving into the US illegally. In the eyes of border patrol, these traditional blocking mechanisms may no longer hold up so now they are also looking for drones to monitor the border as well as hi-definition cameras affixed to watchtowers for what has been called a “virtual wall”.

The CBP already spends a significant proportion of its budget on walls and fencing but it has increasingly turned to technology like drones.

In late 2014, it was revealed that up to half of the US-Mexico border was now being patrolled by drones, mostly in remote areas that cannot be patrolled by foot or by watchtower. The news revealed the extent to which the US border was going to keep up with technology. The drones would typically monitor mountains and waterways and build up a database of footage of the areas that could be checked and compared for changes.

The program appears to have been a success so far. The drones are primarily used to free up agents to monitor the real hotspots for Mexicans crossing the border illegally. It was even reported the border patrol will deploy drones on the Canadian border.

As a result, there is a great deal of concern over the use of drones on the border to police immigration.

“We’re highly dubious about the use of drones at the border. Obviously a country has a right to patrol and monitor its borders but this is a technology that can do much more than that and it’s not clear how the boundaries are set,” says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This kind of technology would need to be deployed with great care, great thought and with great transparency and with checks and balances commensurate with the power that it represents.”

Drone use on the border has yet to prove that it is even efficient and worth the investment, claims Stanley, so the discussion over expanding their use shouldn’t even be happening: “It costs $12,000 an hour to operate and has very little effectiveness in terms of securing the border and stopping illegal immigration.”

There have even been accusations that drug cartels have been jamming GPS systems to throw the drones off.

General Atomics, a maker of UAVs and contractor for drones on the border, disagrees with this sentiment.

“UAVs on the border have proven to be exceptionally effective,” said Scott Dann, director of strategic development at General Atomics. “The issue is that CBP lacks operational and maintenance funding to provide additional pilots and sensor operators to realise the potential of the aircraft fully.”

When asked about the use of drones on the border, the US Customs & Border Protection agency did not confirm if it was seeking more aircraft.

“US Customs & Border Protection is constantly looking for ways to improve its reconnaissance, surveillance and tracking capabilities. CBP uses a mix of infrastructure, technology and most importantly our people, to secure our nation’s borders,” Dan Hetlage from the Office of Public Affairs at CBP told IDG Connect in a statement.

Another big issue for drones is potential privacy infringements. Unmanned aircraft, decked out with high resolution cameras, may be tasked with spotting human traffickers, but what about the people caught up in the crossfire?

“There’s a tendency to see surveillance as a silver bullet.  People think that if we can just watch everything all the time, we can solve every problem but in the real world, as a practical matter, that rarely works out,” says Stanley.

In April, a Texas man filed legal action against the state law that allowed for the use of drones on the US-Mexico border, claiming it breaches the privacy of residents living in the south of the state near the border.

Stanley explains that the use of drones needs a new system of checks and balances to ensure they are used safely and responsibly, including how much imagery is collected, retained and in some cases shared. Another one of these proposed checks is making public just where and when these drones are used, although proponents will argue that this would undermine the purpose of drones if human traffickers knew what drone-patrolled areas to avoid and when.

“There’s really nothing stopping them flying them anywhere within the United States. I think this is being sold as something to monitor the border, which people think of as a line but we would need to know exactly where they are flying and why. I think there’s great evidence that the American people are quite concerned about drones,” adds Stanley.

Whether it’s at the border or in states across the US, there’s a growing debate and consternation around drones, he says, evidenced by the “explosion” of proposed and enacted legislation around the country.

“I think CBP needs to proceed very cautiously with how they deploy this really brand new technology.”


Also read:

What would Donald Trump as US president mean for tech?

Review: Commercial Drones 101


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Jonathan Keane

Jonathan Keane is a freelance journalist, living in Ireland, covering business and technology

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