Use of surveillance drones for patrolling the border raises questions of privacy, stakes

Hernan Rozemberg/Fronteras Desk

Homeland Security Marine Interdiction Agents on patrol. Behind them is an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. The agents have the authority to inspect any watercraft they deem suspicious.

The Department of Homeland Security has been expanding its use of unmanned drones for domestic border surveillance. So far in our border drone series, we’ve taken you to the air and on the water and given you a look at leading politicians promoting use of drones.

In this fourth and last story in their series, the Fronteras Project talks to experts to find out if the drone program is effective and valuable.

It’s hard to find military or national security experts who are not supporters, if not all-out cheerleaders, for the use of high-tech surveillance systems to protect the nation’s borders. DHS just launched its tenth Predator B Unmanned Aerial System, or drone, and now both northern and southern borders are covered.

Even though they cost $18 million apiece, many experts say they’re worth every penny.

"Homeland Security’s behind the times," says Dan Goure, a former high-ranking Defense Department official. "It should have been doing this a decade ago."

Gouré, the current vice-president of a military think tank in Virginia, says that Homeland Security has done what it can on the surface and now it's time to turn to the air "in order to be effective."

Doug Davis agrees.

"I don’t think there’s a whole lot of need to do this over Kansas," he says. "But for border surveillance, I believe we absolutely need that as a nation right now.

Davis has been working with drones for over two decades. He’s currently second in charge of the country’s largest drone development and testing center at New Mexico State University. He also started the drone office at the Federal Aviation Administration.

"What you have to balance is the safety of the airspace users and the people on the ground with the national security of the country," sums up Davis.

But that balance is what’s at issue here. Opponents of the drone program say the government can now spy into anyone’s backyard without their consent. That’s a scary thought, says Jay Stanley with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The government does have the right to protect its borders," he acknowledges, "but we haven’t sat down and gotten our policies straight about how we want to allow these technologies to be used, what kind of limits need to be placed on them in order to protect our privacy."

And then there’s also the question of how just effective these drones are. In May, Homeland Security’s own internal watchdog issued a scathing report on the use of drones along the border. It questioned why drones are being put to use for less than 4,000 flight hours per year when they could be up in the air for more than 13,000 hours.

They’re just not being used efficiently, says Tom Barry. He researches drone issues at the Center for International Policy, a foreign policy think tank in Washington DC.

"They’re not in the air that much," he says. "They send these drones to air shows in Paris or Wisconsin or Minnesota because they’re not a critical part of the border mission."

Those supporting drones counter that it’s a fairly new program and, sure, it’s going through some growing pains. As to privacy concerns, former Defense Department official Dan Goure says: Get with the times.

"That horse left the barn years ago," according to Goure. "We’re under constant surveillance. What’s the difference if it’s a camera on a pole or a camera on a drone? The answer is nothing, no difference."

The public seems a bit conflicted on the issue, as well. Thomas Lamatsch is assistant director at the Polling Institute at Monmouth University in New Jersey. The institute conducted a national poll last month on the domestic use of drones.

"When it comes to using drones to control immigration on the nation’s borders, about two thirds of the public agree with that," he says, but adds that 42 percent of those surveyed also expressed being “very concerned” about the impact on their privacy.

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