For years, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation have kept tabs on potential privacy problems arising from immigration reform efforts. Now that a big immigration reform bill has made it out of committee and reached the Senate floor, privacy advocates are focused on three big concerns.
1) Drone surveillance: US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) already uses Predator drones to patrol parts of the northern and southern borders, but the Senate immigration bill calls for surveillance “24 hours per day and for 7 days per week,” in the southwest and southern border regions. The bill would also fund additional border enforcement and surveillance, including more drones, to the tune of $4.5 billion.
A federal statute from the 1950s allows border patrol agents to stop and search people at checkpoints located in the US up to 100 miles from any international border; the Senate immigration bill would allow the surveillance drones to fly over the same areas in most states. But by law, border agents can only enter private lands within 25 miles of the border without a warrant to track down immigrants who have unlawfully crossed the border.
Although the Senate immigration bill would require border drones to be unarmed, they would still possess the same high-tech surveillance capabilities designed for Predator drones used by the US military in Afghanistan. That, privacy advocates say, blurs the line that limits border patrol surveillance of private lands to 25 miles within the border. Beyond that, drone use raises the question of what other data the feds are sweeping up in the process of watching the border. In a recent New York Times Magazine story, a reporter witnesses an Air Force training exercise where drones track civilian vehicles on the highway. Regulations prevent the Air Force from targeting specific people, but it’s okay for it to hand data collected “incidentally” in the course of a separate operation, such as training or observing illegal activity, to federal agencies. That same logic could apply to border surveillance, which could conceivably give the feds wide latitude on data collection because of the Mexican drug war.
In short, the bill “offers little protections or guidance on drones’ use and on the grave privacy implications they create,” explains Mark Jaycox, an EFF policy analyst.