An anonymous source sent an advanced copy of S.1757, otherwise known as the “Building America’s Trust Act,” to Ars Technica. If passed as written, the bill would dramatically expanded surveillance at the border and ports of entry, putting the privacy of immigrants and citizens alike at risk.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and co-sponsored by six of his Republican colleagues, mandates increased border drone surveillance and the collection of more biometric information, including but not limited to voice prints and facial scans.
The drone provisions of the bill are consistent with President Trump’s campaign rhetoric. During his campaign, he said drones should patrol the border 24/7. Cornyn’s bill doesn’t quite go that far, requiring Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to fly drones at least 24/5.
Drone surveillance at the border isn’t new, nor is it effective. In 2014 the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on CBP’s drone operations. It found that the drone program, which includes Predator B drones originally designed for military use, did not achieve expected results and contributed to very few apprehensions of illegal border crossers and marijuana. The report also found that the drone program cost $12,255 per flight hour. In FY2013, CBP’s drones flew for 5,102 hours for a combined cost of around $62.5 million.
This was a large expense for an inefficient border security tool. Aside from the fiscal costs, the increased use of drones on the border will worsen the militarization of the border, with American citizens being under the ever-snooping eye of border patrol surveillance equipment. In 2013, Americans on the border were already regularly seeing military-grade surveillance tools in the air. From a 2013 New York Times report:
The United States-Mexico border has become a war zone. It is also a transfer station for sophisticated American military technology and weapons. As our country’s foreign wars have begun to wind down, defense contractors look here, on the southern border, to make money.
Lately it has become entirely normal to look up into the Arizona sky and to see Blackhawk helicopters and fixed-wing jets flying by. On a clear day, you can sometimes hear Predator B drones buzzing over the Sonoran border. These drones are equipped with the same kind of “man-hunting” Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (Vader) that flew over the Dashti Margo desert region in Afghanistan.
CBP drones do not have to be large, military-grade predator drones. Earlier this year I noted that The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP’s parent agency, is interested in small, portable drones outfitted with facial recognition technology.
Facial recognition is also mentioned in S.1757 as part of the bill’s passport screening section, requiring that CBP “utilize facial recognition technology or other biometric technology” to “inspect travelers at United States airports of entry.”
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