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More Drones on US Borders Create Privacy Concerns for Its Neighbors

The US is significantly expanding drone surveillance of its border with Canada, leading to worries over privacy and civil liberties.
Photo via AP/Matt York

The US will soon launch widespread drone surveillance on its border with Canada, after blanketing half its border with Mexico with the unmanned aerial vehicles in place of border patrol agents.

But the drones — which officials told VICE News cost $10 million each and take high-resolution videos while soaring over remote areas — violate people's right to privacy and will further "militarize" the line between the US and Canada, analysts told VICE News.


"This creates a virtual wall between the countries," Don Alper, the director of Western Washington University's Center for Canadian-American Relations and Border Policy Research Institute, told VICE News. "It doesn't make sense to me. There are other ways of security, like close cooperation between Canadian and American enforcement — and they already do cooperate really well."

Drones already cover 900 miles of the border with Mexico and have also patrolled parts of the northern border since 2004, information from US Customs and Border Protection shows. Alper said the northern drones had been presented as part of ramped-up security efforts in the US "War on Terror."

No known terrorists have been apprehended coming from Canada, but marijuana seizures have skyrocketed — quadrupling from 2008 to 2009 with the use of the technology. Over that year border apprehensions actually dropped, from 7,925 to 6,806, according to the Toronto Star.

"The [US government] will obviously justify these kind of activities with there being a potential threat of terrorists coming into the US but they're not finding terrorists — they're really finding drugs," Alper said.

The technology has indeed led to "the interdiction of 7,500 pounds of cocaine" and "230,500 pounds of marijuana," a representative for US Customs and Border Protection told VICE News. He noted that 27,000 "illicit movements" had also been detected at the borders. And a 2010 government report claimed that the northern border was most vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.


'The use of drones for border surveillance presents a substantial civil liberties risk for people.'

The drones not only patrol US borders, but they can be lent to local and national law enforcement — prompting serious civil liberty concerns, Privacy Coalition coordinator for the Electronic Research Center's National Security Counsel Jeramie Scott told VICE News.

A North Dakota cattle rancher was recently sentenced to jail time after he was located by a drone. The more drones Customs and Border Protection has, the more likely this kind of occurrence, Scott said.

"The use of drones for border surveillance presents a substantial civil liberties risk for people," Scott continued, adding that the federal government has not devised clear enough guidelines for the drones' use. "Customs and Border Protection should conduct a public rule making to establish privacy regulations for their use of drones in the United States."

A representative from Customs and Border Protection responded that the Department of Homeland Security had conducted a privacy review that was released this fall. The review said that Customs and Border Protection "has issued or plans to issue the procedures that help protect personal and civil liberties."

How a Pakistani village found and sold a crashed American drone. Read more here.

The privacy concerns can be more alarming for non-US citizens. Canadian privacy lawyer David Fraser told VICE News it was unclear whether the American law would grant Canadians across the border the right to privacy since they fell outside US borders.


But the US Customs representative said the Department of Homeland Security assured they would grant people out of the US the same privacy rights, as stated in their 2009 policy guide. He did not comment on whether Canada was consulted in the decision to ramp up drone use.

'It makes sense for the Border Patrol to focus their resources, and drones are a part of that strategy.'

US officials insisted to the Associated Press that the use of drones was the most effective way to patrol the border, since they could place Border Patrol agents in high concentrations at the most heavily trafficked crossings. So far the amount of agents has not decreased with drone use.

Drones may not be a money saver, but Marc Rosenblum, the Migration Policy Institute's deputy director of its US immigration program, told VICE News that their use was a way to focus resources more "strategically and efficiently" along the border.

"I agree that it makes sense for the Border Patrol to focus their resources, and drones are a part of that strategy," Rosenblum said.

And Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Richard Gil Kerlikowske told AP the unmanned aircraft were a way to "deploy your resources where you have a greater risk, a greater threat."

Officials from the Mexican and Canadian federal governments did not respond to requests for comment on the US policy.

But Fraser said he hoped his government was pressing the US for more information. "I'd hope that the Canadian government would ask about what is happening with the images, how long are they being kept, and what's going to happen with the data?"

Inside 'Black Dart,' the US military's war on drones. Read more here.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman