Residents of Southern Arizona's borderlands are on a frontier, but it's not the one they're used to.
They're on a technological frontier, poised to be the first U.S. residents subject to 24-hour, seven-day-a-week aerial surveillance.
The immigration-reform bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this month commands Customs and Border Protection to establish constant surveillance using unmanned aircraft along the U.S.-Mexico line. The stated intent is to improve border security by allowing agents to detect illegal border crossings from the air.
It would mean a dramatic expansion of the surveillance society that people south of the Border Patrol checkpoints already live in, replete as it is with agents and cameras on the ground.
This is happening without any significant consideration of residents' privacy, not to mention the cost-effectiveness of Unmanned Aerial Systems, as government agencies call them, which may cost $3,000 per hour to operate. Congress and U.S. Customs and Border Protection need to pause to figure out how UAV operators will avoid slipping into casual surveillance of border-area residents and to evaluate UAVs' effectiveness before this costly proposal takes effect.
"CBP's drones have live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, the ability to intercept communications," Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me. "That's a lot of data that CBP would be sweeping up on Americans with no warrants, no justifications."
drone use overlaps
As it happens, many border-area residents of Cochise and Santa Cruz counties have already been confronted by the reality of so-called drones flying over them.
They're in an area of overlap where Border Patrol may fly its Unmanned Aerial Systems and U.S. Army trainees are also learning to fly the aircraft, based at Fort Huachuca. In fact, Border Patrol's four Predator B aircraft in Arizona are based at Libby Airfield near Sierra Vista, which the Army aircraft also use. They're different models but amount to the same concept: aircraft flown by pilots on the ground and equipped with cameras and other surveillance devices.
"You'll be out gardening or sitting out enjoying the sunset, then this stupid flying lawnmower buzzes you for an hour," said Ian Finley, a Patagonia resident.
My family and I experienced being buzzed by unmanned aircraft while staying at a friend's place near Canelo last November. Apparently it's now a regular feature of life in what used to be a quiet area.
The UAVs people hear - but usually don't see -are most likely the ones flown by U.S. Army trainees, not by Customs and Border Protection, since their Predator aircraft fly at higher altitudes. Nevertheless, they've raised issues among residents.
"The whole drone thing is a real threat to privacy," Patagonia resident Clint Trafton told me. He raised the specter of the aircraft "spying in your window without any kind of warrant, without anything to justify that."
In past years, you could dismiss his fears as paranoia, but now technology has made that kind of spying a real prospect. Not only can existing cameras detect small details on the ground, but they can keep the images and data forever.
Arizona's Legislature and others around the country have considered bills requiring warrants before law enforcement agencies can use unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance, but so far only Florida's has become law.
Use of data is key
Stephen Ingley, executive director of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association in Frederick, Md., said he thinks privacy concerns focused on UAVs are overblown in part because current technology allows so many other instruments to collect information.
"The issue is not the device that collects the data. It's the data itself and what's done with the data," he said.
That's true to an extent, but Lynch, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, noted that unmanned aircraft can stay in the air much longer than manned aircraft can - up to a day or more at a time - allowing them to collect data continuously in a way that wasn't previously available.
Also, Customs and Border Protection has been unwilling or unable so far to examine and show how it's using the UAVs and how effective they've been. The best data so far says that in fiscal year 2012, CBP's 10 drones logged 5,700 hours in the air and aided in the seizure of 66,000 pounds of illegal drugs as well as the apprehension of 143 people.
Those are tiny fractions of the agency's totals.
In a written answer to questions, CBP spokesman Vic Brabble explained the unmanned aircaft "operates for extended periods of time and allows CBP to safely conduct missions over tough-to-reach terrain or in situations that are too high-risk for manned aircraft or CBP personnel on the ground. The UAS (unmanned aircraft) also provides agents on the ground with added situational awareness to more safely resolve dangerous situations."
But it's hard to know much about the effectiveness of unmanned aircraft because the agency has been typically secretive about the program, New Mexico researcher Tom Barry said in a study released last week by the Center for International Policy.
"CBP has acted as if exempt from the transparency, accountability and performance evaluations that apply to other federal agencies," Barry wrote.
What's clear, he wrote, is that the effectiveness of unmanned aircraft is dictated by the responsiveness of agents on the ground.
Despite the privacy threat, some border residents, such as Cochise County rancher John Ladd, are willing to accept the intrusion of UAVs if it reduces illegal traffic. Ladd's used to it: In 2006, he said, he allowed Border Patrol agents to station four cameras on his property with the promise that it would slow down crossings there. It did for a while, but then the agents stopped monitoring the cameras regularly, he said.
"My personal privacy is at stake, but I am absolutely sick of what's coming across the border," Ladd said. "I'm tired of making concessions or compromises, but I don't know what else to do."
Before any 24-hour survelliance program begins, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security owe Ladd and other Southern Arizona residents an explanation of just how they're going to cost-effectively operate more drones - and protect residents' privacy.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Contact columnist Tim Steller at email@example.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter