The U.S. government has quietly expanded its use of unmanned surveillance drones inside the country to the extent that now half of the nearly 2,000 mile border with Mexico is monitored by military drones that were once reserved for foreign battlefields, according to new reporting by the Associated Press.
The proliferation of domestic drones has long been a concern for those dismayed about how such weapons have been used in the warzones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Defenders of civil liberty have said that the expanded use of surveillance drones for domestice purposes—including border patrol or local law enforcement—puts the nation on a slippery slope in which the normalization of such machines charts a worrying path towards a society constantly under watchful eyes from above.
The news agency cites government officials with direct knowledge of the program and reports that the secretive border patrol program—internall- referred to as operation "change detection"—has operated 10,000 or more drone missions over large, mostly remote sections of the U.S-Mexico border since it began with little or no public fanfare in March of 2013.
According to AP:
The U.S. government now patrols nearly half the Mexican border by drones alone in a largely unheralded shift to control desolate stretches where there are no agents, camera towers, ground sensors or fences, and it plans to expand the strategy to the Canadian border.
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It represents a significant departure from a decades-old approach that emphasizes boots on the ground and fences. Since 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents on the 1,954-mile border more than doubled to surpass 18,000 and fencing multiplied nine times to 700 miles.
Under the new approach, Predator Bs sweep remote mountains, canyons and rivers with a high-resolution video camera and return within three days for another video in the same spot, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the effort on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public.
The ACLU has been among those groups tracking and warning against the proliferation of domestic drones in recent years. In 2011, the group released a report (pdf) documenting the push for increased drone surveillance and how such an expansion would "profoundly change the character of public life in America."
Though the group acknowledges there may be some societal benefits to drone technology, it strongly warned against any expansion that would be bring the U.S. closer to becoming a "surveillance society" in which people's every move "is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government."
Asked by AP about such privacy concerns, Lothar Eckardt, the executive director of national air security operations for the Customs and Border Protection agency, said because the cameras currently being used aren't powerful enough to register faces or even licence plate details from the sky, "law-abiding people shouldn't worry."