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A Surveillance Wall Is Not a Good Alternative to a Concrete Wall

The federal government frequently treats the U.S. border as if it were a Constitution-free zone, and people who want to cross the border as if they were nefarious criminals. That is wrong.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Since even before he took office, President Trump has called for a physical wall along the southern border of the United States. Many different organizations have argued this isn’t a great idea. In response, some Congressional Democrats have suggested turning to surveillance technology to monitor the border instead of a physical barrier.

Without specific legislative proposals, it’s hard to know what these suggestions actually mean. However, any bill Congress considers related to border security should avoid–at minimum–invasive surveillance technologies like biometric screening and collection, DNA collection, social media snooping, unregulated drones along the border, and automatic license plate readers aimed at interior traffic.

Biometric Border Screening

We have already seen several proposals authorizing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its sub-agencies to collect biometric information from all people who exit the U.S., including U.S. citizens. We oppose legislation that would entrench and expand DHS’s existing program of facial recognition of all international travelers who take certain outgoing flights from U.S. airports. EFF is also opposed to TSA’s proposals to collect and share biometric data of domestic travelers with the FBI, the State Department, and local governments. Given the sensitivity of biometric information, we’re concerned about the threat that any collected data will be stolen or misused, as well as the potential for such programs to be expanded far beyond their original scope.

Collection of Immigrants’ DNA

EFF has long opposed dragnet biometric surveillance of immigrants. Among other things, we oppose any proposal that would require DHS to collect DNA and other biometric information from “any individual filing an application, petition, or other request for immigration benefit or status.” DNA surveillance raises special concerns, because DNA can expose sensitive information about familial history and personal health issues.

Screening Social Media of Visa Applicants

EFF opposes existing DHS and State Department programs of screeningthe socialmedia of foreign visitors. We would also oppose any legislation that would expand and entrench DHS reviewing the social media accounts of visa applicants from so-called “high risk countries.” These programs threaten the digital privacy and free speech of innocent foreign travelers, and the many U.S. citizens who communicate with them. Also, it is all-too-likely that such programs will invite “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim nations.

Drones Near the Border

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Any proposal that would allow DHS and the Defense Department to deploy drones at the U.S. border raises significant privacy concerns. These drones will invariably capture the faces and license plates of the vast number of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who live close to the border. Drones can take pictures and videos from all of the people on the ground within their range and sightlines—secretly, thoroughly, inexpensively, and at great distances. Millions of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents live close to the U.S. border, and these drones should not be allowed to take photos and videos of people on their own property.

Automatic License Plate ReadersNear the Border

ALPRs can collect massive amounts of sensitive location information about identifiable law-abiding people. Any new ALPR authority or funding should be limited, at most, to cars that actually cross the U.S. border. It should not also apply more broadly to cars at CBP’s many interior checkpoints, some located as far as 100 miles from the border.

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The federal government frequently treats the U.S. border as if it were a Constitution-free zone, and people who want to cross the border as if they were nefarious criminals. That is wrong. As we wrote in a letter to Sen. Cornyn back in September 2017:

“Any new statutory authority given to the government to ensure border security must be carefully balanced to ensure that it does not overreach and violate the privacy of the people it intends to protect.”

Congress should make sure that any new border security bill protects the essential civil liberties of U.S. citizens and foreign visitors at and near the U.S. border.

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India McKinney

India McKinney is a legislative analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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