Customs and Border Protection officials say that despite the language in the proposed Senate bill, unless there’s more money attached to it they won’t be buying additional drones anyway. So far, the eight senators developing the bipartisan immigration legislation haven’t identified its funding mechanism.
The agency has yet to issue an operations and maintenance budget request for its drone program, despite a recommendation to do so from the Department of Homeland Security.
Nevertheless, privacy advocates worry the drones might take on another, if unintentional, function: collecting information on U.S. citizens who live within 100 miles of the border.
“Even if the official policy is against domestic spying, we don’t know how that translates into actual practice,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They’re still looking at things from the air – what happens if they see something of interest? Are they going to notify the law enforcement?”
But Customs and Border Protection officials say they abide by a policy that any information irrelevant to border security or missions is discarded. The agency, they say, is operating the drones at 19,000 feet, a level that doesn’t allow drones to detect the activities occurring inside residents’ homes.
The agency in 2005 first used a Predator drone to carry out law enforcement operations on the southwest border. In 2009, drones were placed along the northern border.
And while the agency doesn’t have money now for more drones, Customs and Border Protection officials don’t expect drone use to dissipate, though it could take awhile to put more in the sky unless Congress appropriates more money.