The ACLU’s Jay Stanley says that the Border Patrol’s repurposing of surveillance technology and drones could open doors that put our liberty and privacy at risk.
Jay Stanley is a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, where he researches, writes, and speaks about technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues and their future. He is also the editor of the ACLU’s Free Future blog.
TRNN Video & Transcript
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.
Now, as a follow-up to our discussion with Will Parrish about his Intercept article, on the use of an Israeli security company to build and manage surveillance technology on the Tohono O’odham Reservation to monitor the border and the Native people who live there, we’re going to speak with Jay Stanley, who is the Senior Policy Analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech Privacy and Technology Project. He was quoted throughout the article, pointing out the dangers that this surveillance technology portends for our entire nation and our democracy. These systems, known as “persistence surveillance technologies,” can monitor the minutest of behaviors and movements, collecting information on us without our even being aware of anything going on.
The Border Patrol, which partners with the Israeli military technology company Elbit Systems to build and maintain these intricate monitoring technologies, has jurisdiction within 100 miles from the edges of our nation. That could potentially surveil two-thirds of the American people.
Welcome, Jay Stanley, to The Real News. Good to have you with us.
JAY STANLEY: Good to be on.
MARC STEINER: In the article, you were quoted as being concerned about the repurposing of the surveillance tower and drones to surveil dissidents because you think it hints at other possible abuses. Your quote here was exactly, “It’s a reminder that technologies that are sold for one purpose, such as protecting the border or stopping terrorists or whatever the original jurisdiction might happen to be, so often get repurposed for other reasons, such as targeting protestors.” Then there was this email by a Border Patrol agent in charge, Christopher Seiler, who runs the agency’s Rio Grande Valley section. And he described the political opposition to Trump’s border policies as a threat. And in that same email to more than 30 other supervisory agents, he invited them to a seminar called “Large Scale Protest Response Seminar” that was led by Paul Laney, the former Sheriff of Cass County, North Dakota, who served as the leading architect of the militarized police response to the Standing Rock demonstrations.
In his email, Seiler wrote, “The current political climate uptick in demonstrations and social media campaigns, along with the immigration debate, almost ensure that the Rio Grande Valley will have large scale protests. These protests pose a significant threat to the border, law enforcement, and our communities.” So I’m bringing this all up, Jay, because I want you to comment on this and what it means – portends when you start using this technology in other places and what that relationship means.
JAY STANLEY: Yeah. I mean, there are a lot of reasons to oppose pervasive surveillance structures in American life and letting the government build systems that can watch us, and as has been said, create a TiVo in our lives. Giving the government the power if it chooses to, and focuses on you for whatever reason to literally hit rewind on your life, see everywhere that you’ve been, who you’ve been with for days or weeks or months or even years, which is what a lot of these wide area persistent surveillance technologies would enable. There are a lot of reasons to oppose that kind of a technology, but one of them is the persistent history, unfortunately, in this country of the authorities abusing their powers. Not to carry out the mission that we the public give them, our public servants, to do, which is protect the border, stop crime, et cetera, but to go after people because of their political views.
Going back to the labor battles of the early 20th century and late 19th century, up through the civil rights and anti-war battles and a lot of what we’ve seen since the post 9/11 era, we have persistently seen law enforcement and government security agencies confuse their mission, which is to protect the public, protect order, which is an important mission, with protecting the current order, with fighting people who are peacefully advocating for change, who are peacefully challenging the powers that be. And they have no evidence that protestors are planning to commit a crime. And yet, they kick into gear all these tools that we have given them to prevent crime. So we see both law enforcement and agencies taking sides on political issues, but also often abusing their powers to defend their own agencies.
We know that bureaucracies always defend themselves. And so we sometimes see, as in this case, when an agency is criticized or is threatened, and we saw this with J. Edgar Hoover, it kicks in its powers in order to defend itself. And this is one of the big reasons why we need to be very, very careful about giving the government these surveillance powers.
MARC STEINER: One of the exact quotes from this email apparently is that, “The current political climate uptick in demonstrations and social media campaigns, along with the immigration debate, almost ensures that the Rio Grande Valley will have large-scale protests.” And going on to say, “These protests pose a significant threat to the border, law enforcement, and our communities.” So if you tie this together with their surveilling in San Diego for demonstrations, where only one took place against Trump, to their massive overkill in terms of surveillance in South Dakota, where people were protesting the pipeline construction.
So this technology was supposed to be used at the border, but it is affecting people who live on that Native land being stopped all the time for IDs, as well as being used throughout the country as testing how this might work in other places. And you have this huge agency that’s doing this, that has power within 100 miles of every border and the ocean that borders this country. I mean, this really needs to give us pause about what this could mean. I mean, if they actually implement this in any major way, they can be surveilling two-thirds of the entire country without our knowledge, not knowing what they’re doing.
JAY STANLEY: Yeah. I guess I’d make three quick points. Number one, these border agencies, CVP and so forth, they are very troubled agencies that have a long history of engaging in abuses and have insufficient oversight, insufficient responses to abuses that are brought to their attention. There’s that.
And yes, our border communities are being subject to enormous surveillance and harassment because they live on a boarder. They’re American communities like any other. They don’t deserve to live under a constant eye of a government agency, any government agency, much less one that has such a record of abuse. They deserve to be able to live their lives without being stopped and harassed constantly. And yet that’s what’s happening and that’s what these towers are part of.
And then the third point is, yes, there is a larger looming nationwide battle that’s coming, which is do we want to allow our communities to be subject to wide-area persistent surveillance? We’ve seen this with a company that flies airplanes over cities for hours and hours, basically all day, and it was deployed in Baltimore.
MARC STEINER: Yeah, exactly.
JAY STANLEY: And this is a technology that’s being pushed on police departments. The police departments are thinking about, are tempted by – it hasn’t really been deployed except in that test in Baltimore, but these companies are looking for other clients. And so that is a battle that we are going to have. Do we want to go, as a nation, do we want to go down this road of allowing the government to see everything all the time from the air? From towers, from airplanes, from drones, from satellites, whatever it may be. Is that the kind of country that we want to live in and the kind of power that we want to give to these agencies?
MARC STEINER: Well, given the potential of what this could be in terms of the surveillance of the American people, going way beyond what’s happening to the Tohono O’odham people in the Arizona border, and the people off the border itself, I mean, so what is our response?
You work with the ACLU. What is our response to this, to stop it, to control it, to not allow it to take on a life of its own? Because these things just don’t come on like a sledgehammer and hit you. They seep in, and this is seeping. And as you were quoted in the article, I think you allude to the fact that the only reason we’re not paying attention to this is because it’s on the border, and people don’t really care that much, but this is where it begins. Or, could begin, I should say.
JAY STANLEY: Yeah. We’re in a political moment where obviously immigration is a hugely divisive issue. We have political leaders that are pushing fear of immigrants and demonizing immigrants in ways to increase their own political power. And so, there is a lot support among much of the country for doing anything to stop or slow immigration. And also, the government does have legitimately expanded powers on the border that they don’t have elsewhere in the country. Although the government’s definition of a border coming a hundred miles inland is ridiculous.
MARC STEINER: Yes, right.
JAY STANLEY: But on the border proper, like the line between two countries, the government does have expanded powers of search and detention there. But it’s not something that it should expand into the rest of American life. And there’s a very serious risk that it will. And often we see new technologies starting out being applied to certain populations— children, the incarcerated, immigrants, and so forth. And they start there because those are the least controversial populations to engage in surveillance with, and then they expand outwards.
And so, I think that there’s a lot of people in this country who think of themselves as anti-government and anti-immigrant, but they’re shooting themselves in the foot by failing to oppose surveillance technologies because they think that they’re limited to the immigration context. But in fact, they are going to come around and affect all of us. What can we do? I mean, we’re the ACLU. We filed numerous lawsuits on behalf of people in border communities who are being subject to harassment, and checkpoints, and surveillance, and so forth. So there’s the courts as far as that goes, and we’re doing the best we can in that arena, my colleagues in those areas.
One thing that local communities can do is pass legislation that we recommend called CCOPS, or Community Control Over Police Surveillance. And we’re seeing a number of cities around the country that have passed or are currently considering this kind of legislation. What it does is, it basically bans the police, local police, from using or deploying new surveillance technologies without getting the permission of local elected leaders. Because often what we see is local police departments get – a big pile of money falls in their lap from the Department of Homeland Security, or Justice Department, or sometimes from vendors. And they just go buy new surveillance technology and just deploy it, without telling, let alone asking the communities that they serve.
And so these ordinances prevent the police from doing that and require there to be a conversation with the community about whether the community wants these surveillance technologies to be deployed. Now that doesn’t – that’s not going to work if we’re talking about the feds here.
MARC STEINER: Right.
JAY STANLEY: That’s a much harder political problem, but you can take action in your local community. And a lot of the surveillance technology that we’re seeing these days is local in nature. For example, the Baltimore wide-area surveillance plane was local. The feds, that’s just a national political battle that we have to fight as a country.
MARC STEINER: What’s interesting to me is, before we close, is that politically, which is not the area that you talk about a lot, but politically, here you have people who view themselves as libertarian, not opposing this surveillance technology because it’s on Native land and with migrants who come from the south. But this could be used for any reason to monitor everybody in this country to ensure political control. I mean, I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all. I often don’t believe in all that stuff, but I just think that this is something that can be really dangerous given the powers some of these agencies have, and what we’re seeing and what we’re not paying attention to, which is why I think that Will Parrish’s article is so important, to bring this to our attention.
JAY STANLEY: Yeah. I don’t think you have to be a conspiracy theorist and see there being a secret meeting of people who want to turn America into a surveillance state, but we do have very large security bureaucracies. And bureaucracies tend to push for things that make their lives easier. They tend to push for more and more surveillance and information. They tend to push for defense of their own powers. And we do have a long history in this country of these agencies, as I said, investigating and targeting people because of their political views, not because they’re engaged in crime.
MARC STEINER: Well, Jay Stanley, thank you so much for taking the time with us today. I know you have a lot to do. I appreciate the moment you gave us. And we look forward to talking to you again as we continue to cover this.
JAY STANLEY: Thanks so much. I enjoyed being on.
MARC STEINER: Thank you so much. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us. Take care.
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