Border Security Technologies

October 22, 2008
The government's approach to keeping our borders safe has been marked by an increasing focus on high-tech gimmicks and ineffective identity-based security. Worse, programs intended for border security purposes have had a tendency to expand toward the rest of the country. This "mission creep" has been broadly observed in border security programs, and the programs listed below especially reflect the way security at our borders is being implemented in ways that have the potential to affect Americans in their domestic lives.

Make a Difference

Your support helps the ACLU defend privacy rights and a broad range of civil liberties.

Give Now

  • Automated Targeting System (ATS):

The Automated Targeting System (ATS) is a security and tracking program for cargo that DHS has extended to travelers by assigning all who cross the nation's borders with a computer-generated "risk assessment" score that will be retained for 40 years – and which is secret and unreviewable. This program represents a monumental change that will have profound effects on Americans' privacy. 

  • Aviation/Border Watch Lists:

Since its creation, DHS has been attempting to build a domestic, identity-based airline passenger and border-control screening scheme. These bloated watchlists contain the names of many thousands of innocent Americans, who now encounter problems when they try to fly and cross the border.[1] Members of Congress, nuns, children and others have been tagged by these lists. Those innocent Americans have generally found it impossible to get their names cleared, as there is no meaningful system for redress. And incredibly, for all this trouble the aviation lists do not even contain the names of many of the worst suspected terrorists, because the government is fearful that its secrecy will be compromised. The questionable benefits of identity-based systems such as watch lists do not justify their costs and harms.  Unfortunately, the TSA and CBP have moved headlong toward broader use of these watch lists, without fixing the fundamental problems with the underlying data, and the lack of a process for innocent people to clear their names.

  • Data Collection and Retention:

Through a program called the Border Crossing Information System, the government has been collecting and compiling information on all U.S. citizens crossing the border by land for potential later use in criminal and intelligence investigations. Data including name, birth date, gender, date and time of crossing, and a photo of every <?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = ST1 />U.S. citizen crossing a land border may be retained for 15 years.[2]

  • E-Passports:

The United States is currently issuing biometric passports and immigration documents that contain Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips that can be read remotely. This wireless technology could leave Americans open to identity theft, to terrorists interested in singling out Americans traveling overseas, or to routine tracking by the government or private sector.

  • SBINet:

SBINet, or the "Secure Border Initiative Network," is intended to be, if it is ever fully constructed, a “virtual” border fence that relies on sensors and long-range cameras mounted on high observation towers. In addition to the serious privacy concerns raised by long-range surveillance cameras capable of observing the activities of everyday Americans living along the border, SBINet has repeatedly failed to achieve its operational objectives and appears to be a fundamentally impactical and misguided concept for guarding our borders.

  • U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT):

US-VISIT is another program that, despite years of work, remains functionally inoperative. US-VISIT tracks visitor entries into the country by running their fingerscans and photographs through a terrorist database. However, the program still fails to track their departures, and hence provides maximum privacy invasion with minimum security. Also, the watch lists used by this program and others are full of errors and are missing the names of suspected terrorists.

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs):

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or “drones” are currently being used over certain restricted sections of the northern and southern US borders. UAVs respond to sensor activation on the ground and capture images that are both stored and relayed to CBP Agents.  UAVs can utilize technology such as infrared cameras and laser illuminators, so surveillance is possible at any time of the day or night.[3] This type of surveillance technology has a vast potential for abuse, as law-abiding citizens in border areas may not be aware that they are being monitored. The use of UAVs has already begun to expand from the exclusive domain of the military and CBP to state and local police operations, and this trend of broad "mission creep" is expected to continue.[4]

  • Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI):

WHTI regulations authorize the states to create an enhanced drivers’ license (EDL) for the purpose of crossing the border.  This document would contain the citizenship status of the cardholder and other personal data. The WHTI would violate our privacy by vastly expanding the use of unproven biometrics such as facial recognition and creating a tracking database of travel by US citizens that could be linked to our private information.


[1] See www.aclu.org/watchlists

[4] Id.

Statistics image