Interstate 19 Arizona photo

Interstate 19 in Arizona, heading toward the U.S.-Mexico borderKen Lund/Flickr

In their unending battle to deter illegal immigration, drug trafficking and terrorism, U.S. authorities already have beefed up border security with drug-sniffing dogs, aircraft  and thousands more agents manning interior checkpoints.

Now, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has decided it wants more, and the Justice Department agency doesn’t care whether someone has even set foot in Mexico.

Clusters of what at first appear to be surveillance cameras have begun turning up in recent months on the Southwest border, and while some of the machines are merely surveillance cameras, others are specialized recognition devices that automatically capture license-plate numbers and the geographic location of everyone who passes by, plus the date and time.

The DEA confirms that the devices have been deployed in Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. It has plans to introduce them farther inside the United States.

Special Agent Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the DEA’s Phoenix division, said the information collected by the devices is stored for up to two years and can be shared with other federal agencies and local police. She declined to say how many have been installed or where, citing safety concerns.

“It’s simply another surveillance method used to monitor and target vehicles that are commonly used to transport drugs, bulk cash and weapons north and south,” Sanchez said.

Journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting saw them situated near a well-traveled checkpoint far inland from Mexico on Interstate 19, which stretches 63 miles from Tucson, Ariz., to the city of Nogales on the border.  

Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation, which shares a 70-mile stretch of border line with Mexico and is known for its high volume of smuggling activity, has at least four sites with the devices on or near its land.

A local blogger critical of the U.S. Border Patrol’s numerous checkpoints snapped close-up photos of the devices on an east-west state road in southern Arizona’s Pima County.

Undoubtedly, smugglers are traveling along roadways near the border, but everyday residents there also must decide what they’re willing to give up in exchange for improved public safety.

In the past, Arizonans have drawn a line in the sand by expressing their discontent with a similar technology – speed cameras – used for traffic enforcement. Angry drivers reportedly disarmed them with axes and covered the cameras with sticky notes and boxes. Others simply left tickets unpaid, and in one extreme 2009 case, a technician responsible for maintaining the cameras was shot to death. The state’s Department of Public Safety pulled the plug on them in 2010. 

A 96-year-old former Arizona governor was ensnared last month when he was stopped and questioned in the desert heat for 30 minutes after a recent medical procedure tripped up the small nuclear-detection devices worn by Border Patrol agents.

Officials elsewhere have said no thanks when asked to install license-plate scanners. Utah lawmakers balked at the idea when federal authorities broached it in May. The plan was for two local sheriffs to receive them as a donation, and the machines would then be installed to record travelers driving on a pair of interstates that connect in southwest Utah. 

Public outcry over the threat to privacy and civil liberties led Beaver County Sheriff Cameron Noel to “just give up” on the proposal. The sticking point for critics, he said, was that personal information belonging to law-abiding citizens would flow to Washington and be kept at a storage facility in Virginia for months on end. Noel said all he wanted to do was catch criminals. The DEA has since backed off, too, he said.

“(Critics) think that it’s Big Brother. I was referred to as George Orwell, ‘1984,’ and the whole nine yards,” Noel said. “They could not understand what the technology was all about and how it actually worked.”

Police can be alerted automatically in real time when a wanted individual passes by one of the devices. Agencies around the country have been affixing the machines to the outside of patrol cars and receive an in-car notification if they come upon a license plate connected to a wanted felon or stolen vehicle. Vast amounts of historical data also may be searched and used to map where someone has been, making the intelligence value of license-plate readers attractive to law enforcement.

Those abilities unnerve civil liberties and privacy groups. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said many of the 21st-century technologies police are pursuing amount to “policymaking by procurement” in which agencies buy first and deal with questions about the privacy implications later. Police generally defend license-plate scanners by arguing that motorists don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy on public roads when it comes to their license plates.

“These machines right now are capturing a few snapshots of people at random times and places,” Stanley said. “Sometimes, that can be sensitive, but I think over time, we have to expect that they’ll become more and more dense, to the point where they might be the equivalent of being tracked by GPS.”

Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler said he’s also troubled by the technology. The Republican said drug enforcement officials skipped the state’s Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Utah Highway Patrol, and went straight to the two local sheriffs.

“In my opinion, I think two years is too long to store that data, and I’d like some transparency and accountability to have some verification that the data is actually being deleted,” Weiler said.

Shortly before publication, the DEA sent a brief email declaring that due to a “recent policy change, we have determined that operationally these records only need to remain accessible for 180 days.” Officials there refused to provide additional clarification.  

Elsewhere, privacy advocates lost a battle over license-plate scanners in June when the law enforcement lobby defeated a California bill that would have restricted how long data can be stored. The legislation – proposed by state Sen. Joe Simitian, a Silicon Valley Democrat – also called for a warrant when police wanted to retrieve driver data held by private companies that collect it on behalf of both police and banks hunting for delinquent borrowers.   

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.