I spent last Wednesday afternoon up in Houlton touring the border with Customs and Border Protections officials. My host, Keith Fleming, the Area Port Director for Maine, is a fellow Mainer and tremendous professional. He spent a significant amount of time explaining the purpose of CBP - to facilitate trade and personal border crossing for all of Maine's ports of entry, land and sea. He, along with two other CBP officials, walked me through a day at Maine's border in Houlton.
On our walk through the kiosks, I was struck by the amount of equipment one passes through when coming into the country. Before your vehicle gets to the kiosk, a machine scans your car to detect radioactive material. The next machine takes a photo of your front license plate, and as you drive further, another camera takes a photo of your back license plate. Both photos are digitized and the information is sent to the computer in the kiosk, where a CBP official waits for you. The driver and all passengers provide identifying information, which is entered into a computer and checked against a variety of databases. I had seen the equipment before but had never known each machine's purpose.
I watched someone drive through the kiosk, presumably unaware of all the information being collected about his car. Most of us are probably unaware of the information that is collected about us as we travel about the country, or even as we travel from website to website online. The ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project is dedicated to the interplay between cutting edge technology and civil liberties. They have conducted a comprehensive study of border security technologies. Some make sense. Others -- like the terrorist watchlists -- have become so overbroad as to be truly frightening. The expanding use of RFID chips may even make us less secure as demonstrated in this terrifying experiment.
My goal in Houlton was to better understand the experience for Mainers and immigrants in crossing the border. I'm headed to El Paso, Texas now for a meeting of advocates to discuss privacy and human rights issues at the border. I'll keep you posted.