This story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By G.W. Schulz

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.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 and covers homeland security for CIR and California Watch. To read more California Watch stories, click here.

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  • The Naturalization Act of 1790

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.

  • The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868

    A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1870

    The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.

  • The Page Act of 1875

    Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

    Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).

  • The Naturalization Act of 1906

    The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.

  • The Immigration Act of 1924

    U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)

    The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

    When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.

  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

    The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.