The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has partnered up with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism to begin an inventory of what surveillance technologies law enforcement agencies across the country have acquired – which EFF calls the Atlas of Surveillance. They started with communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Over the course of the spring and summer of 2019, Reynold School students scoured the internet for news articles, research reports, press releases, and public records to compile a set of more than 225 data points where surveillance technology is located in the 23 border-facing counties in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
They found 36 local government agencies using automated license plate readers (ALPR), 45 outfitting officers with body-worn cameras, and 20 flying drones. The research also maps a variety of technologies the federal government has deployed in these counties, from sensor towers to surveillance blimps.
In addition to building this data set, Reynolds School students wrote detailed profiles of six particular border counties: San Diego, California; Pima and Cochise counties, Arizona; Doña Ana County, New Mexico; and El Paso and Webb counties, Texas. The aim is to provide local residents with an easily accessible field guide to the surveillance technologies that law enforcement agencies have placed in their communities.
The research found that 31 law enforcement agencies in San Diego County, California, access face recognition technology through a regional partnership, accounting for more than 25,000 queries in 2018 alone. Law enforcement in Texas and Arizona are able to make face recognition requests through their states’ respective departments of public safety. In Doña Ana County, New Mexico, the sheriff’s office purchased face recognition cameras that are mounted on protective eyewear. Doña Ana County deputies, along with their counterparts in Cameron, Hidalgo, and El Paso counties in Texas, are using iris scanners in their jails.
Local law enforcement agencies along the border often acquire surveillance technologies through Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that funds local police that participate in border security operations. The Laredo Police Department in Texas, and the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office and Marana Police Department in Arizona, have acquired automated license plate readers (ALPRs) through Operation Stonegarden. The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Hidalgo Police Department, Edinburg Police Department, and Pharr Police Department in Texas have used Stonegarden funds to purchase Skycop surveillance trailers, equipped with cameras and ALPRs. Meanwhile, the Webb County Sheriff’s department used Operation Stonegarden funds to install 10 surveillance camera towers along its border with Mexico.
The research also maps out the county-by-county placement of a variety of surveillance systems operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and one of its units, the U.S. Border Patrol. The agencies operate tethered surveillance blimps called “aerostats,” some of which are permanently tethered and others that can be relocated based on need. There are also a variety of surveillance towers throughout the region, often equipped with cameras, radars, and infrared sensors. In addition, the agencies deploy ground sensors, ALPRs, and drones. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also operates ALPRs in the border region.
To assist with large-scale newsgathering, EFF has launched a new tool, Report Back, to streamline research assignments. Report Back allows students to quickly receive small online reporting tasks, such as searching for a news article or government policy document about a certain technology in a particular jurisdiction. Once the students identify a record about the surveillance technology, they enter the information into the greater database. Currently limited to Reynolds School students, EFF plans to expand its user base to grassroots organizations in 2020.
The Atlas of Surveillance project is part of a new partnership with the Reynolds School, which will also involve developing a course on Cybersecurity and Surveillance and leading students in regular workshops on filing Freedom of Information Act and other public records requests.