The Endless Aerial Surveillance of the Border

Where, exactly, does the border end?

A collaboration between journalism students and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group, probes this deceptively simple question. Ask a mapmaker, a geographer, or an average American, and the United States’s southern land border is a thin line extending from Texas to California. But ask law enforcement, and the answer is much more complicated. The same surveillance technologies that Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement use to secure the border are also used by local police miles away. The result is a vast dragnet, the surface area of which keeps growing as the special authority granted to agents in certain areas of the border quietly expands.

Using online and archival searches, public-information requests, and state and local freedom-of-information laws, students at the University of Nevada’s Reynolds School of Journalism and their professor, Gi Woong Yun, partnered with Dave Maass, a principal investigator at EFF, to create an “Atlas of Surveillance”: a map of advanced technology used by police departments along the border.

The variety of devices being used near the border is astounding. In southwestern communities near the U.S.-Mexico border, the team recorded nearly 230 instances of local police deploying advanced technology: facial-recognition software, cellphone-tracking “sting ray” towers, real-time crime centers, license-plate cameras, gunshot-detecting acoustic-surveillance devices, drones, and spy planes. These devices reveal where people travel, as well as whom they call, text, and visit. The tools can also identify people without their knowledge or consent.

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