CBP And Local Law Enforcement Are Mixing And Matching Surveillance Gear To Skirt Already-Minimal Constitutional Protections

from the this-land-is-my-land-this-land-is[needle-scratch] dept

The border is expanding. What normal people would consider a border -- the physical and political barriers between countries, sometimes protected by walls and checkpoints -- isn't what the US government considers a "border." In this country, the "border" covers 100 miles inland from any border crossing. And that's not just border border crossings. That's any international airport as well.

Consequently, the "border" encompasses a large percentage of the US population. This isn't just a weird fact. It's actually means there's a whole lot less "America" than people think. The rights enshrined in the Constitution just don't mean as much at the border, where courts and Congress have given the federal government permission to engage in suspicionless searches and warrantless detentions.

But that's not the only threat to personal liberties. More than CBP personnel wander far inland to perform border security work. The CBP's drones -- an expensive waste of time according to its Inspector General -- have been lent out to a number of local law enforcement agencies, turning the CBP's eyes in the sky into everyone's eyes in the sky… even if these agencies aren't specifically in the border security business.

And it's not just drones. It's everything. Law enforcement agencies near the border are deploying a vast array of surveillance technology. The rules are already pretty much broken in the "Constitution-free zone," so why not make the most of it? The EFF and a group of journalism students have been tracking surveillance use by law enforcement agencies in the Southwest. The results of this investigation, reported on here by Sidney Fussell for The Atlantic, are more than a little alarming.

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.

There are drones overheard and nearly everything else imaginable on the ground. If you live anywhere near a border, chances are you've been swept up in more than one database. The government -- all levels of it -- has a good idea how a lot of people it doesn't suspect of any wrongdoing live their lives.

With this plethora of spy gear comes ample opportunity for screw-ups. Facial recognition tech is unproven and unreliable. Stingrays collect it all and let the government sort it out, all while possibly disrupting phone service. ALPRs generate maps of people's movements while serving up the occasional false positive. And an indefinite amount of cameras allow law enforcement personnel to draw faulty inferences about activities being witnessed miles away through a magic box that provides moving pictures but no context.

A mesh network of surveillance gear operated by dozens of unrelated agencies allows for a certain Constitutional fluidity, as Fussell points out.

Mixing and matching technology in this way provides law enforcement with certain loopholes. Police need a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on your car, for example, but not for querying an LPR database for a list of all your locations.

The CBP may be forbidden from searching certain databases, but it can always ask those with permission and access at other agencies to perform proxy searches. ICE does this all the time, despite its access to vast amounts of public and private information. If local agencies don't have the tech or jurisdiction for certain activities, they can ask CBP to return the favor. Coordination between federal and local law enforcement sure sounds like a good idea, but it can often be a way to bypass restrictions meant to protect citizens from their government.

Even when the rules are clear and agencies aren't using each other to skirt them, the rules are still broken. The Texas Department of Public Safety has used CBP drones to surveil unlikely targets like hospitals and community centers, using the excuse it was looking for tunnels used by drug smugglers. The CBP trespassed on a rancher's property to install its surveillance cameras. And the CBP is forbidden from sending its drones into Mexican airspace, but it still does regularly.

The steady erosion of rights near the border is deliberate. Every new tech toy is deployed far ahead of explicit permission or privacy impact paperwork. Many Constitutional violations are waved away with invocations of national security concerns. The federal government frequently argues in court the diminished rights near the border should be further diminished in the interest of public safety. The only question seems to be whether something can be done. Rarely does anyone ask if it should.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, border exception, border security, cbp, law enforcement, surveillance


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 23 Oct 2019 @ 11:03am

    What's a Constitution?

    Is this how they define, or implement (or both) parallel construction?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 11:32am

    Violating the constitution invalidates national security

    If you ignore the constitution at any point the security of the nation is a moot point since it has ceased to exist by, of and for the people. If the government is using national security as an excuse to get away with violations, it is no longer a valid government. It killed the watchers yet still pretends they are binding it to act in our favor.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 12:46pm

    From the article:

    Facial recognition tech is unproven and unreliable.

    Slight correction:

    Facial recognition tech is proven to be unreliable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Oct 2019 @ 2:02pm

    And the USA is the first country to comllain when others do ehat it is doing! How the hell can anyone expand any border to be 100 miles inside the country? This and the ridiculous dividing wall between the USA and Mexico strongly hints that Trump and supporters want to do now what the likes of China and N.Korea have been doing, i.e. isolating the country from the rest of the world. Considering we cant compete with or produce so many things ourselves, it seems like a futile choice!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 1:33am

    If we were still doing the Constitution we could sue the gov employees and departments for trespass to chattels for nearly all of the surveillance-state. Technology has just made things known to be illegal to the people who wrote the Constitution easy and therefore excusable.

    Oh well, that really was hundreds of years ago.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    nasch (profile), 24 Oct 2019 @ 7:07am

    Map

    Found a map someone made. It's an edit of the ACLU map that doesn't include international airports. I'm not sure why they included federally owned land, maybe it's a "sovereign citizen" type, but the orange is the 100 mile zone.

    https://discourse-cloud-file-uploads.s3.dualstack.us-west-2.amazonaws.com/boingboing/original/ 3X/d/5/d5d3a949fdb8e34e206dfcdf8b47df9aafb28f83.jpg

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2019 @ 1:44pm

      Re: Map

      I'm in one of the supposed constitution zones but I know there's an international airport nearby. I also know there was an international airport near a former residence also in the zone. The map isn't accurate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 24 Oct 2019 @ 3:05pm

        Re: Re: Map

        Yeah I'm not surprised he missed some airports. Also I think some are in the wrong place. But the upshot is it's at least as bad as the map indicates.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 24 Oct 2019 @ 12:16pm

    ...real-time crime centers, gunshot-detecting acoustic-surveillance devices...

    I'd seriously like to hear the argument against the police use of (and sharing of) gunshot detecting devices.

    Whose privacy is being invaded by this? People illegally shooting guns off in a city? Why should such people have privacy to do that? Why should I care that they can't shoot their guns without the cops knowing about it? Since when is 'shooting guns at people in my neighborhood' a recognized privacy interest in the first place?

    And real-time crime centers? Yeah, they invade the privacy of criminals and make it harder for them to commit and get away with their crime. We can't have the police doing that. That's unfair!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 24 Oct 2019 @ 12:20pm

    And the CBP is forbidden from sending its drones into Mexican airspace, but it still does regularly.

    Oh, boo-hoo. The Mexicans routinely send their soldiers across the border onto American soil, often to guard illegal drug shipments, not to mention how the Mexican government advocates for and facilitates the illegal entry of millions of their citizens into the US. When Mexico starts respecting our sovereignty, I'll start worrying about respecting their airspace.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.