Special Report: Surveillance and Privacy on the Border
Driving west through Hidalgo and Starr counties, surveillance balloons sitting 1,000 feet above the ground can’t be missed.
The devices are called aerostats. Cameras inside the balloons capture what’s happening on the ground within a 10-20 mile radius. The five currently stationed in the Rio Grande Valley were previously used in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide situational awareness for troops.
“It hasn’t worked so far,” said a resident of La Joya, Texas who lives less than a mile from an aerostat. “If you don’t stop the demand, you’re not going to stop anything else.”
The aerostats in South Texas are owned by Border Patrol, but another law enforcement agency is interested in similar equipment.
Last year, the Texas Department of Public Safety solicited information about “small, rapidly deployable persistent surveillance systems.”
The formal request for information expressed concern about portions of the Texas-Mexico border that are not adequately covered by surveillance equipment.
“Often, these areas fall in-between coverage of the Department’s and participating agencies’ assets and are easily exploited by criminal organizations. The Department is seeking small, rapidly-deployable systems to combat the ever-evolving criminal element,” the request for information stated.
CBS 4 News dug through the responses DPS received. Companies pitched equipment like aerostats, motion sensing cameras, and portable cameras that can be elevated to see far distances. At least two companies touted supplying the same equipment to U.S. and foreign militaries.
“The more aerostats, really the more aviation we have there, the safer it’s going to be for the citizens of the Rio Grande Valley,” said DPS Director Steve McCraw.
DPS has not made a final determination about purchasing the equipment and therefore could not answer specifics about how many aerostats the agency would want or where they would be placed. Starr and Hidalgo counties, though, continue to be the agency’s top priority when it comes to securing the border.
Some residents of Hidalgo County don’t think aerostats will help.
“Why would you want to put more in a very small community?” said La Joya resident Joe Villarreal. Villarreal lives between two Border Patrol aerostats.
He also had some concerns about his privacy.
“I don’t think it’s a pretty good idea, looking into your property,” Villarreal said.
To find out how law enforcement agencies handle privacy protections for those living near aerostats, CBS 4 News reached out to U.S. Border Patrol.
“When you’re looking from the top down, there really is no expectation of privacy,” said Assistant Chief Border Patrol Agent Johnny Meadors. Meadors has worked with Border Patrol’s aerostats for three years.
The aerostats owned by Border Patrol track criminals in real-time. The video is recorded and can be used as evidence in court.
Meadors said data is stored on a secure hard drive and can only be accessed when Border Patrol management requests it. Video is destroyed within 30 days.
“We always take people’s 4th amendment rights and rights of privacy very seriously and so we stay within our boundaries, stay within the law, stay within policy,” Meadors said.
If serious crimes are captured, the video will be shared with other law enforcement agencies.
A resident living near the aerostat thinks more border security has the adverse effect of making him feel criminalized.
“There’s people here who don’t see a difference between me and the illegals crossing,” he said.
CBS 4 News asked DPS Director Steve McCraw how the agency would balance quality of life for residents with border security if more surveillance technology is purchased.
“The most important quality of life is safety and security for our citizens, that they’re not harmed, that they feel free to come and go, and the aerostats are a force multiplier,” McCraw said.
The Department of Public Safety’s most recent budget proposal included no funding for aerostats.
Astrid Dominguez, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, hopes DPS will consult with residents before aerostats are purchased.
“We have to make sure that there are the right protections in place so that we don’t become a surveilled society,” Dominguez said.