The U.S.-Mexico border continues to be one of the most politicized spaces in the country, with leaders in both political parties supporting massive spending on border security, including technological solutions such as the so-called “virtual wall.” We spent the year documenting surveillance technologies at the border and the impacts on civil liberties and human rights of those who live in the borderlands.
In early 2023, EFF staff completed the last of three trips to the U.S.-Mexico border, where we met with the residents, activists, humanitarian organizations, law enforcement officials, and journalists whose work is directly impacted by the expansion of surveillance technology in their communities.
Using information from those trips, as well as from public records, satellite imagery, and exploration in virtual reality, we released a map and dataset of more than 390 surveillance towers installed by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along the U.S.-Mexico border. Our data serves as a living snapshot of the so-called “virtual wall,” from the California coast to the lower tip of Texas. The data also lays the foundation for many types of research ranging from border policy to environmental impacts.
We also published an in-depth report on Plataforma Centinela (Sentinel Platform), an aggressive new surveillance system developed by Chihuahua state officials in collaboration with a notorious Mexican security contractor. With tentacles reaching into 13 Mexican cities and a data pipeline that will channel intelligence all the way to Austin, Texas, the monstrous project is unlike anything seen before along the U.S.-Mexico border. The strategy adopts nearly every cutting-edge technology system marketed at law enforcement: 10,000 surveillance cameras, face recognition, automated license plate recognition, real-time crime analytics, a fleet of mobile surveillance vehicles, drone teams and counter-drone teams, and more. It also involves a 20-story high-rise in downtown Ciudad Juarez, known as the Torre Centinela (Sentinel Tower), that will serve as the central node of the surveillance operation. We’ll continue to keep a close eye on the development of this surveillance panopticon.
Finally, we weighed in on the dangers of border surveillance on civil liberties by filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case, Phillips v. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was filed after a 2019 news report revealed the federal government was conducting surveillance of journalists, lawyers, and activists thought to be associated with the so-called “migrant caravan” coming through Central America and Mexico. The lawsuit argues, among other things, that the agencies collected information on the plaintiffs in violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech and free association, and that the illegally obtained information should be “expunged” or deleted from the agencies’ databases. Unfortunately, both the district court and a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs urged the panel to reconsider, or for the full Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. In our amicus brief, we argued that the plaintiffs have privacy interests in personal information compiled by the government, even when the individual bits of data are available from public sources, and especially when the data collection is facilitated by technology. We also argued that, because the government stored plaintiffs’ personal information in various databases, there is a sufficient risk of future harm due to lax policies on data sharing, abuse, or data breach.
Undoubtedly, next year’s election will only heighten the focus on border surveillance technologies in 2024. As we’ve seen time and again, increasing surveillance at the border is a bipartisan strategy, and we don’t expect that to change in the new year.
This blog is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2023.