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Border & Immigration

Feds adding to already extensive border surveillance in San Diego

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is expanding its already extensive surveillance capabilities along the southern border, according to three contracts the agency signed recently with La Jolla-based General Dynamics and two other companies.

All told, the agency plans to acquire 277 new surveillance towers and upgrade 191 existing towers over the next 14 years, the contracts, which total $60 million, show.

San Diego County is already one of the most militarized sections of the southern border. The San Ysidro Port of Entry has two border walls — a primary and secondary fence — and Border Patrol agents are aided by a small fleet of drones and ATVs.


“In some parts of southern San Diego County, there’s one of these surveillance towers every mile and a half, so it’s quite a dragnet that they are putting out there,” said Dave Maass, director of investigations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This sign near the San Ysidro border crossing shows the heightened state of surveillance along the border.
Gustavo Solis
This sign near the San Ysidro border crossing shows the heightened state of surveillance along the border.

Republicans and Democrats generally agree on increasing surveillance along the border. The contracts, which also go to Virginia-based Advanced Technology Systems and Israeli-owned Elibit America, are part of a larger effort to militarize the border and create what they call a virtual border wall that compliments the physical barrier.

Officials have said the technology is needed to keep up with the tactics of human traffickers. But Maass and other privacy advocates are worried about this rapid surveillance expansion.

For starters, these towers document. They do not differentiate between, “good people and bad people,” Maass said.

Another concern is the potential for abuse. There is little oversight and agencies like CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have a history of agents misusing surveillance and databases.


“You just look at the things that have happened like Border Patrol creating a list of journalists, activists, humanitarians, and human rights lawyers and using that list to stop and harass them at the border,” Maass said, referencing a 2019 controversy.

Communities throughout the county, even if they are hundreds of miles away from the border, should pay attention to this, advocates said.

That’s because there is an established pipeline of surveillance technology going from the military to the border, and then to local law enforcement agencies.

“A good example is drones,” Maass said. “Drones started being used by CBP and now Chula Vista has this ‘Drone as First Responders’ program and now you’re seeing that be installed elsewhere in the country.”

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