The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have put an “undisclosed number of covert surveillance cameras inside streetlights” across the country, according to federal procurement documents obtained by Quartz.
It’s unclear how many cameras the agencies purchased or where, exactly, the “video recording and reproducing equipment” has been placed. But the documents obtained by Quartz show the DEA paid a company called Cowboy Streetlight Concealments LLC about $22,000 since June 2018, while ICE made payments of $28,000 over the same time period. ICE offices in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio provided funding for the cameras, while the orders by the DEA were paid for out of an Office of Investigative Technology office in Virginia.
Christie Crawford, who co-owns the business with her husband, told Quarz “things are always being watched”:
“We do streetlight concealments and camera enclosures,” Crawford told Quartz. “Basically, there’s businesses out there that will build concealments for the government and that’s what we do. They specify what’s best for them, and we make it. And that’s about all I can probably say.”
However, she added: “I can tell you this—things are always being watched. It doesn’t matter if you’re driving down the street or visiting a friend, if government or law enforcement has a reason to set up surveillance, there’s great technology out there to do it.”
Other federal documents dug up by Quartz include a more recent DEA solicitation for “concealments made to house network PTZ [Pan-Tilt-Zoom] camera, cellular modem, cellular compression device,” though that procurement order cites a different company named Obsidian Integration LLC. Quartz noted that similar concealed cameras are already in use by the agency:
In addition to streetlights, the DEA has also placed covert surveillance cameras inside traffic barrels, a purpose-built product offered by a number of manufacturers. And as Quartz reported last month, the DEA operates a network of digital speed-display road signs that contain automated license plate reader technology within them.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, which has proposed a sweeping effort to renew a global war on drugs that the International Consortium on Drug Policy has called a disaster and launched numerous crackdowns on immigration, criticism of both agencies and their leadership on civil rights ground has continued to mount.
Trump has called for the use of the death penalty in major drug cases. In 2017, the DEA’s acting chief Chuck Rosenberg resigned, with the New York Times reporting it was motivated in part by the president’s instructions to be “rough” with criminal suspects. Trump has also appeared to emphasize enforcement and interdiction over treatment and prevention in budget requests, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, and his approach to the opioid crisis is likely to further balloon incarceration levels. He’s also pushed his plans for a border wall partially on the grounds it will help fight Mexican drug cartels.
While ICE has been criticized by civil rights groups for years, in recent years budgets for immigration enforcement have exploded and its approach has become very aggressive, with the Atlantic noting that “many of the formal restraints on ICE have been removed.” The agency was involved in the president’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border, which polling showed was deeply unpopular with all but Republicans; the ACLU sued ICE, claiming that its agents tried to coerce families into accepting deportation. ICE has also ramped up arrests and removals of undocumented immigrants, leading the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson to accuse it of being the president’s “personal bullying squad”:
ICE’s 40 percent increase in arrests within the United States after Trump took office is now closely associated with the president’s political priorities. His sweeping executive orders on immigration broadened the focus of enforcement beyond serious threats to public order. Arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions have spiked. Routine “check-ins” with ICE officials can end with handcuffs and deportation. “Sanctuary cities” — a recurring presidential political obsession — are being targeted with additional personnel. Hundreds of children have been removed from parents seeking asylum and detained separately — compounding their terrible ordeal of persecution and flight. ICE recently announced a new policy that makes it easier to detain pregnant women. Asylum seekers have often been denied “humanitarian parole” while their cases are decided, effectively jailing them without due process.
These are the agencies setting up hidden cameras, and according to Quartz, there is usually very little oversight on where they can be put or how they can be used by them.
“It basically has the ability to turn every streetlight into a surveillance device, which is very Orwellian to say the least,” ACLU senior advocacy and policy counsel Chad Marlow told Quartz. “In most jurisdictions, the local police or department of public works are authorized to make these decisions unilaterally and in secret. There’s no public debate or oversight.”
An ICE public affairs official told the Daily Dot, “The contracts indicate that HSI regional offices in Houston and San Antonio have purchased video recording and photography equipment to be used during the course of criminal investigations. The targeted use of surveillance equipment used during investigations into drug trafficking, human smuggling, human trafficking, and other illicit activities is consistent with other federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.”[Quartz]