Texas to revive "neighborhood watch" border protection scheme

Published 24 March 2008

Texas will invest $2 million to place 200 video cameras along its border with Mexico; Texas citizens could watch the videos on their computers at home, and alert the authorities if they see something suspicious

SBINet’s Project 28 in Arizona did not get off to a good start, but Texas is not giving up on hi-tech border security: The state is asking the private sector to bid on a contract which would provide a video camera network on the Mexican border, similar to an earlier state pilot program that allowed the public to help spot illegal activity on the Internet. Governor Rick Perry’s emergency management division calls it a “virtual border neighborhood watch” designed to help crack down on drug running, human trafficking and other crime along the 1,200-mile border between the state and Mexico.

A request for private companies to submit bids was posted 7 March by the Texas Department of Public Safety on behalf of the governor’s division. Proposals are due 7 April. “The governor believes in the deterrent effect of the these cameras, and it puts more eyes on the ground,” said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle. “This is another tool in our tool box, leveraging technology to be able to ensure the safety of Texans.” The contract request calls for fixed and mobile cameras and Internet feeds in border counties and some adjacent counties. The cameras are to transmit images to local sheriffs’ offices and to the public, with most cameras addressing “the surveillance needs of private property and ranch land,” the document states.

Those watching on the Web will be able to contact law enforcement about suspicious activity using the Internet or a toll-free telephone number. Perry’s office has identified $2 million in federal grants to re-establish the border video surveillance camera program on private property. The aim was to get the project up and running by this past January, but Castle said that was an aggressive early estimate. “Unfortunately, in this case the wheels of government have turned slowly,” she said.

Perry’s office launched a pilot border camera program in 2006. Hoss Equipment, Sentrus, TRG-EMS, Night Vision Systems, TRGear, Lockard and White, and Cornerstone Wireless Communications participated in the 28-day, 21-camera program based largely on donations of cameras, Castle said. The new project involves an estimated 200 cameras. It provides for a one-year contract that can be renewed for three optional one-year periods. Large numbers of viewers tuned in during the pilot, though there were technical problems with some cameras. Images were grainy, and some cameras were placed so high it was hard to distinguish what was going on in the video. The state program is intended to complement federal border surveillance operations, according to Texas officials.

The federal government has had some border cameras in place in Texas for years. Which brings us back to Project 28: More powerful cameras, radar, and other advanced equipment are to be part of a 28-mile stretch of high-tech virtual fence in Arizona that DHS secretary Michael Chertoff announced was approved last month. The government plans to extend that technology to some areas of Texas.