Earlier this year, TheBlaze reported Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, saying domestic drones would “dominate the skies” by 2015 and the “full implications” of this surveillance is not being addressed.

The remarks are rather telling given that the Center for Investigative Reporting is now revealing a “little noticed July purchase” worth $7.4 million for a high-altitude spy plane was made by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Although the contract with Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. would be for a manned plane, the advanced equipment on board brings up similar sentiments regarding pervasive, detailed domestic surveillance.

Texas Department of Homeland Security Purchases Pilatus PC 12 NG Spectre for Border Security Missions

Pilatus PC-12 NG (Image: Wikimedia)

The Center for Investigative Reporting includes a department spokesperson saying that for now using planes as opposed to drones is more convenient given the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. That is expected to change though as the FAA was tasked to update its regulations to included expanded use of unmanned aerial vehicles by 2012.

Here’s the Center for Investigative Reporting’s breakdown of some of the equipment on the Pilatus PC-12 NG Spectre purchased in the Texas DSP contract:

Among its features is a $1 million array of surveillance cameras with high-resolution and thermal-imaging capabilities, and a $300,000 downlink system that enables the plane’s crew to send real-time surveillance images anywhere in the state, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting through the Texas Public Information Act. The package will also come with four sets of night-vision goggles worth about $60,000, records show.

A press release from Helinet Technologies in July states it was awarded as the company that will “develop and implement a microwave downlink and satellite solution” for the aircraft.

Homeland Security reporter for the nonprofit reporting organization G.W. Schultz writes this is the type of technology that “could raise the ire of civil libertarians and privacy advocates.”

Schultz reports the spokesman for the state police, Tom Vinger, saying border security will be the plane’s primary role. Vinger also said the plane would be used in a “clearly defined” area and for a specific amount of time, dependent on the mission.

The Texas’ DPS isn’t the only jurisdiction purchasing surveillance equipment within recent years. The Center for Investigative Reporting states that Phoenix, Ariz., law enforcement have a similar spy plane as well, acquired in 2009. A California town has a surveillance plane that has raised constitutional issues as well.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas also recently purchased a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone for $300,000 for its SWAT Team using a homeland security grant.

In September the Congressional Research Service released a report regarding drone use and the Fourth Amendment. The report raises several questions that will need to be considered by lawmakers as technology begins to expand surveillance in public spaces. Some of these questions include:

  • How far can the government go in its attempts to maintain security and ensure that laws are enforced?
  • What level of privacy should Americans expect in an age where technology facilitating the acquisition of personal information expands at a phenomenal pace?
  • Beyond the courts and the Constitution, what role should Congress and the President play in regulating the introduction of drones inside the United States?

Related:

Featured image via Pilatus. 

(H/T: Wired)