Big Sur vs. Big Brother

The surveillance tower, known as a Remote Surveillance System-Maritime, has not been installed yet so CBP provided this image of a similar structure.

Federal officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection must not have known who they were dealing with when they showed up on Zoom for a meeting of residents of Big Sur’s remote South Coast. 

From the perspective of the CBP officials, the purpose of the meeting was simply to notify the locals of a plan to install a temporary 80-foot “surveillance tower” on private property at Lucia Ranch. The tower, documents show, monitor the coast using radar, video cameras and other sophisticated technologies to track human activity occurring as far as 24 miles away.

Following a brief presentation, the questions began. “Could the installation be used to surveil local residents?” someone asked, according to the minutes of the meeting provided by Monterey County staff. “Yes,” a CBP representative said. But that’s not the intent, he tried to explain, saying that wanton spying on Americans would be illegal.

The clarifications offered about the purpose of the tower and its harmlessness had little chance of pacifying the concerned neighbors, one of whom is retired Congressman Sam Farr. The people who live on the South Coast choose to live there partly because it is so isolated. They’re vigilant over their privacy. They are so vigilant, in fact, that the Weekly couldn’t get any of them to speak on the record, not even those who hoped to stop the tower’s installation by bringing public attention to it. 

The news of the tower proposal was broken in Voices of Monterey Bay by Kate Woods Novoa, a blogger who lives on an adjacent property. Novoa followed up her reporting with a letter of objection to County Supervisor Mary Adams. “Most of us who live here [on the South Coast] do so specifically for the privacy provided,” she wrote. “I don’t use curtains on the sliding glass door of my bathroom so that I can enjoy the view when I bathe. This tower would have a direct line-of-sight into my bathroom.”

As Novoa, Farr and other locals mobilized against the tower, all echelons of elected leadership got involved, from Farr’s successor, U.S. Rep Jimmy Panetta, to State Sen. Bill Monning, Assemblymember Robert Rivas and Supervisor Adams. 

The proposal to install the tower was suddenly frozen: the CBP offered to postpone a planned presentation to the South Coast Land Use Advisory Committee and extended the deadline for the California Coastal Commission to weigh in until July 15. 

Monterey County Planning Commissioner Martha Diehl also intervened, placing a discussion of the matter on the commission’s May 27 agenda, after the Weekly went to print. Diehl’s objection is that the feds tried to get the tower installed without going through the stringent review standards laid out in Big Sur land use plans. “My hope is that by using this as an example of our concern we can move to an agreed-upon set of rules on development in Big Sur,” she says.

The coast of Big Sur is located about 300 nautical miles away from the Mexican border, but this distance is short enough for drug cartels who have been known to use the maritime route to smuggle drugs into the United States on small panga boats

Designed by Virginia-based North Defense Industry under a $1.2 million contract with CBP, the surveillance tower is a prototype. Eventually, four such Remote Surveillance System-Maritime, or RSS-M, towers could be installed from Big Sur to San Diego as part of the California Coast Surveillance project. The technology promises to catch smugglers’ boats, but as the Big Sur case shows, private citizens and watchdog groups will likely push back over privacy concerns.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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(1) comment

Hugh Wilson

Thank you for publishing this story. This has terrible adverse potential for mass unwarranted surveillance. Please continue to follow.

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