Bypass Surveillance Rules: ICE employs Data Brokers

ICE has used an assortment of public records and privately acquired information to create a surveillance system that can investigate most US adults with little oversight, given in Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century.

For almost as extended as it has existed, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has criticized how its agents pursue and expel undocumented migrants. But a new report published Tuesday clears new light on how the agency has expanded its domestic surveillance apparatus throughout its 19-year history.

From a set of researchers at the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology, the report paints a picture of an agency that can access the personal information of hundreds of millions of Americans and does so mainly without accountability through extensive deals with private data brokers.

The agency now has credentials to the driver’s license data of three-quarters of US adults and has already driven facial recognition scans on the license photographs of 1 in 3 adults. And when three out of four adults caught up utilities like gas, water, and electricity in a new home, ICE was able to correct their new address automatically.

“ICE invariably smudges itself as an agency whose efforts are concentrated or targeted, but we’re not seeing that,” Nina Wang, a policy associate at Georgetown Law and co-author of the report, said. “Instead, we’re witnessing that ICE has built up a sweeping surveillance infrastructure capable of tracking almost anyone apparently at any time. These initiatives were executed in near-complete secrecy and impunity, sidestepping limitations and flying underneath the radar of most state officials. And ultimately, these surveillance tactics cross lawful and ethical boundaries.”

The report was compiled from hundreds of freedom of information submissions sent to state agencies and a review of higher than 100,000 ICE spending contracts. These documents were used to assess the type of information available to ICE and the essence of the technology being employed to process it.

The results illustrate the full scope of ICE’s surveillance abilities for the first time, giving numbers to quantify the extent of programs uncovered by prior research from associations like the National Immigration Law Center or the ACLU.

Some results add context to surveillance techniques that have already accepted public attention, like using data from utility firms in immigration enforcement. This practice has been criticized for its potential to cut off undocumented migrants from enjoying essential services like power, water, or telephone connections.

The report also highlights how ICE obtains data directly and indirectly from government assistance like state motor vehicle bureaus. Presently, 16 states and the District of Columbia permit undocumented immigrants to spread for driver’s licenses. Still, the Georgetown report sees that ICE can dig through these records without a warrant in five of the 17 jurisdictions.

“The mass accumulation of data by ICE and other law enforcement agencies poses a massive risk and has a chilling impact on people accessing vital public services,” said Zach Ahmad, senior policy adviser, New York Civil Liberties Union. “Our most vulnerable won’t be rescued from perpetual surveillance, tracking, and the threat of detention or deportation until we decree fundamental digital privacy protections and provide people control over their data.”

While lawmakers in some states have decreed laws to restrict ICE’s access to information from government bodies, the immigration agency has repeatedly been able to skirt such legislation by chartering with third-party data brokers to receive the same information indirectly. The report notes a particularly stark example from Oregon: momentarily after the state passed a law to stop ICE from calculating driver’s license data in 2019, Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles inscribed an agreement. It was done to sell data to Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis, which provide data services to ICE.

Civil liberties organizations have raised concerns about public-private surveillance deals for years. Still, recently, the role of private companies in ICE’s monitoring operations has reached increasing scrutiny gratitude to efforts from groups like Mijente,  the Latinx social justice nonprofit, which has led to a push for organizations to end agreements with ICE.

The new report summarizes “one piece of the massive maze that is ICE digital surveillance and policing,” Cinthya Rodriguez, an executive at Mijente, told. “We’re calling on local governments to explore and ultimately cut contracts that share our details with ICE leading to detention and deportations.”

Vacation Destinations

Canadian media syndicate Thomson Reuters is one organization that has been highlighted by Mijente’s work and is now in the American Dragnet report. Thomson Reuters formerly chartered with ICE to provide admission to a huge database known as CLEAR. However, the contract expired in 2021 after the Canadian company faced pressure from activist investors.

ICE no longer had the key to the CLEAR database but said that the media company still maintained other contracts with the agency.

“DHS-ICE engages Thomson Reuters to support the agency’s investigations involving offenses such as narcotics smuggling, terrorism, national security cases, organized crime, human trafficking, and transnational gang activity,” Moran said. “For instance, during the Miami Super Bowl, our job with ICE assisted law enforcement officials in protecting over 20 human trafficking victims.”

But in a sign of how hard it is to prevent a federal agency like ICE from accessing private data, the defunct deal quickly returned the Thomson Reuters contract with LexisNexis, which marked a $16.8 million contract for ICE in 2021. The components of the LexisNexis contract reportedly grant ICE access to billions of public and private records, including license plate images, credit history details, and cellular phone subscriber information.

It is hoped that the report will spark renewed discussion of the appropriate scope of ICE’s role in American life. “ICE continues to harvest data on millions of Americans from data brokers. It’s long past lawmakers to clarify that ICE and police can’t believe their way around the Fourth Amendment,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “You shouldn’t be competent to utilize tax dollars to buy our Constitutional rights. And no one should fear that they’ll face Deportation simply for signing up for home electricity or buying a cellphone.”