American Dragnet: Immigration and Customs authority sets up unprecedented surveillance

For €2.7 billion, ICE has bought information and spying technology in recent years. Data from private brokers and government agencies has been used to create warrantless mass surveillance that affects a large proportion of US residents.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has set up an extensive surveillance network, reports the Georgetown University-based Center on Privacy & Technology in its newly published study „American Dragnet“. The alleged aim is to detect and arrest migrants who are obliged to leave the country. Among other things, the agency buys extensive data sets from private companies. With hundreds of requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the researchers have obtained and analysed these contracts.

Between 2008 and 2021, the ICE spent the equivalent of 2.7 billion euros on the acquisition, storage and processing of data. According to the Washington-based think tank, this has created a system that allows ICE to investigate US citizens in almost complete secrecy. For the study’s authors, the scope of the network came as a shock.

Three-quarters of all adults located with supplier data

In some states in the USA, immigrants are allowed to rent housing and contract with utility companies without a residence permit. ICE is targeting this information from over 80 national and regional gas, electricity and water companies. Because as soon as a new flat is connected to infrastructure, this becomes known to the authority.

For its dragnet, ICE also buys records from companies that make loans or sell cable and internet contracts. According to the report, this information allows ICE to locate three-quarters of all adults living in the country based on their utility data. Their collection and processing is done without a warrant.

In addition, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has access to automatic number plate recognition of toll roads, car parks and garages in 47 states. The spent about €1.25 billion on these and other geolocation services alone.

Facial recognition in driver’s licence data

According to the report, ICE holds driver’s licence data on three-quarters of all adults living in the US. This includes access to photographs scanned with facial recognition technology. ICE also obtains health data through a working arrangement with an agency that is actually responsible for the protection of unaccompanied refugee children in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Until 2021, the main contractor for the services requested by the ICE was Thomson Reuters, which offered a database for tracing persons under the name CLEAR. A version of CLEAR created specifically for law enforcement agencies contains data from a variety of different sources, including vehicle registrations, financial information, telephone numbers or data from registration authorities. Posts on social media also feed into the dragnet.

According to the Center on Privacy & Technology study, ICE could in the future obtain the data from LexisNexis, a company that offers similar databases.

State privacy laws circumvented

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement was created after the September 11 attacks as one of the new counter-terrorism measures. In addition to information from private companies and from official government databases, ICE therefore also has the repertoire of surveillance technology commonly used by police forces. These include IMSI catchers, GPS tracking devices, video surveillance and ankle bracelets. ICE also collects and processes biometric data.

Some US states are giving their police less restrictive powers or have enacted more robust data protection laws. One notable example is California, which in 2020 passed a law specifically to protect driver’s licence data or utility customer information from being shared with immigration authorities.

Nevertheless, much of the data held there ends up in the ICE surveillance network. According to the Georgetown report, the agency still has access to more than half of California residents‘ utility data. In Oregon, where a law was supposed to prevent ICE from accessing driver’s licence data, it finally gets to ICE via private data brokers.

Agency should end all dragnet programmes

It is not uncommon in Europe for new surveillance techniques and capabilities to be tried out on migrants and refugees first. Most of the time, this is done without much publicity and only becomes a political issue when nationals of the country in question are also affected.

That is why the revelations about the ICE programme could now attract greater attention. Because in fact, the agency goes far beyond its immigration enforcement mandate, writes the Center on Privacy & Technology.

The report therefore ends with a series of demands. The ICE should immediately end all dragnet programmes and also stop buying data from private companies. The US Congress is called upon to better protect the privacy of people who trust the government with their data and to „aggressively“ monitor ICE’s actions. Finally, Congress should reform immigration laws in such a way as to reduce the number of people being deported.

Image: In 2018, migration activists across the country called for the abolition of ICE (Matthias Monroy, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.