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Report: ICE created 'dragnet' surveillance program, allowing agency to spy on most Americans

Built from digital records from state and local governments, as well as private databases, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a "dragnet surveillance system," allowing the agency to pull up dossiers on most people in the U.S., according to a report by privacy advocates.

Earlier this month, Georgetown Law's Center for Privacy published "American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century," which found ICE now "operates as a domestic surveillance agency."

Based on a two-year investigation, researchers Nina Wang, Allison McDonald, Daniel Bateyko and Emily Tucker, argued that since the agency's founding in 2003 the agency has "not only been building its own capacity to use surveillance to carry out deportations, but has also played a key role in the federal government's larger push to amass as much information as possible about all of our lives."

Over the last decades, privacy law experts and civil rights groups have accused the agency of using mass location surveillance to target immigrants, violating local privacy laws, including so-called "sanctuary" policies. However, this newest report shows that ICE has data on millions of people and can scan through databases that contain up 3 out of 4 people living in the U.S.—relying on everything from facial recognition data assembled from motor vehicle departments to geolocation data assembled by private companies and local police.

ICE is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, and most of its 20,000 employees are organized under two law enforcement agencies. This includes Enforcement and Removal Operations—which is responsible for the deportation and removal of non-citizens from the U.S.—and Homeland Security Investigations—tasked with a wide-breadth of investigations, including human smuggling and trafficking, weapons and drug smuggling, as well as cyber crime, exploitation of children, transnational gang activity, as well as commercial fraud, intellectual property theft, and antiquity theft.

HSI alone has more than 10,300 employees, including around 7,100 special agents, making HSI the second largest investigative service in the U.S. after the FBI.

As ICE puts it, "HSI has one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement," and includes offices in 225 U.S. cities, as well as dozens of offices spread across the globe.

In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California found ICE had purchased data from Vigilant Solutions, which sweeps up license plates using automated license plate readers as part of a $6.1 million contract. They agency also hoovered up a database of over 5 billion data points of location data collected by private businesses, including insurance companies and parking lots.

"Over 80 local law enforcement agencies, from over a dozen states, have agreed to share license plate location information with ICE. Emails show local police handing driver information over to ICE informally, violating local law and ICE policies," the ACLU said.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group focused on digital privacy, said in 23 border counties, at least 36 local agencies are using automated license-plate readers, as well as body-worn cameras, and drones.

In 2019, the Pima County Sheriff's Department had some license plate readers, and sought to add more under the controversial federal grant program known as Operation Stonegarden, however that effort was nixed by the Board of Supervisors, who voted to reject funding for a pair of license-plate readers, which had attracted criticism from privacy advocates.

Meanwhile, officers with the Oro Valley Police Department and the Marana Police Department have automated license-plate readers, as does the DEA, which uses the devices to scan plates along Interstate 19 and State Route 86

The authors reviewed 100,000 contracts by ICE and found officials spent $2.8 billion from 2008 to 2021 on new surveillance, data collection and data-sharing initiatives. Among their findings was that ICE began using facial-recognition in 2008 using a contract between the agency and L-1 Identity Solutions, allowing ICE to use data from Rhode Island's motor vehicle department to look for people.

Since that time, ICE has used facial-recognition technology to search through databases containing 1 out of 3 adults in the U.S., and the agency has used the driver's license data of 3 out of 4 adults. Further, databases allow ICE to track the movements of cars, as well as utility connections to automatically track new addresses.

"Almost all of that has been done warrantlessly and in secret," the group said.

ICE has "built its dragnet surveillance system by crossing legal and ethical lines, leveraging the trust that people place in state agencies and essential service providers, and exploiting the vulnerability of people who volunteer their information to reunite with their families," according to the report.

This includes data that "undocumented" people have used to apply for driver's licenses in 16 states and Washington D.C., allowing Enforcement and Removal Operations to access the data of people who trusted state authorities and volunteered that information. In more than a dozen counties, ICE can "warrantlessly search through state driver records for the purpose of civil immigration enforcement," the group said. "When undocumented drivers apply for licenses, they place a significant amount of trust in the state that their information will not be used against them."

Further, the researchers accused ICE of using unaccompanied minors—who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians—to target family members. When a child arrives at the border, they are put in the custody of Health and Human Services, and officials with the agency work to reconnect unaccompanied minors with family members. However, during the Trump administration, ICE used that information to target people not authorized to be in the U.S.

While that program was rescinded under the Biden administration, the group argued that this was "perhaps the starkest example of ICE exploiting the trust of vulnerable people" and "illustrates the lengths that ICE has been willing to go to find information on potential targets."

"Despite the incredible scope and evident civil rights implications of ICE's surveillance practices, the agency has managed to shroud those practices in near-total secrecy, evading enforcement of even the handful of laws and policies that could be invoked to impose limitations," the researchers wrote.

"Federal and state lawmakers, for the most part, have yet to confront this reality," they said.

ICE officials defended the practice, and noted that Homeland Security has a privacy office that regularly reviews the risks created by new technologies, information technology, pilot projects, and information collection.

"Like other law enforcement agencies, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement employs various forms of technology to investigate violations of the law, while appropriately respecting civil liberties and privacy interests," said an ICE spokeswoman. "ICE focuses its civil immigration enforcement activities on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security."

After reviewing new technologies or programs, the agency is required to develop "mitigation strategies."

The agency is also required to asses how information is used based on the 1974 Privacy Act and the 2002 E-Government Act, and inform the public about what private information DHS is collecting, why the information is collected, and how private information will be "collected, used, accessed, shared, safeguarded, and stored."

The researchers traced the evolution of this program back to 1988, when ICE's predecessor the Immigration and Naturalization Service created what became the Criminal Alien Program, or CAP, which placed federal immigration enforcement officers in jails and prisons to identify and arrest people. Eight years later, INS expanded its capabilities with the controversial 287g program, allowing state and local police to identify and arrest people for removal.

In 2008, under the Obama administration, ICE worked to expand its cooperation with local police under Secure Communities, or S-Comm, which sends fingerprint data for any person booked by federal, state or local law enforcement to the FBI and ICE.

The report's authors said that ICE's expanding surveillance efforts remained largely secret, and have "regularly flown under Congress' radar."

This includes ICE's use of facial recognition data, which "came as a shock to senior lawmakers – even those with the greatest insight into DHS activities." In 2019, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the longtime chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, called the practice "a massive, unwarranted intrusion into the privacy rights of Americans by the federal government, done secretly and without authorization by law."

"While a few political leaders have pressed ICE in oversight letters and used appropriations riders to end the most aggressive of ICE's actions, to date there has not been one full congressional hearing or Government Accountability Office report focused on ICE surveillance," the researchers wrote.

The authors called on Congress to fix these practices by rewriting U.S. immigration law to "significantly reduce the number of people subject to deportation," and create a "wraparound" statute protecting private data, modeling this on Census data which cannot be used for "nonstatistical purposes."

Further, Congress should limit the use of DMV data and conduct "aggressive oversight" of ICE surveillance programs, they said.

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