ICE Found Effectively Operating as Domestic Spy Agency


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(Photo: Tobias Tullius/Unsplash)
If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) didn’t have a bad enough rap sheet already, it’s now worse: a law school out of Washington, DC has revealed the agency has been operating as a “domestic surveillance agency” for years.

Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology has been spending the last two years examining ICE’s behavior through internal agency contracts, as well as from information gleaned from hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The result was a lengthy report titled “American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century,” which reveals the agency has enjoyed unrestrained access to Americans’ personal information since its formation nearly two decades ago.

“In its efforts to arrest and deport, ICE has—without any judicial, legislative or public oversight—reached into datasets containing personal information about the vast majority of people living in the U.S., whose records can end up in the hands of immigration enforcement simply because they apply for driver’s licenses; drive on the roads; or sign up with their local utilities to get access to heat, water and electricity,” the report reads. 

This isn’t said for illustrative purposes: ICE has used facial recognition technology (the government applications of which have been widely criticized since the beginning) to search through about a third of drivers’ ID photos. It’s gathered information from government bodies and private entities who have been entrusted with individuals’ data in exchange for essential services; worse, the entities in question rarely knew ICE was accessing their databases. The agency also has a habit of “leveraging people’s need for water, gas, electricity, phone and internet to target deportations” in its gathering of information from utility companies and service providers—organizations undocumented people are forced to engage with if they want to fulfill basic human needs. 

The US-Mexico border at Tijuana. (Photo: Tomascastelazo/Wikimedia Commons)

Especially egregious—even for an agency known for traumatizing children—is ICE’s history of interviewing unaccompanied children in order to find and arrest their undocumented family members. As children cross US borders in search of safety, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) pulls them aside in an effort to find them proper placements, often by asking if there are family members in the US who could provide shelter and care. According to Georgetown’s report, ICE uses these children’s responses to locate and deport undocumented kin. ICE has displaced at least 400 family members this way.

As the report points out, all of this has gone on without warrants and without public knowledge. Most Congress members and state governments (claim to) have been in the dark about these behaviors, which has resulted in what can only be described as an ICE free-for-all. Just a few lawmakers have openly admitted awareness of ICE’s operations and attempted to rein it in, but ICE has repeatedly dodged these attempts. For example, when state bodies have stopped providing information to ICE via the DMV, ICE has instead resorted to buying people’s data directly from the brokers and software companies with which the DMV operates. 

The above behaviors deter both undocumented and documented individuals and families from seeking out healthcare and other essential services, the report argues. The effect is a larger community with poorer health outcomes, disproportionate crime reporting, and a skewed justice system. And it will remain that way until changes are made. The authors of the report (Georgetown researchers, policy associates, and one professor) offer up several potential recommendations across the areas of immigration policy reform, Congressional oversight, consumer privacy, and more. 

“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,” they write. “Federal and state lawmakers, for the most part, have yet to confront this reality.”

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