Report Details ICE Surveillance Dragnet
WASHINGTON — Weaving together information from public databases and private data brokers, immigration officials have created a vast surveillance system that can be used on nearly any American, regardless of immigration status, according to a new report from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology.
“[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is operating as a domestic surveillance agency,” said Dan Bateyko, one of the authors of the report, in a recent phone interview.
Bateyko and his fellow researchers found ICE has access to 75% of drivers’ licenses and has scanned the photo of a third of adults using that information. ICE can also track drivers in many metropolitan areas using photos of license plates. The agency can also identify people’s homes with the utility information of 75% of adults in the country through information bought from private data brokers, according to the study.
The report, “American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century,” came from a two-year study where researchers went through hundreds of freedom of information requests, including the purchases of the agency, which spent about $2.8 billion between 2008 and 2021 on data collection and surveillance.
The new report highlights the extent of the data acquired, which was previously unknown, Bateyko said.
The agency likely has more data that could not be tracked through the spending, he said.
“Congress has not had oversight on ICE surveillance spending or ICE surveillance at large,” he said.
Impact of Surveillance
Undocumented immigrant activists have been worried about ICE’s surveillance for years.
In February 2020 José Santos Quintero Hernandez of Rockville, Maryland, was picked up for deportation from his home by the agency without having any previous interaction with law enforcement, according to the report.
Hernandez had lived in the Washington, D.C., suburb for more than 17 years with his wife while raising their five children. He had recently applied for a driver’s license after the state allowed undocumented immigrants to do so.
An investigation by The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun found ICE had been accessing Maryland’s driver’s license database to find undocumented immigrants to deport.
Maryland was at the forefront of what’s now 16 states and Washington, D.C., that allow undocumented immigrants to get a license to drive more safely. And that was a big win for undocumented immigrant rights groups like CASA, said Cathryn Paul, government relations and public policy manager.
A license gives people the “ability to not just exist, but live in a dignified way,” Paul explained in a recent phone interview.
But the report shows the “bait and switch. We made a promise to these individuals to trust government,” Paul said. “And everything in this report shows ICE is abusing that trust.”
‘Finding a Loophole’
ICE currently has access to five of the states’ driver’s license data, according to the report. And as some states have banned the access of that data to ICE, the agency has found ways around it, according to the report.
ICE continues to find loopholes around blocked access to data, according to Bateyko.
“In Oregon, soon after lawmakers passed a law cutting off state data disclosures to ICE, the Oregon DMV signed agreements to sell its driver’s license records to Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis Risk Solutions, the two primary data brokers that sell ICE access to driver information,” the report said.
Thomson Reuters no longer allows ICE to access the database outlined in the report, confirmed Dave Moran, head of communications at Thomson Reuters, via email.
“Thomson Reuters is engaged by DHS-ICE to support the agency’s investigations involving crimes such as terrorism, national security cases, narcotics smuggling, organized crime, transnational gang activity and human trafficking. For example, during the Miami Super Bowl, our work with ICE assisted law enforcement officials in saving over 20 human trafficking victims,” Moran wrote.
This shows the need for data privacy, Bateyko and Paul said.
States can learn and use legislation like Maryland’s two privacy laws passed during a special session in 2021, Paul said. Now, “you can’t dig into people’s information for fun,” she said. Instead, immigration officials would need warrants to access a driver’s license in the state.
“We need people’s privacy protected immediately,” Paul said.
The Well News reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and ICE for comment. This story will be updated.