ICE Demands Journalists 'Return' Snitch Hotline Data It Left Exposed For Three Days After Being Notified
from the people-are-awful,-and-ICE-is-no-better dept
Daniel Rivero and Brendan O’Connor of Splinter recently acquired documents pertaining to ICE’s snitch program — a “see something, say something” but for suspected undocumented aliens. What’s contained in these documents is nasty, petty abuse of a crime victim hotline by Americans who don’t mind turning the government into their own personal army.
This is part of new program started by the Trump Administration — one presumably meant to pump up numbers for its weekly “Two Minutes Hate” reports, which document the criminal acts of people roaming the county without the proper papers.
Splinter didn’t find much evidence backing up the administration’s fervent belief that “undocumented” equals “hardened criminal.” What it did find was Americans using the VOICE tip line to engage in a low-level variant on SWATting: sending ICE to round up people they just don’t like.
In April, the Trump Administration launched what it called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, with a stated mission to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” But internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.
Together, the logs are a grim running diary of a country where people eagerly report their fellow residents to the authorities, or seek to bring the power of the immigration police to bear on family disputes.
One man called to report his stepson, who he didn’t like parking near his house. Another caller reported some in-laws. One claimed his ex-wife was undocumented. This is the sort of “intelligence” being gathered by the VOICE program. Unbelievably, those reports may be some of the better ones.
In the first two weeks of the program, from April 26 to May 10, the logs show that the call center handled 1,940 calls from across the country. Most were pranks, or in the bureaucratic words of the record keepers, “concerned citizens,” who unleashed streams of profanity or talked about green aliens until the operator hung up.
ICE should have expected this. While the tip line was supposed to be used to find assistance for victims of criminal acts by undocumented immigrants, it became a clearinghouse for BS complaints from “tipsters” hoping to have the government solve their personal problems.
But there’s more to this story than the low-grade ugliness of certain Americans. ICE somehow managed to expose a whole lot of personal data while compiling the spreadsheets it turned over to Splinter. The information left out in the open contained details about callers and who those callers were reporting.
[A]fter conducting Google searches for some data in that spreadsheet, including local police report numbers provided by callers, we were able to find a second spreadsheet, covering April to mid-August, hosted on the ICE web site. That spreadsheet appears to have been partially redacted to prepare it for release under the FOIA, but two columns containing intimate personal details—names, cell phone numbers, alleged crimes, addresses, and Social Security numbers—of both callers and the alleged undocumented immigrants they were calling about remained completely unredacted and publicly available. In several cases, the details would make it possible for people to figure out who informed on them.
Why ICE moved a work-in-progress document into a publicly-accessible space is something ICE has yet to explain. The agency has refused to directly respond to queries about the exposed spreadsheet. Nor was it particularly interested in ensuring this personal data remained out of the public’s hands. Splinter gave ICE three days’ notice before publishing, but the document wasn’t removed until several hours after the Splinter article went live.
ICE’s official response has been overkill. It took its entire FOIA document library offline on October 4th. As of October 9th, it is still down. Ridiculously, ICE is now demanding Splinter “return” the partially-redacted spreadsheet the agency left exposed online.
On Wednesday, an ICE lawyer sent a letter to Jonathan Schwartz, the chief legal and corporate affairs officer of Splinter’s parent company Univision, demanding that we destroy or return the spreadsheet. The letter, which was sent to Schwartz via UPS as well as emailed to the two Splinter reporters who wrote the story, is the first official acknowledgement that ICE had accidentally published private and potentially dangerous information on its web site for anyone to download. ICE had previously declined to confirm or deny the breach.
I’m sure it’s boilerplate, but the wording used suggests ICE wants Splinter to box up all the bits and send them back to ICE HQ. Even stupider, the letter warns Splinter of the consequences of exposing this information, as if it wasn’t ICE that exposed the document in the first place.
Please note that any further use or disclosure of the information contained in these records could impede or interfere with law enforcement activities and violate the privacy rights and interests of the people whose information is contained in the records. Further, should you perpetuate the use of disclosure of any of this information, you may endanger the persons to whom the information pertains.
This sounds like ICE is hoping to blame Splinter for any fallout from the exposed data. But this is ICE’s fault entirely. As is noted (again) in the follow-up post, Splinter informed ICE of the exposed data three days before publication. The spreadsheet wasn’t removed until almost 8 hours after Splinter’s post went live. The data has now been accessed by any number of people who won’t be affected by ICE’s very belated attempt to stuff Pandora’s personal data back in the box.
And that brings us to one more salient point: if you’re going to hand over personal info to the government, be aware it’s repeatedly shown it can’t be trusted to keep citizens’ data protected. People who thought they were going to get away with turning in exes, stepkids, and in-laws now need to be worried about retaliation from those they snitched on. Others using the line for more legitimate reasons are in no better shape — victims of crime exposed by the agency they turned to for help.