ICE Is Also Using Utility Databases Run By Private Companies To Hunt Down Undocumented Immigrants
from the whatever-isn't-nailed-down-by-legislation-or-precedent dept
ICE has always had a casual relationship with the Fourth Amendment. Since it’s in the business of tracking foreigners, it has apparently decided the rights traditionally extended to them haven’t actually been extended to them.
Anything not nailed down by precedential court decisions or federal legislation gets scooped up by ICE. This includes location data pulled from apps that would appear to be subject to Supreme Court precedent on location tracking. ICE routinely engages in warrantless device searches — something its legal office has failed to credibly justify in light of the Riley decision. And the Fourth Amendment — along with judicial oversight — is swept away completely by ICE’s practice of deploying pre-signed warrants to detain immigrants. The agency is also not above forging judges’ signatures to send “dangerous” immigrants packing.
The latest exposure of ICE’s tactics shows it will gather everything and anything to hunt down people who, for the most part, are just trying to give their families a better shot at survival. Whatever can be had without a warrant will be had. That’s the message being sent by ICE, and relayed to us by Drew Harwell of the Washington Post. (h/t Magenta Rocks)
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have tapped a private database containing hundreds of millions of phone, water, electricity and other utility records while pursuing immigration violations, according to public documents uncovered by Georgetown Law researchers and shared with The Washington Post.
ICE’s use of the private database is another example of how government agencies have exploited commercial sources to access information they are not authorized to compile on their own. It also highlights how real-world surveillance efforts are being fueled by information people may never have expected would land in the hands of law enforcement.
I’m not a law enforcement professional. Nor am I a immigration and customs officer. But it beggars belief that utility records can provide evidence of illegal immigration. While I understand ICE is likely using the records to find people it has already flagged as illegal immigrants, the justification for demanding these records is nonexistent. ICE may want to match names to addresses but it’s on shaky legal ground when it demands records under the theory that utility bills may offer evidence of illegal immigration.
And yet, ICE can do this. This is the Third Party Doctrine in action. If immigrants give their names to utility companies, ICE can get this info without a warrant. It’s a “voluntary” exchange, even though there’s nothing voluntary about exchanging personal info to access the little things in life that make it worth living, like electricity and indoor plumbing.
But is it evidence of illegal immigration? There’s a lot that’s still unsettled at the point ICE obtains this information. Immigration status is ultimately handled by judges. Until then, everything else is apparently fair game, including utility bill records.
At the top of this evidentiary food chain is a private company. And that company doesn’t appear to care who accesses its database or for what reason.
CLEAR is run by the media and data conglomerate Thomson Reuters, which sells “legal investigation software solution” subscriptions to a broad range of companies and public agencies. The company has said in documents that its utility data comes from the credit-reporting giant Equifax. Thomson Reuters, based in Toronto, also owns the international news service Reuters as well as other prominent subscription databases, including Westlaw.
Thomson Reuters has not provided a full client list for CLEAR, but the company has said in marketing documents that the system has been used by police in Detroit, a credit union in California and a fraud investigator in the Midwest. Federal purchasing records show that the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Defense are among the federal agencies with ongoing contracts for CLEAR data use.
Even if you believe immigrants shouldn’t be given constitutional protections, you have to be concerned that a private company is amassing data from private citizens and granting access to government agencies. This isn’t how America is supposed to work. But that’s the way it actually works, thanks to opportunistic data brokers and the hundreds of utility companies willing to sell customers’ data to whoever will buy it.
ICE is paying Thomson Reuters $21 million a year for access. Reuters — a company that needs to answer to shareholders — has zero interest in terminating this working relationship. On the public sector side, ICE needs to continue to justify its existence. So it has no interest in terminating contracts that enable it to apprehend and eject immigrants. The legality of its efforts is unsettled. Since no one above ICE in the governmental org chart has yet determined this is unacceptable, it will continue. And private databases like this still lie beyond the minimal protections afforded by federal privacy laws.
Until someone’s willing to step in and curb ICE’s all access pass to everything that’s just on the outside of current Fourth Amendment case law, ICE will continue to hoover up everything it can, no matter how negligible its effect on immigration enforcement. And, as long as companies can continue to demand a wealth of info in exchange for services, there will always be an endless supply of third parties only a subpoena away from handing over personal information to federal law enforcement.